In some ways Your Friends, the latest film from pink film director turned arthouse favorite Ryuichi Hiroki, represents a major change for the director. After all it includes none of the sexual content or domestic violence that have attracted attention to his work for years. In the most important ways, however, Your Friends is Hiroki through and through. Though they've used sex as a primary metaphor for years he stopped being defined and limited by that long ago, the key element to Hiroki's work being their resounding emotional intimacy and that factor is in full effect here. The story of a young woman, crippled in childhood, and the small handful of relationships that have defined her life the film is populated dominantly with young, non-professional actors playing out its simple yet emotionally potent story in a series of long, unadorned shots tat paces the emphasis purely on performance rather than style or flash.
Anna Ishibashi is Emi, a twenty something girl who has needed the help of a cane to walk since being struck by a truck in her childhood. She is abrupt and prickly, having no use for frivolous relationships or small talk, stating repeatedly that she only cares about the people who are close to her - a number that she keeps small indeed. We first meet Emi through Nakahara, a photographer intrigued by her combination of prickly behavior and compassion for the children she teaches at a "free school" - a sort of alternative school for children with social or developmental problems - and her practice of giving each child a photo of a "puffy cloud" upon graduation. What could that mean?
As Nakahara gets to know Emi he learns her history in bits and pieces. There are stories about her younger brother - also an occasional volunteer at the school - and her childhood accident, but mostly there are stories about Yuka, the best - and quite possibly only - true friend Emi has ever had. Indirectly linked to the accident that caused Emi's disability, Yuka was herself a social outcast right from childhood thanks to a kidney disorder that kept her in hospital for extended stretches of time and restricted her activities even when at school. The two girls were thrust on each other in the lead up to a jump rope competition - as the only two not able to jump the rope they became the rope-turners by default - and their relationship eventually developed into a bond that would hold them tight for the next five years, all of the time that remained in Yuka's life.
Emi, clearly, has never really gotten over the death of her friend and the memory of Yuka lingers over every day of her life. The clouds she gives away are a tribute to her friend, a reference to a painted wall in the children's ward of the hospital where Yuka largely grew up, and a particular cloud which filled her with hope and let her feel as though she could fly without limits. Capturing that feeling became the tie that bound the two girls, both of them caught up in a continual search for that particular cloud in real life, a cloud they knew they would never actually find, both eventually coming to the conclusion that the other was that cloud in their own life.
Somewhat surprisingly for a man whose early career was spent making soft porn Hiroki's best work has always revolved around outsider woman - themes that dominate Vibrator and It's Only Talk, stunning films both of them - and this is once again the case with Your Friends. Hiroki insists on a stark realism to his films, resisting totally the urge to dress things up or punch up the action, and yet he also finds a sort of rhythm and poetry to everyday life that helps the audience find the beauty of the every day. He consistently draws career-best performances out of his actors and has a truly uncommon gift for holding a shot just a bit longer than is comfortable, holding just long enough to get behind the masks and shields that block off access to the true emotion that lies behind his characters' behavior. Your Friends is certainly not up to the extreme highs of Vibrator or It's Only Talk - Hiroki's finest moment, in my book - but it is a more than worthy entry into his body of work, one that only confirms what a unique and vital film maker he is. Very highly recommended.