As the Japanese studio system began to implode in the late 1960s, Nikkatsu which had specialised in youth cinema, pivoted towards softcore pornography rebranding itself as Nikkatsu Roman Porno. At the same time, however, they also launched an unexpected sideline of family films with strong educational aims under the Nikkatsu Children’s Films banner. Selected by the Ministry of Education and recommended by various educational and parent and teacher associations, the second feature put out under the label, 1974’s Tomodachi (ともだち), is in its own way instructional with a strong anti-bullying theme but also has something to say about the literal pollution of the contemporary society.
As such, the film revolves around the originally unsympathetic hero, Shinta (Hitoshi Abe), who openly bullies a girl in his class by kicking a football at her because she alone has been excused the after school duty of sweeping the school yard. Having transferred from rural Tohoko, Yoshiko (Noriko Suzuki) has developed serious asthma from living in the centre of industrial Kawasaki and has been instructed to avoid physical exertion or activities which might cause her to breath in additional dust and smoke. Shinta and his friends are however entirely insensitive, literally surrounding Yoshiko while they hound her with questions insisting she’s not really “ill” and merely shirking her duty. When the teacher tries to explain to them that Yoshiko has been excused because it would be bad for her heath to be sweeping dust, Shinta and his friends all immediately claim to be ill too, fake coughing and wheezing despite having just been playing football rather than doing their after school chores like the other kids.
What doesn’t occur to Shinta is the loneliness, isolation, and embarrassment Yoshiko must feel on being singled out because of her illness. Rather poignantly, the school nurse and others describe how cheerful and friendly Yoshiko was when she first arrived only to reflect on how depressed and withdrawn she’s since become. This is partly as Shinta later learns because her classmates rejected her once she became ill. Asthma is obviously not a contagious disease, yet many of the other parents stopped their kids playing with her because of the stigma surrounding any kind of “illness” while simulataneously unwilling to bear the responsibility of needing to care for her if she should undergo an asthma attack while in their home or under their care fearing they would then suffer a reputational loss if they failed to treat her properly.
For his part, Shinta is intensely resentful when the teacher sits him next to Yoshiko in the hope that his cheerfulness will help bring her out of her shell. Exclaiming that he hates sick people and thinks that Yoshiko is boring and creepy because she doesn’t really say anything, he begins to have second thoughts when the teacher implores him to help “as a man” suddenly discovering a sense of honour and justice that he doesn’t want to let down. His first action however is to continue kicking footballs at her, but strangely it works rather well providing a physical activity which is compatible with her asthma in not needing to move around while allowing her to feel part of the game. As he gets to know her more, Shinta comes to sympathise with his new friend and is angry with the other kids who reject her but discovers that his own parents are not much different refusing him permission to invite Yoshiko over on talking to other parents at the PTA in part because they run a bento store and are nervous of coming under suspicion if anyone notices a girl with a heavy cough coming and going and questions their hygiene practices.
Shinta does, however, visit her small apartment which is unfortunately right behind a dusty construction site. As she explains, Yoshiko’s parents were part of a new agricultural drive which later failed and left them with massive debts which is why they had to leave the country to work in a factory in Kawasaki. As her parents often work late shifts for the extra money, she has to look after not only herself but her younger brother with only a pet squirrel for company. Constant references are made to other children having to change schools because their parents moved into a company dorm, while the poor quality of the air is repeatedly given as the cause of Yoshiko’s illness literally choked by the thoughtless post-war economic drive that continues to disrupt not only family lives but the local environment, Shinta also revealing that his parents used to farm seaweed but were forced to stop because of industrial pollution in local rivers.
This destructive industry also creates unintended divisions among the children along class lines between those whose parents work manual jobs in the factories and those whose families are wealthier and involved in white collar work. The ring leader of the girls who reject Yoshiko, Ayako (Masayo Koga) is the daughter of a wealthy conservative family living in a large house with a mother (Yoshie Kitsuta) who wears kimono. When Ayako shuns her the other girls follow, Yoshiko inviting them to her birthday party only to discover them all together eating cake at Ayako’s house instead. She’d invited them partly out of worry that they were offended she hadn’t invited them to her small apartment, only then realising that they rejected her because of the stigma towards her illness leaving her feeling hopeless and dejected. As Shinta later points out, this kind of emotional pain negatively impacts her medical condition coming to despise the adult world describing his father as the worst in his class for his insistence that he should accept the way the world works rather than idealistically trying to help his new friend.
The message of the film, however, is that it’s wrong to leave people out and that children in particular should always attempt to friendly with each other. Developing appendicitis, Shinta comes to a new appreciation of how difficult it can be being ill while his mother too starts to regret her decision finally inviting Yoshiko to come and visit them at their home after spotting her sadly walking around outside uncertain if it’s alright to come and visit Shinta on his sickbed. Shinta’s two best friends had also been not entirely supportive of his decision to bring Yoshiko into their group, referring to her as “goldfish poo” in her tendency to trail along behind them, though partly out of jealousy along with the natural awkwardness of a girl suddenly being introduced into a previously all male club but even they eventually come round and decide to reaffirm their friendship. Despite this rosy conclusion in which the other children are convinced to abandon their unfair prejudices and become friends with each other, the eventual conclusion seems rather cruel if returning to the minor theme of the destructive effects of increasing industrialisation even as Shinta’s father is also reminded of the importance of friendship in stating an intention to attend his own primary school reunion. A touching coming-of-age tale, Tomodachi puts its young hero through the emotional wringer but also allows him to discover a strong sense of justice and empathy towards those rejected by their society.