ALL ABOUT LILY CHOU CHOU (Riri Shushu no subete)
Directed by Shunji Iwai (2001)
Japan is a culture traditionally built on respect, concern for the other person, courtesy, honesty, and discipline. Recently, however, Japanese schools have become increasingly dangerous places with an increase in violent crimes, breakdown of order in classrooms (gakkyuu houkai), bullying and intimidation of weak or delicate students (ijime), and a high suicide rate. The dark side of Japanese culture is brought to life in Shunji Iwai's All About Lily Chou Chou, a disturbing look at the life of a junior high school student who seeks sanctuary from the bullying of his classmates through the music of a pop-icon, singer Lily Chou Chou. Shot on high-definition video, the film opens in a rice field where a sad-eyed young boy stands in the middle of a wide expanse of green. With his headphones on, he clings to his Discman while we hear a soft sensuous voice singing in the background and read the text of Internet messages clicking on the bottom of the screen.
The posters are brought together by their love of Lily who, to her fans, is a voice that comes from "the Ether", carrying the status of an otherworldly goddess. The boy's screen name is Philia but his real name is Yuichi Hasumi (Hayato Ichihara). He is a slender boy of fourteen whose devotion to Lily is an article of faith in his world of loneliness and nihilism. The communications, based on actual web messages, are revealing of the poster's frame of mind. "Imagine being dead", someone writes, "won't that be great?" Someone else writes that once he got to Junior High School his world went gray. Another comments, "...For me, only the Ether is proof I'm alive. But lately my Ether is running out." Yuichi lives with his mother, a hairdresser, her boyfriend and his son. Left on his own most of the time to deal with his peers, his life is a struggle for survival. He is robbed, forced to perform a sexual act in front of local toughs and humiliated by his teacher and mother when he is caught stealing a Lily CD.
In a flashback to their first year at school, fellow student Hoshino (Shugo Oshinari), known on the message boards as Blue Cat, reaches out to Yuichi after being ridiculed in school and both join the Kendo club. When Yuichi spends the night at his house, Hoshino introduces him to Lily. Their friendship shifts, however, after a summer vacation in Okinawa full of strange events in which Hoshino is almost drowned and they witness a serious traffic accident. This fifteen-minute vacation segment, saturated with brilliant color and shot by a jerky hand-held camera, contains the film's most unnerving moments, and we instinctively know that the lives of the vacationers will never be the same.
In the next school year, shaken by his near drowning and the loss of his family's textile factory, Hoshino undergoes a drastic personality change. He assaults the school bully, Inubushi and becomes a bully himself, forcing Yuichi to become involved in bullying others, robbery, and running a prostitution ring involving one of their classmates, Shiori Tsuda (Yu Aoi). Sadly, the adults in the story seem helpless and can only respond in an uncomprehending manner. The only response a teacher has to a girl who had her head shaven was to buy her a wig. Yuichi passively agrees to Hoshino's demands but their friendship becomes increasingly strained when he tells him to follow and watch Shiori, a girl that likes him but cannot express her feelings.
Yuichi is also forced to set up an attack on Kuno (Ayumi Ito), a gifted pianist and a girl he has feelings for but lacks the self-confidence to communicate with. It is exasperating to see Yuichi passively follow Hoshino's demands, but Iwai has crafted his character so that we can all feel the pain of those who lack the power to stand up for themselves. When Lily comes to town for a sold-out concert, Hoshino assaults his dignity one more time. Unable to enter the concert hall, Yuichi watches Lily's image as her videos appear on the Jumbotron outside the theater and his accumulated tension reaches the breaking point.
All About Lily Chou Chou is disjointed and overlong and suffers from some stylistic excesses but it is a courageous film and a deeply moving one, a work that has the courage to confront some aspects of modern-day Japan that you will not read about in the tourist guides. Iwai's breathtaking images together with the poetic music of Debussy capture the adolescent experience in a way that is heartbreakingly real and, although the film's shifting timeline may makes the story hard to follow for some, the message comes through with unmistakable clarity. Lily is a film of mood where black is the color and none is the number, but the darkness is redeemed by its appreciation that the solace of art is available to all, even those suffering the most desperate pain.