director: Shunji Iwai
starring: Hayato Ichihara, Shûgo Oshinari, Ayumi Ito, Takao Osawa, Miwako Ichikawa
running time: 146 mins
“Maybe I’m writing here because I wanna shout, ‘I’m here!'”Palstela
Shot entirely using digital video, All About Lily Chou-Chou resonates with a dreamy quality that belies its unflinching portrayal of troubled Japanese teenagers in a harsh school environment. Confronting the rising problem of violence and bullying in Japanese schools, Rivalries, gangs, ostracising of individuals, and far worse fill Shunji Iwai’s story of young lives linked by love of the ficticious music icon, Lily Chou-Chou
The film follows the life of Yûichi Hasumi [Hayato Ichihara] and his classmates from the ages of 13 to 15. Yûichi is an incredibly shy, insular boy who speaks rarely, instead frequenting the fansite of his favourite singer, Lily Chou-Chou, to express himself in chatrooms. During a holiday with a few friends in Okinawa, Shusuke Hoshino [Shûgo Oshinari], talented at kendo and an excellent student but bullied as a result, nearly drowns, trigging a sudden and jarring personality change. As the former victim becomes a bully, Yûichi is swept along into the turmoil of teenage school rivalries, as an outsider watching the fates of his classmates unraval.
Most memorable is undoubtedly the film’s vivid imagery, especially the rice fields. Most scenes are blindingly bright with an acute attention to detail even in the darker scenes which draws out a sense of beauty. This dreamy style of direction is often utterly at odds to the subject matter which serves to make the sharp moments of violence feel far more brutal and much more shocking. The use of handheld cameras during the Okinawa holiday sequence is intriguing and does convey the intended sense of “being there”. However, it runs a little overlong, often feeling like raw and unedited holiday footage, occassionally bordering on tedium.
Iwai’s idea for this film has evolved over several years in various incarnations, including an unfinished novel and an online forum dedicated to the fictious Lily, from where much of the film’s often pretentious but ultimately realistic online discussions about her connection to the “ether” come. While this provides an interesting tool for breaking the narrative, the film’s main criticism is that in the editing the final product flows poorly and feels too fractured to follow coherently.
The film is not solely negative; many scenes are filled with a humourous energy while others are much quieter and more conemplative, such as the pianist Yôko Kuno [Ayumi Ito] who is as reticent as Yûichi. These children are struggling to discover themselves and as they search, we a treated to a range of experiences of adolescene: changing friendships and allegiences, disillusionment, pushing boundries, and also an inevitable violent backlash. This is a film about these adolescent experiences as a social commentary, and it seems right then that adult roles are scarce and small. This is used to highlight just how little influence they have on these impressionable kids, who evolve emotioanlly far more due to their peers.
Much of the acting is very quiet and understated. Yûichi especially as a reserved child rarely speaks but his confusion and disconnection are palpable. While the generally in-school taunting and bullying are realistic but unremarkable, in one scene he and classmate Shiori are on opposite sides of a hedge, both wanting to vocalise their feelings for one another before leaving, but lacking the emotional maturity to do so. It is in these moments that the mature performances of these young actors becomes evident.
The music is another notable aspect, with scattered use of Debussy’s “Arabesque” (apparently Lily Chou-Chou’s inspiration and the title of one of her albums – interestingly Debussy’s daughter was in fact nicknamed “Chou Chou”, making Lily almost Debussy’s offspring). The soundtrack also includes a number of Lily Chou-Chou originals, and generally these dreamy pieces fit the film’s quiet mood perfectly.
With a similar message to Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale, Iwai’s vision is less slick and flashy, and not nearly so accessible. Yet for those willing to invest a little time and patience into Iwai’s occasional overindulgence, All About Lily Chou-Chou is a remarkable and beautiful film that offers an insightful, if disturbing, negative view of Japanese school life, while not producing a simple message and leaving the viewer to draw their own final conclusions.