Film Movement: All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001) - Reviewed

The coming-of-age subgenre, chronicling the transitional period between childhood and adulthood, typically focuses on teenagers and their internal struggles with leaving their youth behind as they move from high school into college or wherever life takes them.  Often told in flashback, it’s the kind of story which can make for some wondrous emotional and spiritual discoveries, such as the filmography of John Hughes or the slice-of-life episodic journeys that define Richard Linklater’s work.  They can also highlight how unpleasant life experiences can make or break the lives of the youths in the midst of their own personal evolution. 

The last so-called ‘dark and heavy’ coming-of-age film I can recall was the contrived and forced The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, a film with a curious mixture of animation of live action which showed promise but also felt like the darker elements were trying too hard to elicit a reaction.  The same can’t be said, however, for Japanese writer-director Shunji Iwai’s still devastating and galvanizing 2001 drama All About Lily Chou-Chou which took the darker elements further than any other film of it’s kind I had seen up to this point without completely going off the rails. 

Recently re-released on Blu-Ray by Film Movement in a new 2K digital restoration, Iwai’s interactive internet novel turned sprawling digital video epic remains as visually striking, sonically soothing and emotionally draining as it was when it was first released eighteen years ago.  Depicting a group of Japanese youths living near the outskirts of Tokyo in a rice field, life for the thirteen to fifteen year old high school students is overrun by juvenile delinquency, violent bullies, teenage prostitution and gang violence including but not limited to ambush and/or sexual assault.  For the film’s hero, Hasumi (Hayato Ichihara), the only salvation from his daily Hell is through the music of a Bjork-like pop singer named Lily Chou-Chou. 

Originally the project began as an internet novel with Iwai himself moderating a chatroom named Lilyholic with himself posing as several of the characters in the story.  Readers were able to comment and interact with one another, forming much of the dialogue ultimately used in what would become the feature film itself.  For Iwai, it was an experimental approach to screenwriting and gave the writer-director a firsthand taste of the early experiences of online social media interaction.

Much like Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2001 horror film Pulse, All About Lily Chou-Chou is prescient for its critique of the growing isolation and erosion of socializing brought about by the internet and online chatrooms.  Throughout the film, Hasumi moderates a website dedicated to Lily Chou-Chou’s music with the sounds of keyboard typing and text messages printed onscreen deliberately interrupting the picture like intertitles on a silent film. 

Adding to the film’s critique of the impact of the impending digital era on Japanese youth is the film’s ethereal digital cinematography by the late Noboru Shinoda.  The very first Japanese film to be shot on the (at the time) brand new Sony HDW-F900 digital camera, the film has an evocative, dreamlike quality with the corridors of high school hallways and open rice fields glistening and shimmering on the camera. 

The film also makes use of rough handheld DV cameras in a pivotal flashback concerning Hasumi and his former friend Hoshino (Shugo Oshinari) who, after a group trip to Okinawa followed by a near death experience, undergoes a drastic change from mild-mannered all-A student to viciously violent bully who proceeds to bring misery and pain to everyone he comes into contact with.

Due credit must be given to the cast of young newcomers who are tasked with acting out scenes of unspeakable cruelty and violence that frequently go curiously unnoticed by the surrounding adults.  In one scene, for instance, a former bully now upstaged by Hoshino is forced to crawl around naked in the muck and in a particularly heartbreaking scene, a young and gifted pianist who sparks the jealousies of her fellow female classmates has her head shaven for real. 

That said, much of the surrounding cast of youths form an ensemble cast with the troubled former friends who previously bonded over Lily Chou-Chou’s music taking center stage.  Shugo Oshinari’s transformation from meek and quiet good kid to savage evildoer is still terrifying to see happen in real time.  As for the film’s central protagonist, Hayato Ichihara imbues the soft spoken Hasumi with sympathy and a modicum of compassion despite the brutal world he finds himself caught up in.

The driving force for the youths of Iwai’s painful drama, and the film’s narrative thrust, is of course the music of Lily Chou-Chou.  Composed by longtime Iwai collaborator Takeshi Kobayashi with vocals by the singer Salyu, the music represents a brief escape for the characters as well as a point of separation from friendship to enemy. 

Claude Debussy also features heavily on the soundtrack with Arabesque No. 1 and Clair De Lune landing thunderously on the piano keyboard during key scenes of unfettered pain and sorrow.  Debussy’s cues have featured throughout many television programs and feature films over the years but this may be the heaviest use of his music we’re likely to ever see in a film.

That the music so beloved by Hasumi was introduced to him by his former friend Hoshino only serves to underline what can be one person’s salvation can be another’s gateway to sadism.  Fans of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1 will no doubt pick up on the sampled cue used when Hattori Hanzo shows off his sword collection to The Bride, though one could argue the depths plumbed by All About Lily Chou-Chou far outweigh any of the darkest moments in Tarantino’s entire filmography.

Running at 146 minutes with frequent intertitles of computer text, elongated musical montages and cross-cutting rapidly between the past and present to form an overarching story, All About Lily Chou-Chou is an uncompromising affront to narrative cinematic language which not everyone will be able to stomach.  Bullying in Japanese films such as Takashi Miike’s Visitor Q pushed the envelope to absurdist heights, treading a fine line between horror and hilarity. 

With Shunji Iwai’s film, however, neither the characters no we are allowed such an escape route until the film reaches its gavel drop of a finale.  While some elements of social media interaction are indeed dated, the perspective on juvenile delinquency in Japanese high school is as fresh as it was in 2001 and remains a remarkable cinematic achievement well worth revisiting. 

- Andrew Kotwicki