All About Lily Chou-Chou
by Ben Beard
“Kids these days are very scary.”
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Following a group of disaffected Japanese school children through the dreary messiness of adolescent life, All About Lily Chou-Chou examines the devastating effects of peer pressure and the struggles of teenagers as they bop through an adult world too complicated to understand. Told in a disjointed, intentionally confusing style, the film is equal parts genius and blowhard, a riveting yet strange meditation that like a complicated mandala disappears and withers into nothingness when examined too closely. Still, we must look, and upon looking, weep for the future.
Managing a website devoted to his favorite singer, Lily Chou-Chou, eighth grader Yuichi connects more with faceless names on the internet than with his fellow classmates who ignore and torture him in equal measure. Poor and misunderstood, Yuichi struggles to find acceptance and peace while navigating the barely perceptible mores of schoolyard society. Eventually Yuichi befriends a nerdy new kid named Hoshino. He, Hoshino, and a few other picked-on students band together into a life of petty but mostly harmless crime.
Interspersed with emails from different Chou-Chou fans, obsessive children locked into the pop ramblings of cyber pop culture, the film follows the characters’ devotion to the ether… the source of inspiration for Lily, an inner world of endless tranquility.
Things turn bad for Yuichi when Hoshino, the good looking gifted student, evolves into a vicious gangster-bully, pimping out girls in his class and humiliating his fellow students, including Yuichi. Yuichi inadvertently gets roped into Hoshino’s dirty little world, and ends up betraying the one girl he likes in the process. When Lily Chou-Chou promises a concert in his hometown, Yuichi buys a ticket hoping for a peek into the zen serenity that he momentarily finds in her songs.
The genteel adults stand by on the sidelines, helpless and unaware of the seething violence bubbling out of the vacuous miasma of Japan. Beneath the noses of the good-intentioned teachers, the smiling parents, the attempts at understanding, society is unraveling. Generational differences are pulling the fabric apart. The claustrophobic and insular ethics—the social Darwinism—of childhood pragmatism haven’t been this overtly displayed since Lord of the Flies.
Before shooting this film, the filmmaker Shunji Iwai (originally a director of music videos, and it shows) created a fake popstar and fake website in response to writer’s block, and found hundreds of desperate fans arguing over his invented singer’s relevance. The message boards on his website serve as the framing structure of the movie. (And if this sounds like manipulation, it is.) There are reasons why his children are so nasty, so impulsive. The adults of the world—Iwai included—have screwed things up, perhaps permanently. Left to their own devices, our children will kill and claw and rape. Not a pretty picture nor a happy paradigm, but credit Iwai for sticking with it.
The compositions are strong and stark, but an overall darkness of the picture quality occasionally clouds the great (albeit shot on digital) cinematography. The jerkiness of the occasional handheld shots are balanced and smoothed by the self assured direction and the strong sad images. And the musical score, much of it haunted piano work from composer Claude Debussy, offers a delicate beauty juxtaposed with the savagery of the inexperienced and the innocent. Iwai utilizes his desperate story to touch on large themes. And like other contemporary Japanese directors, Iwai never leaves the viewer on safe ground. There is violence and danger in everything.
All About Lily Chou-Chou is a challenging film with a fractured structure, a pastiche of different scenes, many shot out of chronological order. It is precisely the film’s odd, lilting structure that will split most viewers. Some will see a visionary, ruminative exploration of sadness and alienation, while others will see exploitative nihilism relishing the petty cruelties of the invisible class. Meditative genius or uninspired lunacy?
Regardless, Iwai offers up a desolate, almost apocalyptic vision of the dehumanizing effects of the interlocked matrices of internet and cell phones, a raw hypnotic glimpse into the horrors of amoral children growing without guidance, where the most precious and most vulnerable quality is innocence. Melding visuals and music with unquestionable style, All About Lily Chou-Chou is a film most viewers, whether they love it or hate it, won’t soon forget.
The message beneath the endless images of petty shoplifting, gossiping and pick pocketing and the malicious smirking smile: beware, for hidden in the young and the sullen and the smiling, here there be tigers.
Ben Beard is a film and music criticliving in Chicago.
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