Thomas Thompson

All About Lily Chou Chou

28th July 2004
All About Lily Chou Chou Poster reviewer: Thomas Thompson
rating: 5 out of 5
directed by: Shunji Iwai
written by: Shunji Iwai
starring: Hayato Ichihara, Shgo Oshinari, Ayumi Ito, Takao Osawa
genre: Drama
released: 30th August 2003

Pronounced 'Shoo Shoo', the fictional songstress is a powerful idol in this realistic portrayal of Japanese youth in a disjointed society. Following two students through their early teenage years the film is a Japanese language drama of the highest calibre. Yuichi has a hard life. His friends treat him like shit, and his problems go unnoticed. His life is not what it was only a year prior. His only escape is the music of Lily Chou Chou, and sharing his love with others like him, found across the internet. Specifically within one site, where 'lilyphillia' is abundant and the only rule is 'you must love Lily'. Which Yuichi evidently does.

And that is a large part of the narrative of this film. The forum posts. As Yuichi discusses at length the music and 'ether' that Lily creates. Her influences, her albums, her history, her creations. These text conversations are displayed on the screen at well placed intervals to arrange the film's events, as well as providing quite the influence on the film's finale. The story is not chronological, and the posts, particularly those by Yuichi, provide the timeline to events. Basically the film is ordered into three or four parts. Age 14, age 13, and age 14 again, and from there following on into the next year.

(Plot points follow. It'd be a better experience if you went into this film knowing nothing about the plot. Though it may be confusing. I've tried to avoid the spoilers, but the main story is laid out here. If you want to skip it you can pick up from "All About Lily Chou Chou, or 'Riri Shushu no subete', is a sublime film.")

In the first act Yuichi is lonely, and committing petty crimes with a couple of 'friends', all the while maintaining his secretive obsession with the title idol over the world wide web. He seems to have a new father and with it a new brother, and it doesn't take long for him to get caught shoplifting the latest Lily CD. The school is the first to be notified and Yuichi must face a meeting with the principal and his mother, which leaves his friends suspicious of their names being raised. Being the great friends that they are (and that's sarcasm), the final scene of this act is somewhat unnerving, but very effective.

The second act shows Yuichi entering his first year of school (a year prior) and making friends with a group, particularly Hoshino; a clever, gifted, and athletic student with a bright future. The second character in this coming of age drama. It tales how Hoshino and Yuichi develop a friendship early on, and the group seem very close. Close enough to go on holiday to Okinawa together. But first they have to acquire the money, and doing so involves them all getting their hands a little dirty. What follows is twenty minutes of 'holiday footage'. The boys armed with camcorders recording their experiences as they take a trip to the less urban and more watery region. Led by a group of tour girls they explore Okinawa's beaches and waters, getting taught the history, language, customs, and wildlife along the way. People are said to have seven lives in Okinawa. Hoshino uses up a couple. One changes him drastically, to the point on first viewing I wasn't sure if he was the same character. Returning sometime after the excursion Hoshino is a changed man. Nearly drowning has caused a very big metamorphosis in his character, and he goes from very nice chap to a pimping delinquent malefactor in a seemingly short space of time.

The third act carries on from the second, while picking up where the first left off. The strong relationship between Hoshino and Yuichi has broken down. Hoshino is nothing like the very likeable and relatable character he was, his great ambition, morals and companionship replaced by corruption, disenchantment and a flair for degrading inflictions. Yuichi has become more reserved and much quieter than he was. Both have a love for the same girl, but have a different way of expressing it. Said girl is also the target of much jealousy from her female classmates. Another classmate of Yuichi's, Tsuda, is Hoshino's business excursion, as he sells her to adults with a soft spot for underage girls.

The responsible adults of the story are largely ignorant of these happenings. Bullying and crime is rife in most all areas of the school, and the former goes a fair bit further than simply name calling.

The ending, and fourth act, sees Lily Chou Chou coming to town. When the forum posts and the everyday life merge into one, the ether becomes tainted, and the depressing final comes into play.

Throughout the duration of the film themes of rape, suicide, bullying, prostitution, disillusionment, friendships, loyalty, and popularity, amongst others, are explored amidst the young teens within the Japanese education system.

All About Lily Chou Chou, or 'Riri Shushu no subete', is a sublime film. It's originally presented, and elegantly told. Gritty but beautiful. Downcast but aesthetic. The film is a work of art in its cinematography and musical ambience alone. Seemingly constant, the music is a very large part of, and enforces a continuous flow for, the film and its mood. The acting sets new standards with every character being entirely believable in their portrayal. The film is very easily watchable, and entertains all your senses; it takes them hostage early on and doesn't let them go. It doesn't bombard you with any sort of preaching; it is simply a story of two friends within this society, and how they depart company, and in that respect is not unlike City of God in theme. The disjointed youth is comparable to A Better Place, and the social commentary is far closer to reality than Battle Royale, though delivers a similar truth. Incidentally, the sequel of which the actor that plays the role of Hoshino so well in this is granted the lead in. That's quite a role to land on what I assume is the strength of this emotionally powerful film alone.

The standout part, the ether of the film, for me, is the twenty minute trip to Okinawa. With its own little side story, and a group of characters that appear at this point alone, it's a very well executed piece of film making. The video camera footage is cut to great effect, and it feels very much like the home movie footage it is meant to be; capturing everything that you would expect if you were to put a group of 14 year olds in control of the camera. It also makes the rest of the film feel much more real, and grounds it in reality, making later (and earlier) events all the more effective.

The characters themselves offer something to relate to for many people. Be it remaining together long past when the friendship was no longer a shared commodity, or the feeling that no one else understands you. The character depth is stunning, and their quickly changing personalities are very well documented and excellently performed. The film itself portrays a very dark world, but a realistic one. A real one. Within it is told a very compelling story about unhappy teenagers, trying to find a place to fit in. It's immaculately done, with developing characters, struggling through change, taking comfort in the one constant in their lives; the godlike music of Lily Chou Chou.

This is not a film that you just watch one night and forget about the next day. It is something that will 'haunt' you for the following week, at least, as you reflect on the various characters' actions, motives and simply try and arrange events in your head. There is a lot to take in, with intertwining stories, and many characters all playing staple parts, with varying narratives, from the continuing Lily Chou Chou forum posts, to the camera's storytelling. All the while jumping events that you realise must have taken place but are left to you to fill in the blanks. The mise en scene offers clues, and shouldn't leave you in the dark. Simply taking note of the characters' names should save you some of the problems I had on first viewing, as the change in character is so well presented visually it can be confusing as to whether you're following the same fellow or not. This is a film that demands your attention, and it'll surely take it early on. A modern classic, from a very talented director.

Available on a barren DVD currently 'All About Lily Chou Chou' deserves to be seen by many more people. It's a brilliant film that is still in affect long after the credits roll.

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