All About Lily Chou-Chou focuses on a young boy’s (Yuichi) struggles growing up in contemporary Japan—violence, bullying, and cruelty are everyday aspects of his existence. Yuichi’s only outlet is a pop chanteuse, Lily Chou-Chou, who articulates his innermost thoughts. What is most unusual about Lily Chou-Chou is how drastically it differs from American teenage-problem films like Thirteen (2003); rather than focusing on realism to exact the heaviest shocks from its viewers, the film takes a fluid, symbolic approach to its material. The charm and beauty of Lily Chou-Chou lie in its deliberate pace and wispy frailty. It’s a dream woven from scraps of the title character’s songs and from vignettes that cover several years in the lives of the young and emotionally isolated. When Lily Chou-Chou succeeds, it soars; when it falters, the missteps threaten the tenuous elegance upon which the film’s theme—the fragility of real communication and connection—depends.
Released in 2001, All About Lily Chou-Chou is now finally available on DVD. While there are few extras—an hour-long documentary on the making of the film, an essay by director Shunji Iwai—the transfer is simply lovely. The film’s bright greens and deep golds, purples and muddy browns, are vibrant; the Bjork-like Lily Chou-Chou pop songs and Debussy piano solos broaden the film’s soundscape evocatively. Indeed, this DVD is a beautiful experience that fully complements the film’s trance-like nature.
Besides the sensory spectacle, a large part of Lily Chou-Chou‘s grace comes from Hayato Ichihara’s performance. As Yuichi Hasumi, Ichihara displays wisdom and subtlety, without a trace of the preciousness that might be expected to infect such a young actor’s work. Ichihara is an intensely vulnerable actor, seeming to infuse Yuichi’s suffering into his very physical being, and skillfully shifting his disappointment into precursors of rage as he grows older.
And Yuichi is a pained character indeed. While hanging out with his “friends,” a group of local roughnecks, he’s stony and silent, his head drooping low over his chest. He is humiliated and abused by his peers, and his eyes betray this. At home, however, Yuichi spends hours in his room, on his computer. There, he posts to the Lily Chou-Chou message board; the songs give voice to his wounds and those of many of his peers (peers with whom he cannot speak except through the internet). As Yuichi posts messages, as other fans respond, the text flashes on the screen along with sound of typing fingers. This device, used throughout the film, is at first distracting, but soon makes what can feel like detached scenes cohere. It also provides a way to explore the inner thoughts of the characters; as they torment and destroy one another during their daytime lives, these young people’s tortured emotions play out in anxious, vulnerable detail on the message board. They find intimacy in electronic information exchange, impossible for them to attain in physical interactions.
Time goes by for Yuichi and his classmates, and as they “mature” life becomes more and more complex. Yuichi’s friend Hoshino (Shugo Oshinari) goes from being the smartest in class (and thus the nerdiest) to the head of the tough crowd. And the crowd moves with him, into petty theft, pimping, prostitution, even rape. It is in these segments that Lily Chou-Chou loses its footing. While not quite as mired in shock value as Kids (1995), one of the films to which Lily Chou-Chou is compared in promotional material (it’s not really an accurate comparison, or a beneficial one), the film here veers into melodrama. Certainly, Yuichi’s desperation, isolation, and disaffection are disturbing enough on their own without what ends up feeling like cliché teenage “issues,” geared to shock audiences.
The film’s point, however, is to suggest that emotional withdrawal is symptomatic of contemporary Japanese culture. The kids’ only emotional outlets emerge in the sort of anonymity found in pop music fan-bases and the internet. This is put across best through the combination of the incredible, at times almost surreal, performances he elicits from his young actors, and his swirling palette of color and sound. Decisions to include teenage prostitution and pimping inject too much “realism” into what is, in the end, a movie about communication and connection outside the “real.”
These violent, disturbing parts call attention to themselves and detract from the important, thoughtful segments. What might seem like detours in the film, like when Yuichi and his friends take a trip to Okinawa with stolen money, are really its symbolic center. Okinawa, where the friends have their only truly happy moments in the film, is, effectively, Lily Chou-Chou’s ether; on this unspoiled island, there is freedom and an ability to be young and a part of nature and the earth, impossible to achieve in the mind-bending world of mainland Japan.
Despite its missteps, Lily Chou-Chou is gorgeous. Even the scenes of abuse have a decadent lushness: when a school bully is forced by Hoshino to swim naked in the mud, his body takes on a bright purple hue, bathed in dying sunlight. The school bully’s body, put on display to be mocked, becomes luminescent. A rape scene is filled with feathers bursting from comforters and cushions, floating on air currents, drifting across the frame. It’s as though the entire film were one of Lily Chou-Chou’s songs: a story about pain and violence distilled into a plaintive melody of color and fantasy.