ALL ABOUT LILY CHOU-CHOU (Riri Shushu no subete)


(director/writer/editor: Shunji Iwai; cinematographer: Noboru Shinoda; editor: Yoshiharu Nakagami; music: Takeshi Kobayashi; cast: Hayato Ichihara (Yûichi Hasumi), Shûgo Oshinari (Hoshino), Ayumi Ito (Yoko Kuno), Yu Aoi (Tsuda), Takao Osawa (Tabito Takao), Miwako Ichikawa (Shimabukuro); Runtime: 150; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Naoki Hashimoto; Cowboy Pictures; 2001-Japan)


The gutsy film didn’t help itself by making it so difficult to follow the story and by being so morose.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director/writer Shunji Iwai’s “All About Lily Chou-Chou” is one tough film to watch. It’s so disturbing to see a sensitive and reclusive adolescent, Yûichi Hasumi (Hayato Ichihara), being bullied and of him not resisting but only trying to tune it all out by passively listening on his Walkman to his favorite singer, the ethereal rocker Lily Chou-Chou. The singer expresses the same pain he feels (Lily’s voice comes from an uncredited singer–also, it is noted that the fictional Bjorklike singer was born the moment Mark David Chapman shot and killed John Lennon). The film covers Yûichi’s three years in junior high school, and shows how the average student’s work sharply declines the more troubled he becomes. At 150-minutes the film felt too tiresome and it often felt like I was watching a boring family home video about someone I didn’t really want to know. I resisted caring about him until it’s layed on so thick how he’s so mistreated by his peers and not helped by his family or any of the institutions that should protect him, that it began to break my heart how there was no one who could help.

The gutsy film didn’t help itself by making it so difficult to follow the story and by being so morose. This same theme was done more effectively by Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, who wisely allowed in breaths of fresh air and good ol’ American suburban humor and there was no confusion over the story. “Lily” was humorless, the dialogue was too sparse, too many scenes were hard to figure out because they were so muddled and awkwardly done, and the ultimate message was a bummer–that all one can do is be grateful to be alive and if one finds at least one thing in existence to connect with, that should be enough to get you by no matter how violent the society around you becomes (probably a snide reference to Japan’s WW11 fanatic militarism). Yet I still found this daunting film despite its many flaws to be a rewarding and moving experience. Whatever … it got me identifying with the youngster’s pain and how the music world for so many others like Yûichi can provide a healthy escape from a hostile environment.

The film opens to an unnamed spacious and modern city somewhere in Japan as we see the handsome, slender Yûichi standing in a rice field holding his CD player and listening to the popular Lily Chou-Chou, whom he is a devoted fan of. We then witness a ruffian teen gang, aboard a train, steal a napping businessman’s briefcase and later, looting CDs from a music store.

Yûichi lives with his pregnant hairdresser mother, her boyfriend, and the boyfriend’s son. Both adults work and never seem to be around for him. Therefore, Yûichi is left on his own as are his peers, who become his tormentors. When he’s not listening to Lily sing or obediently doing his homework he’s on the Internet, where he manages a Lily-philia Web site and connects via e-mail with other Lily fans.

When, surprisingly, the well-behaved Yûichi is caught shoplifting a Lily CD, he’s beaten by his ashamed mother and consoled by his kindly but clueless teacher. The local gang thinks he has ‘dropped a dime’ on them and they subject him to a beating and a humiliation that was so dehumanizing that wisely it was done off camera, but it effectively conveys how cruel one’s youthful peers can be to the timid.

The film then confusingly goes into flashback and we surprisingly discover that the gang’s leader, Hoshino (Shugo Oshinari), has reached out to Yûichi and invited him to stay over his house to become friends with him. Hoshino has been subjected to derision by his classmates for being an outstanding student and seeks out the company of the lower class Yûichi, who seems sympathetic to his plight. We also learn that it is he who introduces Yûichi to Lily’s music, but he never really gets its message thinking it’s all a pretense. He’s pictured as a rich kid who has taken up the traditional sport of kendo, a Japanese sport of swordplay, at school and somehow transforms himself from “class wimp to class president.” He has attracted many other friends, and they take a summer vacation together to scenic Okinawa–a dangerous but beautiful nature lover’s paradise. At this point cinematographer Shinoda goes to a hand-held camera style of shooting and the effect becomes deliberately disturbing, as the beauty and the terrors of the island plays as a nature metaphor for the film. Yûichi believes that a far off island in Okinawa is the one Lily sings about in a popular song, and it takes on for him a spiritual sacredness (the kid needs lots of ether to feel nourished). The boys run into a frequent visitor to Okinawa, a naturalist who is only too glad to lecture them about his observations of the exotic flora and fauna of the islands and concludes that the region is a hell on Earth, a struggle for life and death that we only see as a playground to amuse ourselves in.

When the vacation is over, Hoshino changes into a monster as there is no explanation for this sudden change given except, perhaps, he’s so distraught over the recent loss of his family’s factory. Yûichi’s life now becomes a hellish experience as he returns to school and becomes forced to join in Hoshino’s wanton gang escapades–something the school is blind to. Hoshino blackmails a lovable girl, Shiori Tsuda (Yu Aoi), into becoming a prostitute–whereby she views all men as customers. As a favor to the schoolgirls who sing in the choir and who hate Yoko Kuno (Ayumi Ito) for her beauty and talent as a pianist, Hoshino’s thugs subject her to a gang rape and shave her head. Don’t ask me why she didn’t tell her folks or the police, maybe communication is so bad between them that even when a rape occurs you clam up.

The only thing easy to understand about this dramatization is why Yûichi retreated from people and identified only with Lily’s pop culture otherworldly lyrics that stirred his famished heart. “Lily” turns into being another of many such youth genre films about unattended and alienated youths, and about a misfit who is better than his aggressive peers but has been so crushed by society that his psychological wounds will take a lifetime to heal. It is not difficult to see the parallels of such disaffected Japanese youth with similar American youths. What was difficult was keeping track of the story and in finding out why these youths were so malcontent.

REVIEWED ON 1/13/2003 GRADE: C +

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”