When recent footage of Florida teen Victoria Lindsay being attacked by classmates in her home was posted on YouTube, it generated overwhelming public outrage and condemnation. Much debate ensued regarding not only the current state of the youth culture in America but the increasing escalation of teen violence and instances of aggressive bullying - particularly "cyber bullying".
Nowhere is that more apparent than in Japan, where cases of ijime (bullying) have been extreme and notorious. Every year, there are cases of Japanese teens taking their own lives rather than face daily persecution from their classmates and tormentors involving everything from physical and emotional abuse, to the extortion of money, public humiliation and harassment, and even death threats via cellphone or computer email (texting messages like "shine/die"
In recent years schools have tried to take a more aggressive stance on the problem and recent TV J-Doramas, like the powerful Watashi Tachi No Kyokashou and Life, have also attempted to bring awareness to the issue beyond the classroom.
Director Iwai Shunji tackles this sensitive subject in his thought-provoking 2001 film Lily Chou-Chou No Subete (a.k.a. All About Lily Chou-Chou).
While the title suggests a film detailing the life of the movie's enigmatic and ethereal fictional songstress Lily (singer Salya), the film's actual focus is on childhood friends Shusuke Hoshino (Oshinari Shugo) and Yuichi Hasumi (Ichihara Hayato), junior high school classmates in the Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture.
Their aimless and mischevious days are spent committing various acts of petty theft, often instigated by Hoshino (they steal some company bonds from a sleeping old man and shoplift some CDs from a bookstore to sell back to a local pawnshop).
It is at this pawnshop that Hasumi encounters a billboard poster publicizing one of Lily Chou-Chou's CD albums. Enamored by the poster, he takes it home with him and quickly discovers the singer's website "Lilyholic", a site devoted to the singer and her eclectic brand of "etheral" music (French
Impressionist composer Achille-Claude Debussy and flamboyant Icelandic singer Bjork are named as kindred spirits). Lily's music touches Hasumi in a way that nothing has before and his now hopeless life begins to take on some meaning, as he develops an almost religious devotion to her music.
Yet this happiness soon gives way to a number of hardships. Hasumi is called out by Hoshino and then humiliated and forced to masturbate in public by Hoshino's older friends. He also suffers the trauma of having his beloved Lily CD destroyed by the bullies. We also come to know more about Hoshino's life. While he is blessed with a relatively happy home life, a pampering young mother (played by the fetching Inamori Izumi), a good reputation at school, and an active social life with the school's Kendo club, he still can't seem to find much happiness.
Stealing money from an attempted mugging incident, Hoshino decides to go on a trip to Okinawa with Hasumi and other friends in an attempt to find some sort of spiritual awakening. However, after a near drowning incident and witnessing the suicide attempt of a fellow friendly traveler, he becomes a completely different person. Nihilistic and coldly indifferent to life he soon orchestrates a number of
cruel and humiliating acts on fellow classmates. He arranges to have honor student and piano protégé Kuno Yoko (Ito Ayumi) raped at his father's abandoned factory, and coerces another student, Tsuda Shiori (Aoi Yu), into enjo kosai (arranged dating for money).
However, Hoshino ultimately gets his comeuppance in a surprising way.
All About Lily Chou-Chou shares a lot of its dark tone with Larry Clark's controversial Kids and similarly themed Bully movies. Like those movies, Iwai's film portrays adolescent life as being very unforgiving to some - especially those who seem weaker and/or different.
While Iwai's masterful direction, inventive storytelling and intricately complicated script makes the movie an interesting experience, it is the superb performances from the young cast that are indeed the standout. Oshinari Shugo (Battle Royale II, Aoi Haru) gives a compelling performance as Hoshino. He is certainly a hateful character but also a somewhat tragic figure, and we can only feel sad to see his character's gradual decline from good-natured albeit manipulative tough boy to violent, domineering thug.
The performance from Ichihara Hayato (Niji No Megami, Ju-On 2) is also equally multi-faceted. His Hasumi in not a typical "emo" character but rather a tortured soul wanting to find some sort of purpose in life. Lily is his "goddress/muse" and her songs act as his "bible" to understanding and dealing with an uncertain world.
Aoi Yu (Gaichu, Hana & Alice) delivers another great performance as the ill-fated Tsuda Shiori. She has a special knack for making her minor roles standout and that is again the case here.
Ito Ayumi (Swallowtail & Butterfly, Curtain Call) is also quite impressive as Kuno Yuko. Ito does admirable work here and it is all the more amazing when one learns that she played all her own piano and spent several weeks mastering Debussy's complicated "Arabesque No. 1", one of the song highlights of the film. Her maturity shines onscreen even during the more harrowing scenes. She is definitely someone to watch for.
Cinematographer Shinoda Noboru's beautiful and surreal digital camera work is absolutely breathtaking and adds an almost dream-like quality to the story - which is fitting as the film's concept of "the ether" is of major importance.
While we never quite get to fully see the mysterious character of Lily Chou-Chou, Salya's haunting songs and unique voice give life and an otherworldly quality to the character. It certainly gives another meaning to the film's title as to Hasumi, the music is the only thing that matters in his world.
All About Lily Chou-Chou is sometimes confusing in its non-linear approach to storytelling and in its novel use of BBS chat inserts that help propel the narrative, but the somber tone of the film along with the cautionary look at bullying, obsession and indifference deliver a stark and powerful message to the viewer. (JMaruyama 2008)