· Reviews ·

All About Lily Chou-Chou

Directed by Shunji Iwai, this is the story of Yuichi, a 14 year old Japanese boy in the rural area of Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture. Just about as quiet and introverted as anyone could imagine, he passes his days never making a connection or even speaking to anyone.

Set before a backdrop of cruelty and psychical abuse at school, Yuichi’s only interests are Kuno, a beautiful talented schoolmate, and Lily Chou-Chou, an alternative rock star with a huge underground fan following. For Yuichi there are two worlds that exist simultaneously – school, where he is beaten and harassed by his schoolmates , and the ether (the Internet), where he is known as philia, the site manager of fan chat room for Lily.

Yuichi’s life is meaningless and controlled by other people; he is in a downward spiral towards killing himself. The main tension is whether Yuichi manages to become free, or does he surrender and kill himself. One hopes that Yuichi finally does stand up for himself and becomes free. But one fears though, that Yuichi might just kill himself, just as he confesses to his online friend Blue Cat. The stakes are high; it is nothing short of life of death for this teenage boy in angst and pain of teenage life, and there is real risk that Yuichi might not make it.

The film revolves around the theme of coming of age in a cruel world where sincerity is lost and good natured, intelligent, and initially well intentioned children are changed by their experiences in the society into bullying manipulative controlling abusive adults. This happens in an environment where the Internet is the only solace for these young people of whom many can feel the Ether. Lily Chou-Chou the rock star IS the Ether personified. She liberates our thoughts, she sublimates and transcends, reaching the transparent beyond, as put by one of the boys. This is a film about looking for salvation and sanctuary, a feeling of true love and devotion to some transcendental beauty. At odds with their nihilistic aimless lives these children try to escape their pain on the Internet. This film is about the contemporary postmodern age of the Internet where everybody is connected but feels more and more disconnected from their daily lives.

The theme is woven into the film by presenting people in a real and recognizable way that is understandable for anybody. Here is a boy who is about to become an adult. He feels the existential void and lack of meaning that many have felt. We see how young people struggle to become adults; the tensions and sacrifices one makes; sometimes one kills something in oneself.

In that sense Yuichi just wants to have a sense of belonging. But to do that Yuichi needs to be free and decide for himself. Throughout the story he is constantly changing and becoming more like an adult. But he is also on a downward spiral towards becoming more and more disconnected and resigned from his own being. At one point he has lost himself and the ideals that he values to such a degree that he just gives up and begins to do what Hoshino tells him to do, including crime.

On the surface Hoshino only wants power and control. But deep inside him Hoshino really needs to punish the people he knows for not being such as he wants them to be, for not understanding him, for hurting him so much. He is as broken as Yuichi, and like Yuichi, he too is constantly changing throughout the story. His change perhaps is one of the most important narrative arches of the whole film. He is the one who starts out as a benign good natured boy but after his meeting with death and adulthood he becomes increasingly violent and manipulative.

The main protagonist Yuichi just wants to belong, and be loved unconditionally but he doesn’t know what he has to do to get it. As this is something inherently human any viewer will automatically connect with these feelings. Moreover, as this is a true film of the Internet age, any contemporary teen growing up in society that is increasingly virtualized, will have a good understanding of what Yuichi is experiencing.

The film opens with Yuichi standing alone head down on a large rice field with his headphones on, seemingly cut off from all the rest of the world. The scene feels ethereal and one can imagine oneself standing there as him with the headphones on caring about nothing and everything at the same time. The camera angle is such that you are totally submerged in the scene; you see no future and are entirely focused on the boy and his inner world, so far from everything and everybody else. This is a great introductory scene because it establishes what the boy feels like, and where he is in his life. The green rice fields look beautiful and they have a transcendental quality, as does the music and moreover, they are also instantly recognized inherently as Japanese. We understand from the virtual chat room imposed on the scene that Lily was born at the exact moment Mark Chapman killed John Lennon, and both of them were from a place of eternal peace – the ether.

Starting off with that scene showing the subtitles from a chat room in between has the effect of suggesting that the ether is everywhere. It is an opening shot into a world where the Ether (the Internet) has become so intertwined with reality it is more like virtualized meta reality that is always present. The ethereal poetic sweet hypnotic music of Lily Chou-Chou asserts that feeling just as do the green rice fields and the mesmerized boy standing there.

The film ends with a final sequence during the titles where everything is the same as in the first sequence of the film. There is the field and Yuichi is standing on the field, there are the people are writing in the chat room. But this time everybody is there, Yuichi, Hoshino and Tsuda. One can only guess who is writing what, who is who in the chat room – but it is clear they are all in the chat room. The last post in the chat room that ends the film perhaps summarizes everything – Maybe I’m writing this because… I want to scream out – I’m here!

The final scene has the effect of generalizing the experiences of Yuichi and applying to the whole Japanese youth, or perhaps even to contemporary everywhere in general. Now it is revealed very directly that many of the young people had similar feelings, and they were yearning for the same things. Perhaps this is the simplest scene of the whole film.

The structure of the film is seems disorganized and sometimes hard to follow, but it is perhaps surprising that it does however fit very well into the traditional theories of narrative analysis. First of all, the film is non-linear, and in terms of timeline, the central part is first, then comes the first part, and then finally the last part comes – last. The nature of the structure is such that the whole resembles the messages that are sent over the chat. The narrative doesn’t at first appear trough a traditional linear use of a storyline, but is rather expressed trough a sort of an osmosis that gets trough ones skin. By using a not so common structure and a discontinuous timeline the film emphasizes the feeling of disconnectedness and the feeling of being lost and unknown, anonymous.

The story arch begins at an ‘inciting incident’ during a summer holiday, where Hoshino has a near death experience, he almost drowns. However because of the disconnected nature of editing this scene is only shown at the middle of the film.

Interestingly, the first plot point, the event that thrusts the plot in a new direction is purely a trick of editing. After the first act which shows the status quo of the horrible life of Yuichi, the viewer is thrust back into the past. This is initiated by the climax of the first act where Yuichi gets beaten up by Hoshino and the gang. In essence it is a situation that Yuichi is forced into, but he also makes the unconscious decision of allowing Hoshino to do this to him. The second act that transports us back into history shows how all of this came to pass.

Even though set in a strange place in the structure, the second act makes use of traditional narrative techniques and builds up action trough the death of a lonely bystander. Already there are expectations and an eerie feeling that something bad is about to happen. And then Hoshino almost dies. From that summer on everything is different. Back at school we see that Hoshino has changed, he has become violent and attack another boy (this is the culmination).

The second plot point arrives when at the end of the second act Yuichi says in the chat ‘From that day on, the world was gray’. Act three has the same tension as the first act. The midpoint of the story arrives not in the middle but shortly after the second plot point; Yuichi is standing on the field just as in the first scene of the film, depressed and listening to music; the field is a central symbol of the film. The final climax arrives when Yuichi stabs Hoshino after Lily’s concert.

In order to understand the film more fully it is helpful to divide the narrative into sequences based on some or other criteria. The simplest way to do this is by division into three acts because the film naturally falls into the structure present, past, present. In the first act Yuichi enters high school; he is shy and quiet, ridiculed by others. Hoshino is bullying him and his schoolmates. In the second act there is a flashback into the past, to junior high school and summer vacation. Yuichi and Hoshino are still good friends. But during the summer vacation Hoshino has a near death experience and he almost drowns. In the third act which switches back to the present, Hoshino is getting more abusive; finally Yuichi kills Hoshino.

A three act analysis to a great extent does not reveal the detail and dynamics of the narrative so a division into eight sequences as recommended by Frank Daniel goes that much further into explaining how the story really happens. It is remarkable that the dynamics of a narrative that Daniel suggests, and which at first viewing may seem quite abstract, actually fit the storyline of this film quite well.

In the first sequence which describes the status quo we are introduced to Yuichi, a 14 year old high school student in rural Japan. Yuichi (also known as Philia on the Internet chat room he runs) is alone on a field listening to music and is feeling very depressed. Another day Yuichi and gang of boys steal music from a shop. Yuichi’s mother thinks he is a good boy. We are introduced to Yuichi’s family: little brother, mother, her boyfriend; Yuichi will have to change his name because mother is pregnant. Chat room; Blue Cat enters for the first time; Yuichi welcomes her/him, introduces the rule of ‘this is a free zone for everybody who loves Lily’. The gang calls him out, Yuichi meets a familiar who gives him money – but the other boy takes it. Chat room: new Lily album is out. Yuichi goes to a shop to steal it; gets caught. Teacher comes a saves him.

In the second sequence which raises the problem we are introduced to Kuno, the girl Yuichi likes, and the school. Yuichi’s mother is disappointed in his son because ‘stealing is stealing’. At home Yuichi is on his bed phasing out with music doing nothing. He goes out when Hoshino calls him, and is beat up by the guys. He is made publicly masturbate, and thrown with stones.

In the third sequence where there is raising action we are transported back in time to the day when high school begins. It is 1999, and Yuichi is 13 years old. Hoshino was the best student of his school, and class president at Ayu Elementary. Yuichi and Hoshino are good friends, spend a lot of time together; t hey both do Kendo. Hoshino is smart, the best student, and the best athlete. Back at Hoshino’s home they look at the stars, and Hoshino explains how nobody understands him; that night Yuichi is first introduced to Lily Chou-Chou. Summer vacation 1999 Hoshino, Yuichi, and friends steal money to go to Okinawa Island. There are girls, and they have fun on the beach. A very happy man seems to keep dropping in; he says it’s his fourth time there and he loves it for the nature. The same day they find the happy man on the road – he had jumped in front of a bus and killed himself. The next day out on the beach Hoshino goes swimming and almost drowns. On their way back Hoshino throws the money they stole into the sea.

In the fourth sequence where the first culmination happens the boys go back to school on the 1st September 1999. On chat: References to Nostradamus, and the Matrix; humanity died and from that day on the world was grey. At school another boy Inubushi is bullying their classmates and Hoshino stands up and attacks him, throws him on the ground and cuts off his hair; after school he and the gang punish and abuse him by making him swim naked in a puddle, letting him fetch things with his teeth crawling in the mud. This is the first culmination; we see that Hoshino is no longer the same. Hoshino starts to smoke, quits the Kendo club. Year 2000 arrives, Yuichi is 14 years old. The age of gray: year 2000 starts with the same scene as the whole movie with Yuichi standing alone on the rice field. Hoshino forces a girl named Tsuda in Yuichi’s class into prostitution; she has to sleep with older men, and Yuichi is forced to follow her and collect the money; she gets a small cut. On their way home there is a very emotional sequence – she throws the money at Yuichi and looks very frustrated and sad; then she runs into nearby creek mesmerized by her feelings. Finally at home she cleans herself with the garden hose as if trying to wash her clean of what had had happened. On chat: someone says “For me only Lily is real. For me, only the Ether is proof that I’m alive’.

In the fifth sequence which is an emotionally slower episode shifts the focus on another character. The class is going to take part in a choir competition but the girl who was voted to play the piano cannot do it properly. Kuno is an excellent pianist but the other girls don’t like her start bullying her to step down. Kuno changes the arrangement so they can go a capella and won’t need a piano. In the competition the choir sings while Kuno just has to stand by with her head down. The others have totally ostracized her.

In the sixth sequence where the second culmination happens Yuichi allows Hoshino to arrange Kuno to be raped. While this happens other girls are watching and laughing, and Yuichi is crying – this is the culmination of how far Yuichi and Hoshino have come in comparison with when they were still friends. Now Yuichi is a droid, and Hoshino has become bitter and uncaring. Another day Yuichi and Tsuda meet after she had slept with an older man. She steals some money from him and now she’s happy and they go out to eat. It now seems Tsuda has started to like the money she gets for sleeping with the old men; she doesn’t care anymore whether this is good or bad; like Yuichi and Hoshino she has also changed. On the way home Yuichi gives her a CD with Lily Chou-Chou’s first album, which was the most influential on him.

In the seventh sequence where the false resolution is revealed Yuichi tells Blue Cat in the chat room he has felt like dying many times, but he couldn’t. Blue cat tells him he or she understands that pain. We see Hoshino standing on a field listening to music; we understand that he is Blue Cat. We see Tsuda walking on a field looking at kites flying. Tsuda kills herself because she wants to feel what it is like to fly like a kite. Then Yuichi throws up in class. In a hospital lying on a bed he describes this noise he has in his head.

And finally in the eighth sequence where the true resolution is revealed Lily Chou-Chou is playing live in Tokyo, it’s December 8, year 2000. Hoshino throws away Yuichi’s ticket so he cannot go to the concert; one of the most heartbreaking scenes is when Yuichi is standing there alone staring at a blank screen. After the concert is over and everybody is coming out Hoshino comes and pats Yuichi on the back. Yuichi starts to scream in the middle of the crowd and everyone starts running. Yuichi stabs Hoshino and he falls on the ground; his death is the true resolution. Now Yuichi can begin his life again; at home he starts to try and learn to play the piano, and dyes his hair. Kuno can play the piano in an orchestra. The last scene shows all of the characters, Yuichi, Hoshino, Tsuda on the field – it is clear they have all had a similar experience.

In terms of editing there are some general things that jump out to the viewer right away. While the film has some long scenes and the overall rhythm is dreamy and quite slow, jump cuts are sometimes used because they create a sense of reality and also – an air of ‘I don’t care about anything’ that is very necessary in order to establish that particular environment for the characters. Also, in some scenes the film has the look and the feel of a music video. Often scenes are cut to the rhythm of the music, which is necessary in order to show that deep connection young people make to the music they listen to, and how much it influences them. This is why rhythmical editing plays such an important part in conveying the feel of the film.

There are many example of spatial editing. For one, at 00:08:50 there is a three shot of TV hosts on a screen; next cut is to a close up of one of the hosts. Secondly, at 01:22:35 there is a close up of Tsuda in the water. And then next there is wide shot of both Tsuda in the water and Yuichi on the embankment – a classical spatial shot.

There are also many examples of temporal editing. Just to name one, at 00:05:28 while in the train the boys carry a stolen bag which they took from an older gentleman; the next cut is to a roadside where the bag is lying on the ground. This edit makes use of both temporal and graphical techniques at the same time. Graphical editing is used in conjunction with other types of editing to also match the shots by a certain graphical element. Logical editing is frequently used in places where no attention is paid to the traditional grammar of camerawork.

The film also has examples of the question and answer pattern. In some sequences of the film frequently cuts to the chat room. The question is posed with the image, and the answer is given by words in the chat. Moreover this allows one to use the chat a cutaway to switch between shots.

In most sequences the 180 rule is followed as they are shot in a more or less in a traditional style. There are some exceptions though. On 00:06:03 the boys are in a store running out of a store (camera pans left to right); then there is a rule-breaking cut to the store clerk who looks like he’s coming from the right; and then he runs into the frame from the left. This doesn’t seem to have any intentional effect, and perhaps was just sloppy camerawork. Some of the handheld shots are long without any cuts which mean that editing rules do not apply. In one scene a bus leaves the scenes to the right, then there is a cutaway to the chat, and the bus enters again from the right, which is slightly confusing.

There are also some special editing techniques that one could talk about. For one, the entire film is shot handheld, and if not, the shots are still framed in a dynamic and are never entirely static. Moreover, there are some scenes that show inventive use of camera angles. For example at 00:18:35 there is a corridor situation with two people walking towards the camera. A third person is walking to meet them. Then instead of cutting 180 degrees from the two shot to face the coming person, it is filmed in one continuous shot turning the camera half a circle; the third person stops. Only then there is a cut from behind of the two and we see all three of them walking away from t he camera.

Although All about Lily Chou-Chou features a non-traditional narrative style, it still manages to follow some of the basic rules of storytelling, and more importantly – it creates a compelling story that keeps tension and interest until the end. In terms of editing the film is dynamic and youthful, and appeals to the senses of a young and pop-culturized but sophisticated audience.

Editing Assignment

This article was first published on May 14, 2008 for Editing Class at Baltic Film & Media

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