Movie Talk: All About Lily Chou-Chou

Title: All About Lily Chou-Chou (リリイ・シュシュのすべて)
Director: Shunji Iwai
Screenplay: Shunji Iwai
Starring: Hayato Ichihara, Shûgo Oshinari, Ayumi Itô, Yû Aoi
Released: Oct 2001 (JP), Jul 2002 (US), Aug 2002 (UK)


Ever since I discovered All About Lily Chou-Chou in 2006, it has held a special place in my heart. Along with Takeshi Kitano’s Sonatine, it is one of the first Japanese films I remember watching and – still unlike anything I have seen since – it remains to this day one of my all-time favourites. It is a film rich in detail, substance and beauty; a story of youth culture, escapism and loneliness just as important now as it was fifteen years ago. Rather than present a straightforward review, I wanted to take a moment to write somewhat about the films aesthetics, why it is so important and continually relevant, and why it should be on your radar.

Japanese director Shunji Iwai released his third full-length feature – All About Lily Chou-Chou – in 2001. The film – a rather eerie and melancholic drama about the escapism of a group of children through cyber culture and the fictional pop sensation Lily Chou-Chou – follows Yuichi, a particularly shy and lonesome youth, who becomes entranced by the mysterious pop star. The film charters the increasing solace and comfort Yuichi discovers in Lily’s music – and explores others touched by the enigmatic figure through messages posted on a ‘Lilyphilia’ internet forum – to the backdrop of the harsh realities of the outside world. In many ways, All About Lily Chou-Chou was ahead of its time. Released fresh into the new millennium, it portrayed a generation of youth caught in a seemingly endless adolescence, enthralled by cyber culture and confused with their identity and emotions, isolated in the all-too-big world and seeking escape through electronic communication rather than physical interaction.

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The characters find redemption of sorts in the form of ambiguous pop-sensation Lily Chou-Chou. Her music provides them with an emotional resonance; the characters confide in her songs and revel in the other-worldly feeling her music creates – what they label as the ‘ether’. With music and a fan-base reminiscent of the Icelandic ambient scene (think Sigur Rós, amiina and múm) back here in the real world, the characters empathetically discuss the singer on the ‘Lilyphilia’ forum and listen intently to each other’s stories of self-discovery and what Lily’s music has brought them. But as the characters progress deeper and deeper into the ‘ether’ and engage more and more openly with their online counterparts, thus begins their descent into isolation and withdrawal from reality. Their internet messages are communicated to the viewer through text on the screen, though with only internet handles and vague clues to go off, it’s up to the audience to work out which of the characters are typing what. Very little is explicitly stated in the film; the audience – more so than usual – are mere observers and it is clear Iwai has great respect for the viewers’ intelligence.

All About Lily Chou-Chou is a film that could only be made in this millennium, in the here and now, as it centers around the evolving of communication – or perhaps degrading, depending on how you look at it – in the age of the internet. It captures the disconnectedness of the current youth and, as Empire note; “portrays a generation in a world of electronic communication which promises greater interaction, but instead fosters isolation.” Loneliness and isolation are major themes within the film and the characters are all grounded in their attempts to connect physically with one another. Iwai even presents an underlying barrier between adults and children; in fact, the adult characters take a step back and almost have no place in the story at all. Iwai displays them as very distant and incomprehensible; people, despite social constructs, which the children struggle to look up to or trust in. All About Lily Chou-Chou spares no expense at posing questions, yet it seeks to answer none – Iwai displays the world as anything but simply black and white, as anything but straight forward.

This is emphasised in the narrative, told in a non-linear fashion with the middle first, followed by the beginning and then the end. References to disconnectedness are left, right and center, and for such emotionally compromised characters, the hugely dominant child cast work wonders. The films main characters are Yuichi (Hayato Ichihara) and Hoshino (Shugo Oshinari) – mutual admirer’s of Lily Chou-Chou whose friendship collapses after a fateful holiday – and the films back-drop is largely rural Japan, with much of the middle chapter set in Okinawa; largely secluded and alien areas, again referencing that isolation. The cinematography and tone is very melancholic, with the crew creating some stunningly bleak visuals, often contrasted with the hypnotic beauty of the Japanese countryside. Iwai presents a spellbinding, starkly beautiful and wholly unique visual flair, which has since become one off his trademarks as a filmmaker.

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Another key aspect is the music and the films almost God-like idol, Lily Chou-Chou. The singer herself is rarely glimpsed, but is always portrayed as some near-deity, an ethereal Goddess, absolutely worshipped by her fans, which displays the level of idolisation and the prominence and development of pop culture through technology and social media in the current generation. The music in All About Lily Chou-Chou works as a narrative element and a vessel for the main characters, helping to communicate their thoughts, feelings and desires to the audience. The soundtrack is actually made up of two complete CDs, one being the film score (a stunning collection of melancholic piano compositions written and arranged by Takeshi Kobayashi, along with three wonderful Claude Debussy renditions by actress and pianist Yui Makino) and the other an album by Lily Chou-Chou titled Breathe, which was made specifically for the film and features prominently. The film and its music was actually received so well that it established a career for Japanese singer Salyu, who portrayed Lily Chou-Chou.

All About Lily Chou-Chou is a master class in filmmaking, displaying completely how every element in sync creates one tremendous piece of art. The film just oozes emptiness and desolation, but it is tackled in such a calm and – dare I say it – ethereal way, that it isn’t necessarily depressing so much as it is enlightening. Like the music of Lily Chou-Chou, the film has an other-worldly feel to it, something magical resides there. It isn’t light viewing, but once you wrap yourself around the narrative and delve into the minds of the characters, it’s comforting in a slightly haunting way. Anyone who has ever felt disconnected or apart from society should watch All About Lily Chou-Chou; it is a film about what it is to be human in the 21st Century and quite possibly one of the most important of its generation.

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