For the uninitiated, the Japanese education system may conjure up visions of row upon row of obedient and disciplined students rigorously preparing for their future positions as loyal life-long employees at major corporations. In actuality, Japanese schools have become increasingly dangerous places, where the incidence of youth crime has grown dramatically over the past two decades.
In addition to growing reports of gakkyuu houkai ('breakdown of order in classrooms') and a steady rise in incidents of bullying by students, the incidence of violent crime has soared, which has led to the phrase 'seventeen and deadly' being coined by the press. For example, in 1997, the country was shocked by an incident in Kobe where a junior-high student decapitated an elementary school student. The following year, a teacher was fatally stabbed by one of her students after being repeatedly chastised for being late for class. Even prostitution has infiltrated high school campuses with the practice of enjo kusai ('paid dating'), in which businessmen pay teenage girls to have dinner or go karaoke with them, opening the door to the selling of sexual services later on.
In 2000, the late Kinji Fukusaku pointed to the high-pressure and ultra-competitive nature of the Japanese education system as being the root cause of the 'seventeen and deadly' phenomenon in his highly controversial film "Battle Royale". In "Battle Royale", a class of grade nine students are left on an island and forced to kill each other until there is only one survivor-- a thinly veiled analogy for the nationwide examinations issued during the ninth grade to determine advancement to higher grades, particularly in the country's more distinguished senior highs. If "Battle Royale" was a stylized metaphor for the turmoil in Japanese high schools, then Shunji Iwai's coming-of-age tale "All About Lily Chou-Chou (Riri Shushu no subete)" is the cold splash of reality presented in all its uncompromising ugliness.
"All About Lily Chou-Chou" revolves around the growing pains of high schooler Yuichi Hasumi (Hayato Ichihara) a die-hard fan of fictitious Japanese pop star Lily Chou-Chou. For Yuichi, the music and worship of Lily Chou-chou is a refuge from the bullying, nihilism, and disappointment that embody his regular school day, and to that end, he spends most of his spare time running a web site dedicated to the singer and participating in on-line forums. Like the film's soundtrack of wall-to-wall music selections, the songs of Lily Chou-chou fill a gaping hole in Yuichi's dismal life.
As the film crosses several years of Yuichi's high school life, we witness how Yuichi is befriended in his first year of high school by the gifted Susuke Hoshino (Shugo Oshinari) and how a mishap during a summer trip to Okinawa triggers a change in Hoshino, who initiates a reign of terror as the school's top bully. Weak and defenseless, Yuichi has little recourse but to go along with Hoshino's whims, which include petty crime and beatings. Of course, the adults in the story either remain completely oblivious to what is going on or choose to ignore what is happening right under their noses.
Unfortunately, Yuichi eventually comes to a point where enough is enough. One catalyst is the fate of Yoko Kuno (Ayumi Ito, who appeared in Iwai's "Swallowtail"), who runs afoul of a powerful clique of girls and pays a steep price. Kuno is the person who first introduced Yuichi to the music of Lily Chou-Chou, and because of that, he harbors feelings for her, yet lacks the courage to tell her. Meanwhile, another girl, Shiori Tsuda (Yu Aoi), has an unspoken affection for Yuichi-- even though she is being pimped by Hoshino to provide services to middle-aged salarymen, she cannot work up the courage to express her feelings. However, the final straw for Yuichi comes when Lily Chou-Chou holds a concert in town and Hoshino ends up destroying his last vestiges of happiness and dignity.
Comedian George Carlin once mentioned that high school was a lot like prison, and in "All About Lily Chou-Chou", the comparison could not be more apt. Theft, violence, prostitution, and rape are everyday occurrences in the lives of Yuichi and his classmates. But despite the very adult situations that these teenagers are faced with, Iwai's unblinking camera reveals them for the children that they still are. One telling scene has Yuichi and Shiori on opposite sides of a bush after having said their goodbyes, waiting as they try to find the opportunity and words to express what they want to say-- unfortunately, they are not yet emotionally equipped to handle such a simple task, let alone the horrors they face at school.
While "All About Lily Chou-Chou" is uncompromising in how it depicts high-school life in Japan, there are a number of other areas where Iwai could have done some trimming. Most noticeable is the indulgent narrative that seems to orbit incessantly around the points that Iwai is trying to make. For example, an extended sequence covering the fateful trip to Okinawa seems to go on and on forever like someone's unedited vacation footage (which it actually seems to be), and some judicious cutting would have been welcome. In addition, the film is punctuated by snippets of web conversations between Lily Chou-Chou fans (some of which were actually appropriated from real messages left at a web message board set up by Iwai), some of which have a bearing on what is happening in the story, but many others which do not. Combined with the story structure that jumps backwards and forwards in time, trying to keep up with the film while reading between the lines is at times exasperating.
Another aspect of "All About Lily Chou-Chou" that might turn off potential viewers is Iwai's use of digital cameras, eschewing the rich look of film for the glaring sheen and washed-out colors of video. While the handheld camerawork imbues a sense of 'you are there' cinema verité to the proceedings, at times, the images are so herky-jerky or dimly lit that it is difficult to figure out what is going on. Those viewers who are used to Iwai's cinematic masterpieces "Love Letter" and "April Story (Shigatsu monogatari)" are certainly in for a rude awakening.
Several years in the making and having gone through multiple incarnations (including an unfinished novel and an on-line forum), "All About Lily Chou-Chou" is a film that confronts the destructive power of teen alienation in modern-day Japan head-on. Unfortunately, many viewers will likely be turned off by the inaccessible fashion that Iwai has crafted his film, which is rife with indulgent filmmaking, muddled messages, and laggard pacing. However, for those viewers with the patience and resolve to give such a challenging film a chance, Hong Kong's Panorama Entertainment has just released a new all-region DVD, as well as a VCD, of the film. True, the execution may not be as flashy as "Battle Royale", but the message is just as grim and unforgettable.
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