All About Lily Chou-Chou (リリイ・シュシュのすべて, Shunji Iwai, 2001)

“For us the natural world is a playground. But for the things that live in it, it might be hell on earth.” a middle-aged stranger explains to a confused teenage boy elaborating on a metaphor about a strangler tree that wraps itself around its brethren and suffocates them to death. The contemporary society is indeed a hell on earth to the alienated turn of the century teens in Shunji Iwai’s plaintive youth drama All About Lily Chou-Chou (リリイ・シュシュのすべて, Lily Chou-Chou no Subete) who have found solace in “The Ether”, “a place of eternal peace” as discovered in the music of a zeitgeisty pop singer inspired by the ethereality of Mandopop star Faye Wong. 

Filled with millennial anxiety, The Ether as mediated through message board chat is the only place the teens can be their authentic selves. “For me only the Ether is proof that I’m alive” one messenger types using an otherwise anonymous online handle unconnected with their real life identity. Iwai often cuts to the teens standing alone listening to music on their Discmans while surrounded by verdant green and wide open space with a bluer than blue sky above, but also at times finding that same space barren and discoloured, drained of life in, as Yuichi (Hayato Ichihara) puts it, an age of grey much like a field in winter. For Yuichi the world ended on the first day of school in September 1999 when his torment began at the hands of a previously bullied boy who decided to turn the tables after, of all things, getting hit in the head by a flying fish in Okinawa and almost drowning.  

Purchased with money stolen from some other bullies who had just stolen it from a well-off middle-aged man they were harassing in a carpark, the trip to Okinawa captured in grainy ‘90s holiday video style later subverted by the same use of contemporary technology to film a gang rape of a fellow student, is the event that finally reduces Yuichi’s world to ashes. Like the other teens he is also carrying a sense of alienation as his mother prepares to remarry while carrying his soon-to-be stepfather’s child which also dictates that Yuichi will have to change his surname lending a further degree of instability to his already shaky sense of identity. For Hoshino (Shugo Oshinari), his sometime friend, the instability seems to run a little deeper. “Nobody understands me” he tells Yuichi with broody intensity, irritated by the image others have of him as a top swat chosen to give a speech at the school’s opening ceremony and widely believed to have placed first in the exams. In truth he only placed seventh and is most annoyed that whoever really did come top probably thinks he pathetically lied about it for clout. 

We can see that Hoshino’s family appears to be wealthy, at least much more than Yuichi’s, though as we also discover they once owned a factory which has since gone bust amid the economic malaise of the ‘90s leading to the disintegration of his family unit. Like Yuichi he feels himself adrift, evidently bullied in middle school for being studious and introverted while rejected by the girls in his class who again attack him because of his model student image. Hoshino seems to have a crush on a girl who is herself bullied, Kuno (Ayumi Ito), apparently resented by the popular set for being popular with boys. “It’s amazing how women can ostracise someone like that” band leader Sasaki (Takahito Hosoyamada) reflects, one of the few willing to call her treatment what it is but finding no support from their indifferent teacher Miss Osanai (Mayuko Yoshioka), while entirely oblivious to the fact that the boys are just the same in Hoshino’s eventual reign of terror as a nihilistic bully drunk on his own illusionary power. 

Shiori (Yu Aoi), blackmailed into having sex with middle-aged men for money, questions why she and Yuichi essentially allow themselves to be manipulated by Hoshino and are unable to stand up to him even when they know they are being asked to do things that they find morally repugnant such as Yuichi’s complicity when tasked with setting Kuno up for gang rape by Hoshino’s minions with a view to videoing it for blackmail purposes. Whether or not he did in fact have a romantic crush on her, Hoshino’s orchestration of the rape signals his total transformation, forever killing the last vestiges of his humanity and innocence but for Yuichi, who can only stand by and cry, it signals the failure of his resistance that if he went along with this there is no line beyond which he will not go if Hoshino asks it. Yuichi asks Shiori why she didn’t agree to date the kindhearted Sasaki who would have been able to shield her from Hoshino but she knows it’s too late for that while suggesting Yuichi is in a sense protecting her though his inability to do so only further erodes his wounded sense of masculinity. 

Only online can the teens find the elusive Ether they dream of, ironically connected via a message board that Yuichi runs under the name Philia where the only rule is that you have to love Lily yet unknown to each other thanks to the alienating effect of their online handles. Someone has a point when they suggest all this talk of polluting the Ether sounds a bit like a cult, but does at least give the teens their safe space where they can share their pain free of judgement and find solidarity in adolescent angst. In any case all of this shame, repression, and loneliness is later channeled into nihilistic violence and cruelty provoked by millennial despair. The only way Yuichi can free himself is by killing the part of himself that hurts in an effort to quell the “noise” in his head. Broken by title cards accompanied by the reverberating sound of typing in emptiness, Iwai’s characteristic soft focus lends a trace of nostalgic melancholy to this often harrowing tale but also neatly encapsulates turn of the century teenage angst with the infinite sympathies of age. 


All About Lily Chou-Chou screens at Japan Society New York on Dec. 10 as part of Love Letters: Four Films by Shunji Iwai

Original trailer (English subtitles)

April Story (四月物語, Shunji Iwai, 1998)

Shunji Iwai’s wistfully nostalgic coming-of-age drama April Story (四月物語, Shigatsu Monogatari) opens with a POV shot as its heroine awkwardly waits for her train to depart while her family, assembled on the platform, look back at her anxiously before the train door closes and the carriage begins to move. The girl says nothing but places a hand on the glass, freezing amid the snows of Hokkaido, as if bidding a silent goodbye now all alone as she makes her way towards her new life in the capital. 

Shot with the breezy soft focus associated with Iwai’s early work, the film positions its heroine’s growth alongside the blossoming of the cherry trees which in contrast to many other nations in Japan mark the beginning and end of a school year. Shy and somewhat reserved, Uzuki (Takako Matsu) does her best to seem grown up, managing the removals men while insisting on helping but mostly just getting in the way of their work until they finally tell her that, like many students, she’s brought far too much stuff and there’s no way it’s all going to fit in her modest two-room flat. She makes sure to introduce herself politely to her new neighbours bearing gifts, but is met with a wary indifference from the woman across the hall perhaps more accustomed to city living and less likely to be instantly trusting of a stranger. 

At the university some of her fellow students treat her like a country bumpkin asking stupid questions like whether it’s cold in Hokkaido and making fun of her snazzy jumper which is a little too heavy for Tokyo at the start of spring. In the cafeteria she takes it off and hangs it around her waist, embarrassed by her early fashion faux pas. One of the other girls, Saeko (Rumi), attempts to befriend her but as it turns out Uzuki has other things on her mind except for study and in fact Saeko may have an ulterior motive too that neatly reflects her own in looking for fresh recruits for the fly fishing club. 

In any case it’s as if the world gradually opens itself up to her, Uzuki riding the wide streets of the city on her bicycle through parks and under cherry trees before making her way to a particular bookshop. She discovers the dangers of city life while stopping in to watch a classic samurai movie, a beautifully realised historical fantasy homage to golden age cinema and old-fashioned serials in which Oda Nobunaga (Yosuke Eguchi) has managed to escape death at Honnoji Temple and is out for ironic revenge. A late arriving salaryman (Ken Mitsuishi) sits himself down a few seats away from her and surreptitiously tries to edge closer until she’s forced to flee the cinema leaving some of her belongings behind. Even so it doesn’t seem to dampen her enthusiasm for life nor for her unofficial mission and the the reason that’s brought her to Tokyo in the first place. 

Iwai focusses on the domesticity of her newly independent existence, building a cosy nest in her tiny flat and attempting to cook for herself but finding her invitation to her neighbour for dinner politely rebuffed while uncertain if the fly fishing club is really for her given that the guy who runs it is condescending and incredibly full of himself. But then as she tells her mother on the phone she just wanted to try something new and there is something comfortable in the gentle rhythms of casting the fly especially as no one seems to do any actual fishing only practice in the park. She makes friends with the equally awkward Saeko and even finds her neighbour gradually opening up to the idea of friendship. Her world continues to expand until she’s finally ready to reconnect with the unrequited high school crush she followed to the city if admittedly in another slightly awkward meet cute involving a series of umbrellas, torrential rain, and a very patient gallery director. 

A self-declared “nice film”,  Iwai’s heartwarming drama is an innocent tale of first love and romantic obsession that is nothing other than sweetness and light. “A miracle of love” is how Uzuki chooses to describe her arrival in Tokyo and subsequent reunion with her romantic destiny, but it’s in the pursuit of love that she finally begins to come into herself and embrace the possibilities of life blossoming under the cherry trees of an unseasonably warm Tokyo.


April Story screens at Japan Society New York on Dec. 10 and will be available to stream online in the US from Dec. 9 – 23 as part of Love Letters: Four Films by Shunji Iwai

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Japan Society Presents Love Letters: Four Films by Shunji Iwai

Japan Society New York will pay tribute to one of the defining voices of ’90s Japanese cinema Shunji Iwai with four of his most representative films screening Dec. 9 & 10 with April Story also available to stream across the US until Dec. 23.

Friday, December 9 at 7:00 PM: Love Letter

A phenomenal hit across Asia on its 1995 release, Iwai’s intensely moving romantic melodrama sees two lost young women (each played by pop star Miho Nakayama) make a serendipitous connection through a misdirected letter that allows each of them to come to terms the traumatic past. Review.

Saturday, December 10 at 5:00 PM: Fireworks, Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom?

One of a number of shorts Iwai directed for anthology television series, Fireworks, Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom? won the Japan Film Director’s Guild Newcomer Award in 1993 and takes place over the climactic final day of school as boys argue about whether fireworks are round or flat depending on the angle you look at them from and a young woman decides to leave town. It also provided the inspiration for Akiyuki Shinbo & Nobuyuki Takeuchi’s 2017 anime Fireworks. Joint screening with April Story.

Saturday, December 10 at 5:00 PM: April Story

Also available to stream online in the US Dec. 9 to 23.

A beautifully lensed soft focus meditation of first love and new beginnings, Iwai’s perfectly pitched drama stars a young Takako Matsu as a lovelorn student who’s travelled from Hokkaido to Tokyo for university while chasing a high school crush. Joint screening with Fireworks, Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom?.

Saturday, December 10 at 7:15 PM: All About Lily Chou Chou

Screening on 35mm

An elegy for the turn of the century teen, Iwai’s brutal bullying drama oscillates around the lives of two boys communicating via a message board dedicated to the Faye Wong-inspired pop star Lily Chou Chou.

Tickets for all the films priced at $15/$12 students and seniors /$10 Japan Society members are on sale now via Japan Society’s website while streaming rentals for April Story will be available from Dec. 9 priced at $10 (Japan Society members receive a 20% discount via coupon code) with a three-day viewing window. You can also keep up with all the year-round events by following Japan Society Film on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.