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)

Love Letter (ラブレター, Shunji Iwai, 1995)

“People are forgotten so easily” a widow laments after an insensitive comment from a family friend, yet there is perhaps a difference between forgetting and letting go as exemplified in the distance between two accidental pen pals in Shunji Iwai’s profoundly moving romantic melodrama, Love Letter (ラブレター). A huge hit and pop culture phenomenon throughout Asia on its 1995 release, Iwai’s first theatrical feature bears many of the hallmarks of his enduring style in its soft focus, ethereal lighting and emphasis on nostalgia as the two women at the film’s centre each restore something to the other through their serendipitous correspondence. 

Iwai opens with a memorial service for Itsuki, the late fiancé of the heroine, Hiroko (Miho Nakayama), who passed away two years previously in a mountain climbing accident. Hiroko has since started a relationship with his friend Akiba (Etsushi Toyokawa) who avoided attending the memorial out of misplaced guilt and gave up mountaineering soon after Itsuki’s death. Akiba is keen to move their relationship forward, but fears that Hiroko is still stuck in the past unable to let go of her love for Itsuki. On a visit to Itsuki’s mother (Mariko Kaga), she finds an old address in his middle school year book for a home that apparently no longer exists and decides to mail him a letter saying nothing more than “How are you? I’m fine” of course expecting no reply. What she didn’t know, however, is that there were two Itsuki Fujiis in her Itsuki’s class, the other being a woman still living at the same address to whom Hiroko has accidentally mailed her correspondence. Confused, the other Itsuki (also played by Miho Nakayama) mails back and eventually finds herself recalling memories of the male Itsuki as an awkward, diffident teen she may have entirely misunderstood. 

Played by the same actress the two women are each in a sense trapped in an eternal present, unable to move forward with their lives. While Hiroko is consumed by grief and fearful of committing to her new relationship with Akiba lest she betray the memory of Itsuki, Itsuki is still struggling to come to terms with the traumatic death of her father 10 years previously who passed away from pneumonia after contracting the common cold leaving her with persistent health anxiety. Meanwhile, she is also struggling to move on from her family home which is in an increasingly perilous state of disrepair. She and her mother (Bunjaku Han) want to move into a modern apartment, while her grandfather (Katsuyuki Shinohara) prefers to stay even though it seems that the house will soon have to be demolished. 

Through their accidental correspondence, both women are forced to deal with recent and not so recent loss, Itsuki in some senses having forgotten the boy who shared her name while Hiroko remains unable to forget. Through his trademark ethereal lighting and frequent use of dissolves, Iwai hints at a sense of perpetual longing for the nostalgic past. The letters may not have been from the late Itsuki in a literal sense but were perhaps a message from him, connecting the two women and eventually freeing each of them as the love letter of the title is finally delivered ironically enough hidden inside a copy of Remembrance of Things Past. 

This sense of grief-stricken inertia is perfectly reflected in the snowy vistas of the lonely northern town of Otaru, thrown into stark contrast with the intense heat of the furnace in Akiba’s glassblowing workshop, or the gentle warmth of the old-fashioned stove in Itsuki’s room as she types replies to Hiroko’s handwritten letters. As Hiroko eventually reflects, they each knew a different Itsuki and have each in a sense both lost him if restoring something one to the other through the exchange of memories that grants Hiroko the understanding she needs to let go and Itsuki the poignant realisation of a youthful missed connection. A bittersweet meditation on love, loss, grief, and memory, Iwai’s epistolary drama has its own sense of magic and mystery in the strange power of this serendipitous connection leading to a tremendous sense of catharsis as a long delayed message finally makes its way home bringing with it a shade of melancholy regret but also possibility in the new hope of forward motion.


Love Letter screens at the BFI on 22/28 December as part of BFI Japan.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Love Hotel (ラブホテル, Shinji Somai, 1985)

love-hotelShinji Somai is not particularly well known outside of Japan but where his work is celebrated it’s mostly for his youth films of teen alienation and pop culture cool. Released in the same year as his iconic Typhoon Club, Love Hotel (ラブホテル) seems like something of an aberration in Somai’s career which leans towards the melancholic rather than the passionate. Somai had begun his working life apprenticing with Nikkatsu during their Roman Porno years and Love Hotel is, in someways, a return to this genre but is only accidentally a “pink film”, produced with Director’s Company and later acquired by the pink film giant. As such it contains a number of explicit sex scenes but maintains Somai’s characteristic long takes and contemplative approach rather than adhering to the often formulaic nature of the Roman Porno.

Failed businessman Muraki (Minori Terada) returns one day to find his office full of gangsters in the middle of raping his wife. Distraught, his first thought is suicide but then he decides on a little roundabout revenge before he goes. Dressed in a dark suit and sunglasses like some ‘60s Nikkatsu bad guy, Muraki holes up in a love hotel and calls down for a girl. “Yumi” (Noriko Hayami) arrives not long after. Handing the girl a vast sum of money, Muraki then instructs her to close her eyes because he’s also brought “a present”. He handcuffs her and reveals his true purpose by tearing off her clothes, tying her up and fitting her with a vibrator. He’s going to kill himself tonight, but he doesn’t want to go alone. In the end, he can’t go through with it, something in Yumi’s face changes his mind and he leaves her there, tied up and handcuffed.

Two years later, Muraki has divorced his wife (apparently to keep her safe from the yakuza who are still after him for his debts) and is now living an intentionally dull life as a taxi driver. One fateful day he runs into Yumi again, only she’s no longer “Yumi” but “Nami”, an office lady at a top company. Eventually recognising each other, the pair are each forced to face the circumstances surrounding the traumatic night of two years previously but doing so means risking everything they have now.

Love Hotel is a film of seeing and not seeing, of looking and refusal to look. The film opens with a semi-explicit sexual scene in which Muraki’s wife is raped by a loanshark in which we watch both Muraki’s horrified expression and the act itself by means of a well positioned mirror. Somai repeats the mirroring motif throughout the film both by showing us Nami repeatedly caught in mirrors and by the obvious tripartite glass arrangement of the love hotel’s headboard. Both Muraki and Nami have elements of themselves at which they’d rather not look but the ever present mirrors constantly prompt them into areas of self-reflection, ironically possible only by looking at the other.

Where Muraki has chosen a life of austerity, separating from his wife who nevertheless continues stopping by to look after him in all of the wifely ways, Nami has tried and failed to put her traumatic past behind her by hopping into the consumerist revolution. Having supported herself through prostitution as a student, she’s managed to swing a pretty good job at top company only to find herself “prostituted” again through an ill-advised affair with her married boss. After his wife finds out and Nami loses her job and the entire life she’d begun to build for herself, she tries to call her former lover for consolation only to have him cruelly hang up on her. Nami continues her lamentations to the alarming trill of the dial tone in a heartbreaking moment of true loneliness.

Left with nothing else, the pair decide to revisit their unfinished love hotel business but their much more normal encounter changes each of them in different ways. It’s clear something has passed between the two, but Muraki’s final glance into the mirror perhaps shows him something he’d rather not have seen. Nami’s face, like Yumi’s face, may well have been “angelic” but cannot “save” Muraki in the same way twice – or at least, not in the way the restored Nami would have liked to save him. Dark, melancholy and fatalistic, Somai’s stab at Roman Porno is a sad tale of frustrated love, destroyed by the use and misuse of bodies speaking against each other and becoming a barrier to true connection. The Love Hotel is a place romance goes to die, and what the pair of damaged lovers at the centre of his noir-tinged tale of despair find there is only emptiness and pain devoid of any sign of hope.


Opening scene (no subtitles)

Masterfully constructed one take final scene (dialogue free)