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)

A Wicked Woman (毒婦高橋お伝, Nobuo Nakagawa, 1958)

The term “dokufu” or “poisonous woman” dates back to the Edo era, but rose to prominence once again in the turbulent society of late Meiji in which such women became fodder for the growing penny dreadful industry. Unlike the later “bad girl” or contemporary examples of “bad women” from elsewhere, the problem with “poisonous women” is that they pollute society as a whole, corrupting those around them through their unbridled transgressions. These notions are of course as much about contemporary notions of femininity and a desire to preserve the social order at all costs as they are about conventional morality and the rule of law, but there are reasons that tales of such independent women incited such a frenzy among both men and women who found themselves floundering in a confusing and rapidly changing society.

Nobuo Nakagawa’s A Wicked Woman (毒婦高橋お伝, Dokufu Takahashi Oden) is inspired by the real life tale one particular “dokufu”, Oden Takahashi, who was in fact the last woman to be beheaded in Japan after being convicted of murdering her lover while suspected of poisoning her husband. Nakagawa does not particularly pay attention to the “real” details of her life but to her pulp persona, somewhat reclaiming her image as an ultra cool revenger who refused to be bound by the restrictive mores of her times or suffer at the hands of the feckless men she nevertheless falls victim to. 

When we first meet Oden (Katsuko Wakasugi), she is being pursued by a large number of policemen whom she manages to outrun, eventually tricking them and escaping by getting a lift from a passing rickshaw driver. The ride is tense, and we worry that Oden will encounter an accident that will bring her to the attention of the police, but the crisis is something quite different. In a staggering coincidence, the rickshaw driver is none other than Oden’s estranged first husband, Jinjuro (Akira Nakamura), once a samurai but now reduced to pulling a cab after ruining himself through drink and debauchery (apparently why Oden eventually left him). Though it’s not exactly a happy reunion, the pair part on good terms while he laments that their small daughter Omitsu still misses her mother, managing to extract a few notes from Oden supposedly for her upkeep.  

Oden meanwhile goes home to husband no. 2, Ryosuke (Asao Matsumoto), who is bedridden with TB and increasingly paranoid about what Oden does outside the house to keep them fed. Operating out of a remote cottage, she puts on a ridiculously elaborate Western outfit and heads to a jewellers where she pretends to look at precious stones for a ring, dropping one on the floor while the salesman’s back is turned and spiking it with the point of her parasol knowing that no-one is going to think of looking there. The assistants aren’t stupid, they know a stone is missing and Oden must have pocketed it but all they can do is search her person, calling in the local bobby, Kazuma. (Juzaburo Akechi), who thinks they may be going too far in forcing this upperclass lady to strip off to prove she’s not a thief. The owner of the store, Osawa (Tetsuro Tanba), looks on knowingly but is intrigued more than anything else, eventually content to let Oden go despite knowing she has the jewel concealed somewhere about her person. 

Disaster strikes, however, when Oden runs into Kazuma in the street and he spots her parasol sparkling. He tries to arrest her, but she pleads with him to let her change out of her extremely silly outfit first, playing the poor widow card and eventually seducing the naive policeman. What Oden didn’t quite bank on was actually falling for him for real, drawn in a sense to order and goodness, longing to be caught and restored to the rightful condition of womanliness but fearing she has lost all right to conventional happiness. 

Oden’s relationship with Kazuma is an example of the effects of her “poison” on society at large. Kazuma as we first meet him is earnest and good, a naive young rookie with a strong sense of justice who leaps to defend Oden thinking she is a maligned noble woman unfairly accused of thievery. His superior Kakunosuke (Gen Funabashi), has set him up with his innocent little sister Kozue (Minako Yamada) and it seems the pair will soon marry, but Kazuma is apparently not so much interested in sweetness as he is in Oden’s complicated darkness. He falls obsessively in love with her, perhaps partly out of a desire to save her from her criminal life by bringing her to justice, but also in attraction to all of her transgressive qualities which contradict everything he stands for. 

Nakagawa reframes Oden’s poisonousness as a consequence of her frustrated maternity and a continual failure of masculinity. After re-encountering Jinjuro, Oden finds it increasingly difficult to justify the act of abandoning her child and leaving her with a man she knew to be a violent and feckless drunk. Though Jinjuro appears to have reformed himself through the time-honoured devices of humbleness and hard work, we later find him extorting money from Oden to pay for Omitsu’s medical care only to drink it all himself. Oden tries to visit her daughter, but is after all a stranger in her life. Her attempt to reclaim her maternity, escape the trap of criminality and leave the city with her little girl is the primary motivator for all of her subsequent actions which culminate in an intense desire for revenge against Jinjuro, the architect of all her misfortune. 

All of Oden’s earlier crimes were in some way permissible, taking from those who could afford to lose and doing it with a degree of style. The botched job at the jewellers, however, sees her fall into the hands of Osawa, who turns out to be a violent and sadistic gang boss. Osawa keeps women captive in his basement and whips them for his own enjoyment, forcing Oden to become a procurer tricking vulnerable women into becoming sex slaves. Oden thinks nothing of this, smirking that there must be good money in selling women, willingly complicit in the oppression of those just like her. To free herself from Osawa, she uses Jinjuro, attempting to kill two birds with one stone and finding partial success only for the plan to fall apart when confronted by the face of order in the reappearance of a ruined Kazuma. 

Oden ends her journey in Yokohama, a bustling international port, where she’s the tattooed madame of the Osawa’s Chinese bar and a familiar face at the gaming tables. The suggestion is that this corruption is foreign in origin, Osawa’s top hat and smart suit not to mention plush Western-style bed, suggesting that his savagery is a facet of his seduction by Chinese hedonism and Western individualism. Individualism is again painted as Oden’s sin when she leaves the women locked in a jail cell to escape a fire while cradling her ill-gotten gains, only to tell Kazuma to man up and that money is what she truly loves. But Oden is also victim of her times, betrayed by a failure of masculinity in a patriarchal system. Jinjuro the drunken samurai, Ryonosuke the impotent consumptive, and Kazuma the conflicted young man. The last of these she refuses to “ruin”, setting him free because she truly loves him and does not want to see him dragged into her life of crime, intent on reclaiming her goodness by reassuming the role of a conventional mother living an honest life with her daughter somewhere far away. Her “wickedness” is only really her desire to survive but an independent woman, good or bad, is always a threat to the social order and so she must be stopped lest her inconvenient desire to live a life free of male control become a “poisonous” example to those around her. 


Bandage バンデイジ (Takeshi Kobayashi, 2010)

Japan was a strange place in the early ‘90s. The bubble burst and everything changed leaving nothing but confusion and uncertainty in its place. Tokyo, like many cities, however, also had a fairly active indie music scene in part driven by the stringency of the times and representing the last vestiges of an underground art world about to be eclipsed by the resurgence of studio driven idol pop. Bandage (Bandage バンデイジ) is the story of one ordinary girl and her journey of self discovery among the struggling artists and the corporate suits desperate to exploit them. One of the many projects scripted and produced by Shunji Iwai during his lengthy break from the director’s chair, Bandage is also the only film to date directed by well known musician and Iwai collaborator Takeshi Kobayashi who evidently draws inspiration from his mentor but adds his own particular touches to the material.

High school girl Asako (Kie Kitano) is best friends with Miharu (Anne Watanabe) who likes all the same cool indie bands she does and is therefore upset to learn that she is dropping out of school because her parents have money problems. Luckily the girls run in to each other at a record store where Miharu works and bond again over the new CD of a band Miharu had recommended and Asako had fallen in love with – LANDS. Miharu also manages to get tickets to a LANDS concert and even swipes a couple of backstage badges from some retreating suits.

The girls sneak backstage and are immediately clocked by the band’s wily manager, Yukari (Ayumi Ito), but their adventure is derailed after they literally run into a band member and Asako loses a contact lens. The band’s lead singer, Natsu (Jin Akanishi), places a bandana across Asako’s temporarily blinded eye and rechristens her “Black Jack” before inviting both the girls to the post-show drinking session. Leaving early, Asako ends up arranging to meet Natsu at another bar later, beginning her long journey with the difficult, damaged musician as they navigate the turbulent “indie” record scene with all of its various traps and temptations.

Though Natsu and Asako may not actually be so far apart in age, you have to admit there’s a something not quite right in his sudden desire to befriend a starstruck high school girl. He does indeed seem to be after the obvious but after she resolutely turns him down, he keeps chasing her right until the end of the film. Despite remaining a little distant and afraid of this somehow very intense yet completely chilled out diva of a frontman, Asako becomes something like his only friend yet her presence continues to provoke tension within the group, particularly after she leaves high school and gets a job as a manager working alongside Yukari.

What first drew Asako to the music of LANDS was an identification with their melancholy lyrics echoing the alienation and loneliness she herself felt as a diffident adolescent. Her feelings towards Natsu are also driven by this same identification with his angst ridden lyrics but the qualities which attract him to her are those which she loathes in herself. Natsu, a narcissistic would be rock god, treats the band like his personal little empire, but deep down he knows he’s not its MVP. That would be the striking long haired guitar player, Yukiya (Kengo Kora), who the suits have pegged as the most likely to succeed. Natsu can write and his songs are good, if sometimes “uncommercial”, but he doesn’t quite have “it” in the same was as Yukiya does. Yukiya, by contrast, is (mostly) content to follow Natsu’s lead yet comes to resent his close relationship with Asako, regarding her as a kind of “Yoko” disrupting the band’s carefully crafted unity.

Yukiya’s attempt to destroy Asako is a calculated and cold one, motivated by his belief that she has “destroyed LANDS”. Laying bear his own pain and loneliness, Yukiya uses his internal darkness as an odd kind of seduction technique only to leave Asako on a barren shore sure of nothing other than the fear and confusion inside her heart. A dangerously violent confrontation with a drunken Natsu is the final trigger for Asako’s own moment of self realisation as she sees herself reflected in Natsu’s self destructive meltdown. United in mutual self loathing, the pair cement a melancholy though ultimately unrealisable bond which puts an end to Asako’s musical adventures.

Asasko is given a second opportunity to pursue a musical dream but one which is more on her own terms and reminds her of the potential and possibilities of music as art rather than the market driven mindset her agency job had done its best to instil. Natsu, it seems, has also rediscovered his artistry and may be in a better place to create away from the pressures that come with fronting an up and coming indie band. Defiantly exclaiming that the pain can’t reach him, Natsu might have found the “bandage” he’d been looking for which is, in a sense, his music – the dressing which staunches the weeping wounds of his pain and suffering. Music, like a bandage, is both salve and barrier – its message indirect but none the less deeply felt even if its effects are for internal use only. Asako and Natsu seem destined to walk on parallel paths but each has, at least, begun to discover their true selves as they continue to pursue their artistic dreams if perhaps at the expense of the personal.


Short scene from the film (no subtitles)