Growing Uneasy

Affecting, e-mail-heavy teen drama launches three-week Japanese cinema series. But was junior high really that bad?


written and directed by Shunji Iwai

with Hayato Ichihara, Shgo Oshinari, and Ayumi Ito runs Aug. 30-Sept. 5 at Grand Illusion

Think you’re a fast typist? Try keeping up with the kids whose urgent pecking, e-slang, and emoticons often fill the screen in All About Lily Chou-Chou. Visually, the effect is tedious, but all the chat-room messages show how ardently these 13-to-15-year-olds worship the eponymous pop star. Among Lily’s junior-high-school student admirers, the most ardent is the shy webmaster who goes by the screen name Lilyphilia (or “philia,” for short).

In real life, he’s Yichi (Hayato Ichihara), a mopey lad largely ignored by his family and bullied by his petty criminal gang of schoolmates. Lily‘s subject is the disconnect between his fairly miserable, typical teen woes and the musical transcendence he finds in Lily’s “Ether.” (A vaguely gothic amalgam of Kate Bush, Bj� and This Mortal Coil, the fictional Lily is only heard on the soundtrack and glimpsed on video displays.) Can he breathe that rarefied air forever? Of course not—Yichi has to grow up, and his inevitable loss of innocence makes Lily, however occasionally muddled and resistant to cultural translation, one of the better and more heartfelt coming-of-age flicks in recent memory.

Wearing school uniforms, wielding cell phones, shoplifting for kicks, and occasionally prostituting themselves to lecherous old businessmen, Lily‘s insular tribe of teens is a band apart, understood neither by parents nor teachers. “Kids these days have a lot of strange ideas,” says one bewildered instructor, but Lily suggests that strangeness is very much a product of the rigid Japanese educational system. Looming high-school entrance exams are mentioned with dread; junior high may be the last chance for kids to be, well, kids—even if their mischief leads to rape, suicide, and murder (none of which, surprisingly, is graphically depicted).

Before such crimes are committed, however, Lily also describes a leisurely rural setting where Yichi and pals ride their bikes aimlessly along canals, where he zones out to Lily on his headphones in a grassy field, where he sprawls on the floor of a golden, sun-lit school hallway enthralled by the sound of Debussy being practiced by Kuno (Ayumi Ito). He’s got a mad crush on the girl, yet they never speak during the film—unless she’s “blue cat,” the most sympathetic of Lily’s fan-site enthusiasts, who pulls him back from the suicidal verge. Or maybe she’s not. To its credit, Lily isn’t a film to tie up such ambiguities.

Lily is also one of the best looking digital-video features I’ve seen. Unlike the murky Tadpole or The Anniversary Party, the DV sheen really suits the story (rather than simply being a cheaper way to shoot it). The greens and oranges have a heightened intensity corresponding to ardent early-adolescent feeling. Red kites darting in the sky, a sunset funeral procession framed by telephone wires, the blue reflective glow of a CD jewel box—these hues hypnotize. (Even so, a pointless mid-film vacation interlude in Okinawa wears on the eyes; and Lily sometimes moves its hand-held camera to incomprehensibly close perspective, becoming a Blair Witch-style blur.)

Often at the still center of these images, Yichi is mostly mute, a boy who only becomes articulate online. Why does he go along with the increasingly dark urges of his charismatic classmate Hoshino (Shgo Oshinari)? He’s simply got to be part of a clique; youth culture mercilessly demands it. Kuno, the only one who resists, is made to suffer horribly for her individualism. At times punishing, at times plain dull, Lily recalls all the bad parts of junior high and none of the fun. (Though I did laugh at how these perpetually blas鬠disaffected Holden Caulfield types suddenly got excited about the coming PlayStation 2.)

Who would want to relive such painful times? It’s the rare American film, like The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys or George Washington, that dwells upon the poignant hurts of pubescence. American audiences may be more accustomed to a sunnier depiction of youth, but the Japanese recollection seems more truthful.

Returning from SIFF, Lily also begins the Grand Illusion’s three-week, five-title “Sex, Violence, & Beauty” series of new Japanese cinema, which features two Seattle premieres and a reprise of July’s popular psycho-thriller Uzumaki. Lily may be the tamest of the group (the rest I haven’t yet seen), but it’s a genre straddler like the others. Unlike at the American multiplex, where gory shoot-’em-ups and tender dramas generally occupy separate screens and marketing demos, manga-influenced Japanese cinema often fuses the bloody and the beautiful. Considered in that hybrid sense, Lily finally turns emotional violence into exquisite harmony.