Spotlight on Japan: All About Lily Chou-Chou

In a time when even school shootings are common, Shunji Iwai’s All About Lily Chou-Chou is topical. Despite not specifically dealing with school shootings its depiction of contemporary youth explores the reasons behind the extreme nature of teenagers. Two high school students, Hoshino and Hajime, find themselves in the darkest pits of life after their wild and careless holiday trip in Okinawa. It would most likely be a naive exaggeration to say that the film is a completely honest portrayal of what kids experience these days. Crime, prostitution and death are not necessarily a part in the lives of every teenager these days. However, what is scary and honest about the film is that things like these can happen in real life and for a few they do happen for real.

The characters are portrayed maturely. Yes, they do make bad choices and do bad things to each other on their own. However, gradually it becomes why it is so. The adults are imprisoned in their own lives and they keep a certain distance to the youth. Parents are more concerned about their own health and work. Families are broken and jobs are lost – no attention is given to the offspring who are allowed to do as they please. When the kids do come in their way they react angrily instead of trying to understand what is happening. At school teachers just act friendly with the students instead of trying to solve what is worrying them and making them fall apart. Teachers are ignorant of bullying even in the most severe cases. At best they offer shallow help that only avoids the main problem. In such a hopeless situation, the characters try their hardest to find salvation – even from their worst bullies and might even become a bully in the process.

Where these boys and girls truly find their salvation is in music. The film’s title comes from a mystical, fictional pop singer who has a dedicated and slightly deranged group of fans. Her dreamy, Björk-like music enthralls the characters who are looking for an exit and it also dominates the beautiful soundtrack of the film. Even the toughest find their much needed moments of privacy and fragility when they listen to her emotional songs. Lily Chou-Chou offers an easy way out – even if only momentarily – from the cruel failures in communication and the hypocritical society. Yet the extraordinary respect and obsession with music is not only for teens. Iwai reminds us of that when an elderly lady is caught silently singing along to one of Lily’s tunes.

The introverted and lonely people connected by their love for Lily’s music can find friendship and a possibility to express themselves on the Internet. Throughout the film, snippets of conversations from Internet chatrooms are used. Through these messages, they can freely share their strongest and deepest emotions: joy, despair, obsession and so forth. There are delusional fans tweaking the truth to their own will, there are cynical people questioning everything and there are people who like to simply annoy other people out of sheer jealousy or need to show their superiority. Iwai shows how the good intentions and dreams that are inside the characters’ heads and the Internet chatrooms do not always correspond to what happens and what these people do in real life. It is this conflict that keeps showing its ugly side throughout the film.

Hajime is a wonderfully flawed character. His unability to confess his love and his failing attempts to change his life for better form the heart of this film. Arguably, Hoshino is a more tragic version of him and the duality of his role is fascinating. The reason why I say his tragedy is arguably worse than Hajime’s is due to the fact that the ending leaves one major question wide open. It does resolve everything that needs to be resolved, but there is one conclusion that is intentionally left out. Whether it changes or not is left for the audience to decide – based upon the hints given in the last scene. The side characters are surprisingly complex as well. As an example I would like to mention a quiet boy whose single line in the film carries a lot of meaning and has a drastic impact on those who hear it. For these challenging characters a strong cast is needed. Rarely there is such a thoroughly superb cast as there is in All About Lily Chou-Chou. Naturally the lead actors and actresses steal most of the attention, but even the supporting roles are magnificent.

Despite being shot only with digital cameras, All About Lily Chou-Chou is a visually stunning film. The colors are gorgeous. The compositions are brilliant. The editing is powerful and even blunt when it needs to be. The shaky cinematography is more fitting here than in any other film – and the shakiness is never excessive. The camera also knows when to calm down to reflect the psychological state of the characters. The challenging narrative is cut to make a lot more sense than it would sound like on paper. Iwai finds the right visual motifs and transitions to make the film flow smoothly despite its frantic jumps in chronology. The soundtrack consists of Lily Chou-Chou’s songs, Takeshi Kobayashi’s instrumental compositions and Yui Makino’s piano tracks which includes heartbreaking renditions of Clair de Lune and Arabesque No. 1. It delicately sets the mood for each scene and makes us of the screenplay’s potential for a great emotional impact.

All About Lily Chou-Chou is not judgmental despite its occasionally harsh content. It seeks to understand its young characters and shows how badly things can go. It does not offer ways to fix the problems since there are no guaranteed methods to begin with. Each individual is a combination of his or her own experiences, thoughts and feelings. We are at our most fragile when we grow up and if we didn’t have our own “Lily Chou-Chou” we would be utterly lost in this confusing world.


About Oz
A Finnish film buff who has taken a huge interest in language and Japanese cinema. Can be contacted via email (, Twitter (@OzymandiasJL) and a Private Message on EvaGeeks (Oz).

2 Responses to Spotlight on Japan: All About Lily Chou-Chou

  1. David says:

    Nice review!

  2. nope says:

    I see you were flowing with the Ether when you wrote this. lol

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