Bitter sweet school days; All About Lily Chou-Chou

Back in June, I reviewed a Japanese live action film called Linda Linda Linda. It was a great movie, so great, in fact, that it encouraged me to dig deeply into the depths of Japanese cinema. Since then, I’ve been working my way through the recommendations in the comments of that post. It has been a joy to explore an area of film that, until a few months ago, I’d barely even scratched the surface of. It’s all so new and exciting, and confirms something about me that I’ve always suspected anyway, that, rather than being a fan of just anime, I’m a fan of Japanese cinema full stop. Be it the vivid style of filming, the use of music to accentuate emotion or the emphasis on character over plot, whatever it is, it’s an abstract, bitter sweet quality that really helps me escape into the “ether” of imagination.

On Tuesday night I watched a film called All About Lily Chou-Chou. Sometimes, if I can catch a good movie late at night, I’ll go to bed right after it finishes and find that even my dreams are trapped by its influence. On Wednesday morning, I woke up feeling groggy and restless, precisely because I couldn’t shake my thoughts from this film, so, I had to write about it, no choice, really.

Just going back to how I felt about Linda Linda Linda, it was a bright and romantic ode to youth, more akin to a dream than reality, in love with (the memory of) being young. Similarly, All About Lily Chou-Chou is about Japanese school life, but this isn’t a happy film, the kids are cruel, hopeless and sad, yet presented in such a way that is beautiful; lush green fields and bumpy concrete roads are fine company for despair.

At school and after, Hoshino and his gang pick on the shy Yuichi. They beat him up, take his money and embarrass him in public. During one particularly harrowing attack, they trash Yuichi’s bike and force him to strip naked and masturbate in-front of them as they throw stones and jeer. That is their reality, Hoshino the bully has lost faith in life and Yuichi the victim has no courage. Yet they both passionately admire a singer/song-writer called Lily Chou-Chou and hang-out on the same Lily Chou-Chou internet forum, often chatting online with each other anonymously, sharing their mutual passion for her music and explaining how it inspires them with such vivid and strong feeling. They become friends online. Spiritually, Hoshino and Yuichi are good friends, but when they meet in reality, with their true feelings concealed from one-another, they hate each other. It’s a contradiction of truth and a very sad, very human tragedy.

Another of Hoshino’s victims is a girl called Tsuda, he blackmails her into becoming a prostitute. We follow her on one of her ‘jobs’; a date with a middle-aged salary man. In the immediate aftermath, she doesn’t seem to be particularly effected, it’s only when she is almost home that she breaks down and loses control, literally stamping her pay into ground and soaking herself in a river near-by. That’s the kind of person that Tsuda is, she might portray herself as strong and streetwise, but it’s all just a mask. Deep down, she loathes herself for being so weak as to go along with Hoshino’s blackmail, yet pride prevents her from crying for help. She yearns to be free, desperately so, and in the most bitter sweet scene of the film, stumbles into a kite flying club, almost overcome with the euphoria of just watching them glide in the wind, so carefree and simple. “I wanna fly in the sky”, she said.

At two and a half hours, it’s a long movie, packed with intimate character vignettes and filmed in this very personal, modern style that is a feature of Japanese cinema, it’s very cool looking. It’s also slow building, sparse in dialogue and, at times, hard to follow, as the narrative jumps back and forth in time and names and faces come and go. Even still, it has an ethereal quality, an atmosphere that quietly fades in and envelopes us into this world of bitter sweet reality, I could almost describe it as an out of body experience. Anyway, All About Lily Chou-Chou isn’t a nasty film; it doesn’t delight in the suffering of its characters. It knows that life can be harsh, yet has moments of beauty too.

Author: bateszi

A huge bloody nerd. I apologise in advance. I live in Cambridge, England. That's not an excuse, by the way.

17 thoughts on “Bitter sweet school days; All About Lily Chou-Chou”

  1. I always get so upset watching shows that involve some form of bullying. It’s just, so cruel …

    >>life can be harsh, yet has moments of beauty too.

    This is the message that I’d like to get across to everyone who’s in depression right now, so this movie would be an awesome watch for me.

    Which reminds me, you should watch Koizora! I haven’t seen it myself yet, but it looks extremely good (it’s a romantic movie featuring Oguri Shun), but if I ever get time to watch it, I’ll review it.

  2. lols, I actually got my sister to tell me what the movie was about, and it’s actually quite sad, even listening to it! I really recommend it to you now, but it doesn’t have Oguri Shun — my bad. I’ll just be brief, but it’s rather cliche-ish, and even so, it’s still really heart-wrenching and cute.

  3. @blissmo: Thanks for the recommendation, it’s been duly noted and added to my rapidly expanding list of live action films from Asia, now up to 14 different titles. I’m still rather lost in this whole genre of film, so any advice is more than welcome!

    As for how you feel about bullying, I know what you mean. Sometimes it’s almost intolerably cruel, but at the same time, I do think there’s value to be found in watching something like this, no matter how sad it can feel. All About Lily Chou-Chou is really sad, but by contemplating that sadness, by trying to understand why these kids are failing at life, you gain some vital perspective on people and might learn to look at things differently.

  4. Just added the film to my impossibly hefty “want to see” list, thank you!

    On a completely unrelated note; it seems that Manga-Sketchbook actually finished their scanlation of Zashiki Onna, don’t know if you knew or if you’re still interested, but it’s there. I guess they saved me quite a bit of work, though I did scanlate a complete chapter for nothing. ;)

  5. @ThatQuebecGuy: Argh, that’s both good and bad news, because I was looking forward to reading your scanlations, but I suppose it’s good news that Manga-Sketchbook actually stepped up to finish it. Off the top of my head, there were only three chapters left to scanlate? Don’t tell me they’ve scuppered all your hard work with just one chapter to go?

    Also, hope you enjoy the movie :)

  6. Felt like responding on another movie entry from you, though I won’t add to your list of recommendations again, seeing as how you have plenty.

    This was a weird movie. Can’t say I liked watching it, as it aggravated me beyond belief. Especially the girl-gangleader, cheering on the rape of an innocent girl prior to blaming Hoshino when the victim displays her shame outward and another commits suicide. I’ve no history of bullying, but for some reason that unjustice réally gets to me.

    In my experience your final sentence (“It knows that life can be harsh, yet has moments of beauty too”) doesn’t quite the capture this movie’s essence though. It implies a balance of the good and the bad, while I felt the bad severely outweighed the good in this film; and even the little good wasn’t áctually all that good. Against the background of smashed, shut personalities, banged up by shame, humiliation and broken pride, those few moments of (mostly silent) enjoyment might only be considered ‘good’ because they put the pain inducing context ‘on hold’…

  7. I’ll have to take a look at Bitter Sweet School Days. Sounds interesting.

    BTW, just saw Happily Ever After. I hadn’t read the manga so I didn’t know really what to expect. It was quite a funny, emotional, sweet movie. I definitely recommend it. Very good “over”-acting.

  8. @Enn: To be honest, I had a lot of trouble writing this post, which is reflected in that final sentence. I didn’t want to make the movie sound so depressing, but at the same time, it wasn’t exactly optimistic either. This film is a tragedy, ultimately, but all that confusion lead me to the final paragraph, which, I agree, definitely doesn’t capture the essence of All About Lily Chou-Chou.

    It’s a very subversive film, I guess, which is why I was struggling to pin down my thoughts. For example, if you take a look at the images above, they are genuienly beautiful, especially the whole scene involving Tsuda and the kites; of course, this objective beauty starkly contrasts with the horrible events of her life, ultimately culminating in her suicide. I suppose what I was trying to say is that even though she had such a hard time with Hoshino, she still had this moment of revelation, a kind of euphoric happiness. That whole scene, including how Hoshino and Yuichi are urging each other to “BREATHE!”, really struck a chord with me. I hate having to constantly use the word “beautiful” to describe it, because I think there might be a word more apt to convey how it makes me feel, it’s beautiful, yet inevitable, sad and tragic.

    I don’t blame you for not enjoying it. I didn’t enjoy it either, at least, didn’t enjoy it in a conventional sense. I didn’t finish it feeling happy, I left it feeling angry, annoyed and sad, but I’m glad I watched it, because it effected me in a quite profound way. I guess it’s a nice film to compare with Linda Linda Linda, because while that’s essentially a romantic fantasy about Japanese youth, I suspect All About Lily Chou-Chou is far more realistic.

    Sorry, I know that’s a bit of a long reply, but even now, I guess it’s a film that effects me on multiple levels. In short, I agree with your comment!

    @okiu14: Thanks for another recommendation, and another film that’s totally flown under my radar until today. Will add it to the list.

    ***

    I’m starting to wonder whether or not I should start up an Asian film blog! I watched this movie called “Chaser” the other day [IMDB]; another very good, very stylish and gritty South Korean thriller ala Old Boy.

  9. @bateszi: hah, don’t apologize for lengthy replies, that’s what blogging’s about éh? Although I’m not one to talk, as I tried to add a paragraph detailing exactly how I didn’t enjoy this movie, but failed because I couldn’t find the right words. I can find myself in your description though: while I didn’t enjoy watching it, I enjoyed being touched by it. In fact, on the way home from work today, I found myself suddenly vividly re-experiencing the feeling I had watching this movie, without any apparent inducement. It affected me alright.

    Also: yes, do start up that Asian film blog. I wish my English was better so I could offer you some help (not implying you need or would accept it, mind you). Asian films – classics in particular- aren’t getting the attention they deserve.

  10. @bateszi: I agree you should start a film blog, I’ll be getting one sooner or later myself, probably about Québecois art and culture. Anyway, I just finished watching All About Lily Chou-Chou, beautiful movie. It offers a weird contrast to my Italian zombie exploitation film marathon, but I was still able to enjoy it fully. The greatest thing about it? The cinematography, it’s sublime, really makes me want to own it on Blu-ray. It brings a lot of memory too, like that time in high school, 2 or 3 years ago, when we had to read a book about the Japanese phenomenon of bullying; “Ijimé, la loi du plus for” by Huguette Pérol, not that it’s a great book, but for 13-14 years old teenager it delivers and it was kind of hard to read. I’m much more difficult to disturb now, thanks to the great world of cinema!

  11. I’ll second the Asian film blog. Of course, the decision is ultimately yours. Asian film is a great way to access various aspects of Asian culture that westerners may not be exposed to otherwise. My favorite Asian films often deal with Asian myth and folklore, but I generally appreciate the difference in style , storytelling, pacing, and often the difference in presentation of the “protagonists” that Asian film offers. I’m more familiar with Japanese film, but I’ve got some exposure to Korean and Chinese film. More exposure to good films is always welcome.

  12. @Enn/ThatQuebecGuy/okiu14: Cheers for responding. When I write these live action posts I do worry that no one will be interested, so thanks for engaging with me on this film and in the subsequent discussion. With regards to an Asian film blog, it’s something that I’ll probably hold off on for a few more months just to see whether or not I can really be compelled to write about it on a consistent basis. It might be a case of a just re branding this blog (removing the specific ‘anime’ part of the title).

    @ThatQuebecGuy: I’ve noticed that bullying in Japan is remarkably sophisticated and malicious. I mostly associate bullying with people being aggressive in school, but the systematic humiliation and life-scarring abuse inflicted by these Japanese bullies is that much worse. On a related note, there are always news stories about Japanese school-girls selling their panties to random men in the street, which suggests an innocence appears to be lacking in a lot of Japan’s youth.

  13. I discovered Asian cinema about a month ago, a la Naisu no Mori. It surpassed all my expectations, it’s ridiculous that I had such negative prejudices against the genre before. Since then I’ve watched Cha no Aji, Last Life in The Universe, and Linda Linda Linda. I’m kind of picky about what I watch, and it’s been particularly hard for me to find recommendations. Your blog is one of my go-to spots for anime opinions, so today when I happened to notice the live-action tag, I was really excited to see your positive review for Linda Linda Linda :)! I downloaded and watched All About Lily Chou-Chou, I thought it was amazing, really ‘beautiful’ as you described it (I’ve been playing the opening song on repeat.. great stuff). I’m planning to watch Ping Pong next.

    This comment is stupidly late (your post: August 14, 2008), but I was hoping you’ve seen some great films since then. Any recommendations?

  14. No problem, sfjoe. Since this post, I’ve seen a lot of Japanese films, including Naisu no Mori and Cha no Aji: both are great, especially the latter!

    There’s really just so many to mention! Here’s just a small list of films I’d firstly recommend:

    • Adrift in Tokyo
    • Doing Time
    • Kuchu Teien
    • Sonatine
    • Tokyo Sonata
    • University of laughs

     
    Most of them are fairly recent. Just last night I downloaded ‘Air Doll,’ which I’ve also heard great things about. Some of the films on the list are very slice of life-y, like ‘Adrift in Tokyo’ and ‘Doing Time,’ which are slow, amusing comedies with heart-warming characters, while ‘University of laughs’ is very moving and fascinating at the same time as being quite funny. ‘Tokyo Sonata’ is brilliant, too; a very realistic movie about a modern Japanese family struggling to keep things together. ‘Kuchu Teien’ is the same. For a lot of these, if you look at their directors, you’ll find a real treasure-trove of film.

    One of my biggest regrets about this blog is probably that I never really reviewed enough of these live-action films, but anyway, happy viewing!

    (I’ve got an invite to a very good Asian film torrent tracker currently going free, so if you’re having trouble finding any of the above, let me know and I’ll send an invite your way.)

  15. That invite would be greatly appreciated!
    Erm, when I comment I have to leave my email address, do you have access to that?

    1. Argh, for some reason invites are being disallowed right now, even though I have 1 :( Sorry, sfjoe, I’ll be sure to send you the mail as soon as registrations are reopened.

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