Written and Directed by Shunji Iwai

– Hayato Ichihara as Yuichi Hasumi
– Shugo Oshinari as Shunsuke Hosino
– Yu Aoi as Shiori Suda – Ayumi Ito as Yoko Kumo

The easiest way to sum this movie up is to say it’s the Japanese version of Harmony Korine’s Kids. And it WILL leave you feeling kind of soiled when it’s done with you.

Normally I am a Ruthless Reviewer who would not think twice about giving away the plot of a film. But I can’t do this about LILY CHOU-CHOU, because I couldn’t figure it out at all. Does it sound racist to say I can’t tell the characters apart?? I swear to god I’ve seen tons of Asian (or even Asian-American movies) and ALWAYS been able to tell people apart.

But when you have around, oh, TWENTYFIVE main characters. . . and they spend the whole film wearing identical school uniforms. . . AND THE MOVIE KEEPS GOING BACKWARD AND FORWARD IN TIME so the characters always look different, maybe I don’t have to be a white-supremacist Nazi to lose track.

Perhaps this will explain the confusion of the film: it’s made by Shunji Iwaii, who is in his late 30’s but is ‘really in tune with youth culture’ (meaning, he used to make music videos). So he’s trying to be hip when he makes the movie go backward and forward in time. Oh, and changes from ‘regular’ cinematography to ‘hand held cheapo videocamera’ style every other scene. Oh, and throws a layer of ‘cyber’ chatroom text over the whole thing for good measure. So even if you can’t understand the damn movie, you have to admit this guy is hip. Which is the important thing. Because only really hip, with-it guys know that kids spend lots of time in chat rooms.

But despite being filmed in an annoying way, most of the scenes ARE tragically beautiful to look at and it’s got a great premise: It’s about how a group of ten or so 7th graders gradually go from being innocent people and good friends to totally psycho, alienated 8th graders who wreak unspeakable havoc on each other. Some of the 7th graders turn into bullies and some of their good pals turn into victims. But they ALL lose their emotions and play their roles like robots. The only way any of them can express emotions is by listening to this totally sensitive-girl singer called LILY CHOU-CHOU. Then they go online and write anonymous letters about how emo she is and how wonderfully she can express their deep sensitive feelings. And then they go to school and FUCK EACH OTHER UP.

I don’t mean bullying in the American sense, where some stoner steals your lunch money or some jock gives you a bloody nose. . . .This is the Japanese-style bullying that causes a lot of teen suicides in real life: kids in this movie just do violence and sexual abuse like LORD OF THE FLIES meets DELIVERANCE or something.

And this is where I found the film really irritating:

  1. There’s this really extreme stuff happening on screen, but the plot is so complex I can’t figure out who’s doing what to whom and why,(let alone if this is supposed to send a gangland-style ‘message’ to some third person). So I had all these intense emotions from watching it and yet I didn’t know how to express the emotions. I felt like I was going to explode!!! But maybe that’s just me.
  2. Also, it’s really irritating because every time something totally gut-wrenching happens the director mutes the sounds of the victim’s cries of pain and puts Debussy on the soundtrack. Not only is Debussy NEVER a good idea ( he was the Morrisey of classical music), but putting him in this context sends a message to the viewer, ‘Don’t give a shit about what’s happening, just listen to the pretty music.’ Which seems to contradict the rest of the movie. . .

For those of you that still want to watch it, I’ll try to break down the plot so you don’t get as confused as me.

The film starts with Quiet Kid, who is a total space cadet whose hobby is standing in a rice field listening to Lily Chou-Chou. He lives in total poverty but somehow maintains a website about Lily, under the screen-name PHILIA. In the guise of PHILIA he’s helping some new kid named BLUE DOG learn important trivia about the pop star, and they get all cyber-emo and soothe each other. At this point I should mention that Lily is supposed to sound like Bjork. But she doesn’t sound like Bjork, so it’s not a huge problem. See, two wrongs DO make a right.

When Quiet Kid isn’t online or in a rice field, he’s going out with other 8th graders to steal CDs and DVDs so they can give money to the school bully, Beaky-Nose Guy.

(Quiet Kid and Beaky-Nose Guy used to be great pals, back in 7th grade. They both fall in love with Piano Girl, who somehow gets them interested in Lily Chou-Chou. Also in 7th grade, Beaky-Nose and Quiet Kid, and Bowl-Cut Boy and Other Dude went on this camping trip to some island during summer vacation. They ogled bikini girls and saw some freaky LSD burnout get run over by a car. That’s to do with the rest of the plot. . . how? )

Then 8th grade starts, and Beaky-Nose Guy gets in a fight with Mullethead Rockstar guy, the school bully. Mullethead knocks HIMSELF out by jumping off a desk to bodyslam someone and accidentally hitting his head on the concrete floor. . . but despite not actually winning the fight, Beaky-Nose Guy STILL gets promoted to Head Bully and everyone’s scared of him. He never hits anyone else for the rest of the film, either. I’m not sure if that’s the way bullying works over there in Japan, or if this is just TOTALLY STUPID. I mean, in America this kid would get his ass kicked all the time! But somehow Beaky-Nose Guy all of a sudden gets NOT ONLY Chief Bully position, but he also inherits this VAST CRIMINAL EMPIRE ranging from extortion and petty theft to muggings and prostitution. And all he has to do is wear baggy pants and keep everyone from finding out how much he likes to listen to Lily Chou-Chou and cry and write sensitive poetry about it.

Then The Girl Bullies are introduced. They’re led by Bad Perm Girl, and their aim is to destroy Piano Girl because all the boys like Piano Girl better. Somehow Bowlcut-Boy has been promoted to Piano Girl’s teacher, and he tries to broker a deal between Bad Perm Girl, Beaky-Nose Guy and Quiet Kid, but the deal goes horribly, horribly wrong in a deserted warehouse on the outskirts of town. By this time, like fifteen more characters enter the picture, and I have no idea what’s going on.

All I can tell is,

  1. Everyone is in over their head,
  2. The adults don’t have a clue what’s going on,
  3. Piano Girl shaves her skull,
  4. Beaky-Nose Guy continues to oversee his criminal empire
  5. Cell-Phone Girl becomes a hooker at fourteen years old, and Quiet Kid is assigned to be her bodyguard when she goes out with these dirty businessmen. Again, maybe in Japan it’s standard gang-leader policy to make the weakest, biggest punk-ass in the gang act as a bodyguard. But it just confirms my suspicion that Beaky-Nose Guy would not last long in an American public school.
  6. (Back in chat-room-land), PHILIA continues to instruct BLUE DOG on how to be emo,
  7. Bad Perm Girl is trying to blackmail the other gang members into killing Beaky-Nose and making her the leader.
  8. I’m not sure what Bowl-Cut Boy, Other Guy, and their pals are up to. Maybe they’re running guns out of Uzbekistan and doing hits for the Cosa Nostra. These 8th graders are no joke.
  9. The scenery continues to be achingly beautiful

Eventually the director sort of loses interest in most of the plot. All but two characters just sort of vanish, or are dismissed. Normally that’s lazy and sloppy film-making, but the shit was so complicated I was actually glad. See, after 4 hours of movie, Lily Chou-Chou is finally having a concert. There’s this totally predictable plot twist: the internet kids BLUE DOG and PHILIA meet in real life and surprisethey’re actually Beaky-Nose and Quiet kid. So imagine Beaky-Nose Guy’s total embarrassment: he’s this tough-ass gang leader being seen at this totally sissy concert. Imagine if you were in traffic and pulled up beside Suge Knight’s BMW and he was singing ‘My name is luka, I live upstairs from you’ and a tear was rolling down his cheek.

It’s kind of like that.

So of course Beaky-Nose goes berserk with rage and tears up Quiet Kid’s ticket to the show, and Quiet Kid stabs him, the end.