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Review: All About Lily Chou-Chou

Updated: Apr 8, 2023

The protagonist of Shunji Iwai’s All About Lily Chou-Chou frequently claims that the eponymous (fictional) musician draws inspiration from a nebulously defined metaphysical plane called “The Ether.” This appellation perfectly matches the film’s stylized cinematography, which is best described as “ethereal.” The camera drifts, glides, and soars like a disembodied spirit listlessly observing a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Wide-angle lenses distort the frame, warping landscapes and twisting faces into grotesque caricatures. The color palette alternates between vibrantly saturated and drearily washed-out, but never comes close to resembling anything “naturalistic.” Overall, the imagery is less concerned with depicting an objective “reality” than it is with conveying a particular mood.

And that mood is relentlessly bleak and oppressive.

Like the other movies screened for Japan Society’s recent Shunji Iwai retrospective, All About Lily Chou-Chou is most accurately classified as a coming-of-age story; rather than exploring a significant transitional period in the life of a single character (adolescence in Fireworks, early adulthood in April Story), however, it adopts a broader perspective, dissecting the pervasive disillusionment of Japan’s youth culture at the turn of the millennium. Childhood innocence seemingly no longer exists: classroom bullying often borders on outright organized crime, with social pariahs effectively forced into indentured servitude by their more sadistic and domineering peers. These ostracized outcasts retreat into online chatrooms, building digital communities that offer them some semblance of solace… but also further isolate them. Additionally, the inherent anonymity of such virtual relationships actually makes them more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

After all, who knows what secrets the person on the other side of the monitor might be hiding?

Despite its challenging subject matter, All About Lily Chou-Chou is a captivatingly beautiful anarchic nightmare—haunting, hypnotic, and ultimately hopeful. I’m glad that I had the opportunity to experience it in a packed theater, projected in glorious 35mm; its sprawling visuals shouldn’t be confined to the claustrophobic screen of a television or laptop.

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