In a small town in rural Japan, 14-year-old Hasumi (Hayato Ichihara) escapes the battering slog of day-by-day adolescent angst by immersing himself in the music of Lily Chou-Chou, an ethereal pop diva whose crooning of techno-lite songs creates for her fans an alternative reality they refer to as the Ether. Hasumi has created a chat room where he can commune with fellow Chou-Chou fans, trading pseudo-mystical one-liners, declarations of devotion to their idol, and poignant assertions of loneliness and despair. Meanwhile, in the real world, Hasumi is an indifferent student whose main act of transgression is shoplifting Lily Chou-Chou CDs and whose quiet introspective manner makes him a natural victim in the cruel hierarchy that children construct when left to their own devices.
Writer-director Shunji Iwai’s film isn’t really about the fictitious Lily Chou-Chou, but rather the world that her fans have to contend with. At a rambling two-and-a-half hours, it comes across as a mix of Rebel Without a Cause and Lord of the Flies, a tale where deepening alienation leads to more and more brutal recklessness, from petty theft to rape to suicide and finally murder. But despite the solid sociological setting, Iwai’s approach is more ambient than psychological; he’s got style to burn, and every inner throb of existential nausea that his characters experience has its visual corollary, while some of their motivations remain obscure. Most perplexing is the transformation of Hasumi’s friend, Hoshiro (Shugo Oshinari), from mild-mannered good guy to sadistic bully, a change precipitated by a near-death experience he has while on vacation in Okinawa with his and Hasumi’s circle of friends – a long set piece, both impressive and tedious, which explains nothing.
But then the lack of overt explanations fits the film’s impressionistic tone, as does the recurring motif of Debussy’s indelibly sad but beautiful music being played on the piano by a young girl named Kuno (Ayumi Ito), who is hated by her peers for being too obviously talented. And though the final part of the film centers around whether, when and how Hasumi will extract his revenge on the rapaciously nihilistic Hoshiro, the most lasting image is of Kuno, who survives a vicious attack with the dignity of the naturally self-sufficient. For the rest there’s always Lily Chou-Chou and the temporarily soothing ether of cyberspace.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film and music for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.