Kids these days with their internet and their obsessions.
Just a bit of warning. This movie uses flashing white lights to denote typing. It happens throughout the movie and may be harmful for those with epilepsy. If you are not sure whether this will affect you…you will know within the first few seconds, since it pretty much starts out with this.
A bunch of anonymous people are posting on a message board (or chat room) about a musical performer named Lily Chou-Chou. She made it big with a rock band in her mid-teens and had artistic success as a solo artist in recent years. And judging from what some people are saying in this forum, she has many devoted fans. These fans place her up on a pedestal and tend to say quite a few pretentious things about her, often using the word “ether” as a shorthand to say that she is without peer and transcends her influences. There are a few people who point out that this is all creepy cult-like nonsense, while a few who pipe up about not really liking Lily Chou-Chou.
Hasumi Yūichi and two other junior high school boys steal an elderly man’s bag while riding a train. The bag has nothing that they value, so they set it all of it on fire and go pilfer CDs from a record store.
They try selling the stolen CDs at a used music store (and maybe they succeed), when Yūichi notices a painting/poster for a Lily Chou-Chou album and buys it. The other two boys think that he is kind of uncool for taking the poster…and they do not even witness him squatting on the road and just staring up at it.
The new album from Lily Chou-Chou is out and the people on the message board are going wild. It is that by nature, as Yūichi has limited the community to those who love Lily, excluding those naysayers from earlier. Yūichi tries stealing it from the store, but an employee catches him. I guess that Yūichi’s devotion to Lily does not extend to supporting her financially. Another employee points out that he is rotting the ether by stealing her CD. His teacher comes to the store to apologize on his behalf and buys it for him.
She listens to the CD on the trip to the school, though it is unclear what she thinks of it. They have a meeting with Yūichi’s mother, who starts hitting him when she is told what he did. Yūichi’s teacher and another teacher try to calm her down.
That night, a boy named Hoshino calls Yūichi and tells him to come outside. He goes to a junkyard where a group of boys take his bike and start throwing it around. They accuse him of ratting them out to the teachers, then start kicking him and rummaging through his stuff. Two of them mock him for the Lily Chou-Chou CD and then continue to kick him and humiliate him further. Hoshino then breaks the CD in two. And further humiliation. Oh dear, this goes on for a while. It is clear that there is a hierarchy in this group, enforced with cruelty and intimidation. Hoshino is at the top and Yūichi is at the very bottom.
With little fanfare, the movie then flashes back to a year earlier. Hoshino Shūsuke is assigned to make a speech as a representative of the new students entering junior high. The students seem calm and cool, but there are already rumblings about him. Why is he making the speech? Anyways, Shūsuke takes part in the kendo club, saying that he hopes that it will make him stronger. Unfortunately, there is a trio of girls acting as obnoxious cheerleaders for a boy named Ikeda, screaming out for him during a bout while everyone else is quiet. When Shūsuke and another boy try to talk to them about it, the girls meet them outside and insult them, particularly prodding Shūsuke about his academic reputation, his sexuality, and the speech that he did not ask to make. When the girls leave, the other boy tries to reassure Shūsuke, but he is still steaming inside. Oh, the other boy is Yūichi, by the way. This trial by humiliation is how he and Shūsuke met.
Apparently, Ikeda feels bad that Yūichi and Shūsuke had to go through all of that for girls who quit Kendo club anyways to act as cheerleaders for someone else in the Ping Pong club. He did not even consider them that hot anyways. After…um….urinating off of a bridge, he treats the two of them to ramen at a restaurant, where they joke about ugly girls and he tells them about the difficulties of competitive Kendo. Shūsuke invites Yūichi back to his house. Yūichi meets Shūsuke’s improbably young mother, who insists that he stay overnight.
He learns that Shūsuke’s reputation was exaggerated and that he has no idea why people think that he was first in his class when he was actually seventh. This is also where Yūichi learns about Lily Chou-Chou, as Shūsuke has a poster of the very picture that Yūichi would by at the music store. Shūsuke tells him that he recently got into her music. That’s right, the person who would later break his Lily Chou-Chou CD was the very person who introduced him to her in the first place.
It is here that the movie heavily implies (but does not outright state) that Shūsuke, under his internet username, reveals that he got into Lily Chou-Chou because he sat with a girl named Kuno during fifth grade and she gave him an album from Lily’s former band when he changed schools. And, though he did not appreciate the music at the time, he remembered it and Lily Chou-Chou in particular when he met her again in junior high. But they are in different classes and he cannot even talk to her, and he denies to his friends that he knows her. He has no idea if she still likes Lily Chou-Chou’s music.
One day, Yūichi, Shūsuke, and a few other boys are goofing off at a bus station when another group of boys from Shūsuke’s old elementary school recognize him. They try to antagonize him and he tries to shrug it off until one of Shūsuke’s friends sticks up for him. Later on, Yūichi and the other boys gossip about Shūsuke, about how he was probably bullied in elementary school, how his mother resembles a certain actress (she is actually played by said actress (!!)), and how she invites his classmates over for dinner in order to persuade them to befriend him.
For Summer Break, Yūichi, Shūsuke, and the three other boys consider going to Okinawa. Unfortunately, they do not have enough money…so they follow some guy in the hopes of mugging him. Suddenly, another group of schoolboys mug him before they get a chance to…but Shūsuke rashly charges at them and steals the money that they had just stolen.
So…now they are off to Okinawa. They see the pretty sites, flirt with some local girls, tolerate an older tourist who keeps showing up to leech off of them, and goof off some more, capturing most of it on camera.
Things are going well until a deadly fish flies out of the water and attacks Shūsuke on land, giving everyone a real scare. Then, upon learning that they are near an island that may have been referenced in a Lily Chou-Chou song, Shūsuke tries swimming to it and almost drowns. Finally, the older tourist gets hit by a car (the driver insists that he jumped in front of her vehicle) and probably dies. By this point, the trip has become a bummer, but Shūsuke is particularly shaken. After they return home, he does not see the others until school starts again. By then, he has changed.
School starts again and a class bully starts abusing another student for having adopted a similar hairstyle. Shūsuke tells the bully that he is being stupid, but the bully dismisses him and continues to abuse his victim. So, Shūsuke assaults the bully and reveals a knife. He does not draw blood with the knife, but he does cut off a piece of the bully’s hair. He notices how scared the other classmates are. How much the girls scream in terror. How no one does anything to stop him.
This, of course, is not the origin story of a hero. It is the beginning of Shūsuke’s rise to the top of the school food chain, which would become complete by the following year. From Shūsuke the termite to Hoshino the terror.
This movie had a somewhat odd backstory. It was originally supposed to be set in Taiwan and Lily Chou-Chou was a Hong Kong singer inspired by Faye Wong of Chungking Express fame. An earthquake in Taiwan forced a halt to everything, so the writer-director eventually tried making it into an internet novel with the help of a message board. To be honest, I have no idea how that worked, but it is apparently where the “ether” talk originated. The resulting movie contains elements from that novel…I think. I don’t know if the people from the message board got a cut for creative input.
The resulting movie is somewhat odd in its structure. It begins at a seemingly random place in the storyline, does a sudden flashback with little warning, and returns to another seemingly random spot in the present a little over halfway through the movie. The pace is quite loose, scenes do not necessarily have momentum, many subplots and extended storylines are not clarified, supporting characters sometimes simply disappear, and other characters do not become prominent until later in the movie. Thus, the movie is at once thin and difficult to follow. Yet, maybe that is part of the appeal. The story is not really on display, but it sneaks up upon the audience.
So…what is this movie about? Well, it is about two teenage boys who have more in common with each other than they may realize, but take very different paths. Both Yūichi and Shūsuke start out extremely passive, going with the flow even if they know that the flow is going in the wrong direction. Eventually, though, Shūsuke starts taking more and more chances. Bristling at his humiliations, he tries to take control of his own destiny. And when it all seems as if fate has scorned him and humanity in general, his antics take a dark turn. If almost dying makes him reevaluate his life, it only makes him feel like the world is an awful and one might as well do bad if one is going to be punished anyways. Yūichi gets caught up in Hoshino’s reign of terror, a reluctant lackey stuck near the bottom of the gang hierarchy, too scared to stand up for himself, let alone stand up for anyone else. Of course, Yūichi knows that others get it worse than he does, and sometimes he contributes to them getting it worse. It tears him up inside that he has to do it, but he does it anyways.
Hoshino’s gang seems to maintain an iron grip on students through violence and threats of violence. They also have somewhat of a partnership with the school’s girl gang, who maintain control through mob mentality and sheer disruptiveness. Students who are not on the receiving end of either gang’s ire tend to let them have the run of the place in order to avoid becoming targets themselves. But those who are on the receiving end…yikes. There are kids who do manage to mitigate some of the damage on behalf of without themselves receiving blowback, but there is not much that they can do. The teachers appear to be completely ignorant to the bullying that takes place right under their noses. No one speaks up, no one stands up, no one takes responsibility, everyone acts like nothing is going on. The one act of heroism is immediately undermined. So when something happens that is impossible to ignore, no one has an explanation as to why it happened. There is a casual cruelty to all of this, with jostling for domination, gleeful maliciousness, and a somewhat surprising willingness to resort to theft for any reason. There is even an ongoing news story early on about a youth who hijacked a bus and evades the cops for quite a while. An adult viewer just says that kids are scary and Yūichi’s father says that the culprit should be hanged. This movie was released about ten months after Battle Royale, by the way.
These are children who have been growing up during the Lost Decade. They missed out on the huge party bubble of the 80s. Adults failed them. Society has failed them. Should they really put much faith in either? They may go through the motions, sure, but do they see any future for themselves? Any direction? Any hope? Or do they just take what they can get until they cannot take it anymore? Add to that the normal teenage problems. It is inevitable that some of them will lash out against the world and each other.
How does Lily Chou-Chou fit into all this? Well, there is an actual album outside of the official soundtrack. Quite a bit of the movie is peppered with indie-rock and bedroom electronica tunes that were written specifically for this movie. The music was composed by composer-producer Takeshi Kobayashi, with then newcomer Salyu doing vocals as Lily Chou-Chou. The 39-minute-long soundtrack is on Youtube.
I enjoy this album, probably more than I did when I first watched this movie several years ago. I can definitely imagine moody misfit teenagers around the turn of the millennium getting really passionate and possessive about music like this. Actually, maybe I would have been too if I were that age at that time and heard it then. Who knows?
What about Lily Chou-Chou’s relationship to the story? She exists almost in another world. A world that absorbs the pain that her listeners have to endure or the pain that they cause others. She is not like the real-life people, who can be cruel bullies, bitter rivals, or disposable objects of exploitation. Or, you know, human beings with flaws and worth. No, Lily Chou-Chou is a matchless goddess in human form to be worshipped from afar.
As cyberbullying has not become a big issue yet (at least within the universe of this story), the internet is a place where people can be their true selves while hiding their identities. This is a place where they are free to be vulnerable; where they can be overtly passionate about something that is not necessarily on the list of things that cool kids like. They indulge in their fandom and feed off of each other’s obsessiveness, which encourages hyperbolic statements of zeal which can sometimes become rather toxic. For some, the real world is irrelevant; Lily Chou-Chou is the only reality. Surely, not all fans are like this, not even among the ardent ones, but the tone of this message board may encourage the more aggressive ones to dominate the discussion, at least for a while.
Additionally, this Lily message board becomes a place for certain people to air out their frustrations, their sense of longing, their loneliness, and feelings of existential malaise while ostensibly talking about how great Lily Chou-Chou is. She is not just a means of escape from the suffering of everyday life or the escape from responsibility of their own horrible actions, but a means of venting about the suffering of one’s everyday life without fear of consequences. Their inability to make sense of the world or themselves. All of the things that they have bottled up everywhere else, they let out here. Of course, everyone is pretty vague in their venting in order to maintain anonymity and not sidetrack the conversation. So they reveal parts of themselves without actually getting into the details of their lives. They are lost souls congregating. All together, all alone, they become a kind of community, centered around a person who is not there. Not there to show them her real self.
It also allows for pretentious philosophizing, embarrassing ridiculous over-analysis, and a vague sense of us against the world. In all honesty, it reminds me of when I was on a Radiohead message board around the time that this movie came out. I was a bit older than the characters in this movie, but I came across quite few people who spoke of Radiohead as these characters speak of Lily Chou-Chou, and I may have indulged in some of that stuff on occasion. I mean, I tried to push back against the insular gatekeeping, the obnoxious one-upmanship, the malicious hostility towards those less enamored with the band, and the completely unearned snobbery. That said, my pushing back was usually in service of an evangelical promotion of the band to the world, which is probably no less annoying to outsiders. Perhaps if I had seen this movie back then, I may have better understood that sharing a few similar interests with other people does not necessarily mean that I have all that much in common with them. But…here I am, having spent almost three years touting random movies to the ether. So, maybe I have not changed all that much.
The cruel irony in this movie is the distinct possibility that a victim of bullying and his primary tormentor may be confiding in each other on this message board without knowing each other’s identity. I guess like if You’ve Got Mail had more violence. In a way, they are not so much adopting fake personalities as they showing facets of themselves that they do not reveal in real life. Like they act one way in one arena and another way elsewhere. The weak can show their toughness without being called out and the tough can expose their vulnerability without ruing their reputation. With friendships being so fragile and the pecking order being so vicious, they do not feel like they can confide in anyone but their online community.
Made between the Columbine Massacre and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this movie shows that even as downtrodden underdogs, nerds can be just as cruel and dangerous as anyone else, just in their own way. It is not quite as blatant about it, as Hoshino’s public bully persona seems to have disavowed Lily Chou-Chou, but the seeds of the message are there, even if it is unclear what manner of tree will sprout. Even the music store employee who chides Yūichi for rotting the ether through his theft is said to have been a bully when he was younger. That was an unnecessary detail unless it deliberately implying something. Lily Chou-Chou is decidedly uncool, something for nerds, something to keep hidden. So, while Yūichi uses the message board to as a means to channel his angst and anguish about what he has become, Shūsuke has basically split himself into Hoshino the cruel bully and his more wistful internet persona. This divide becomes even more pronounced when Kuno reenters the story.
The movie is coy as to whether certain characters on the message board are actually present in the film, but it is pretty easy for a viewer to jump to conclusions, especially when what is being typed corresponds at least vaguely with what is happening on screen, even if the details do not perfectly add up. It goes to show you that, no matter how much people may reveal about themselves online, you don’t necessarily know who they are at all.
This is not an easy film to watch. Even if one can stomach the rather disturbing storyline, the presentation seems about as aimless as the characters, leaving a lot of holes in the plot in exchange for drawn out scenes. If you let the atmosphere slowly get to you, however, you may find a very rewarding experience.
Oh, and stick around through the credits.
WTF ASIA 152: Dooman River (China: 2010, approx. 92 minutes…or 88 minutes on Amazon Prime from some reason)