Perfect Humiliation: ‘All About Lily Chou-Chou’ (2001), Adolescence, and the Dawn of the Internet Loner

Content warning: sexual violence

When I think about the early 2000s, one element quickly elbows itself to the forefront of my memory: middle school. It was an embarrassing time of semi-adulthood that saw me sporting a lot of cargo shorts, letting my hair flow down to my shoulders, and dating my first girlfriend. But most importantly, I—along with my friends and peers—spent those years engaged in two processes of highly curated identity-formation: While growing into myself and crafting an image to survive the humiliations of tween-hood, I was also constructing a version of me meant specifically for public consumption online. In that time of identity in flux, I started investigating my sexuality; I watched porn for the first time; I cut my hair short in an act of radical self-possession; and three days before my thirteenth birthday, I agonized over what my first Facebook profile picture would be, something earnest but cool enough to represent me. Growing up at the dawn of Internet hyper-connectivity, I quickly learned that search for identity was often complicated by the intrusion of technology. For kids like myself, these new forms of communication permitted artifice and image optimization on an unprecedented scale while also granting near infinite access to the self-curated images of those around us; this technology of fragmentation and union is the paradox of the information age.

The kids of Japan were experiencing the exact same thing on the other side of the world. Enter All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001), Shunji Iwai’s troubling film about adolescence in the nascence of the Internet. The film depicts the fractured relationship between Yūichi (Hayato Ichihara) and Shūsuke (Shūgo Oshinari), two middle school students who, embroiled in the violence of youth, find their solace in the music of Björk-like singer Lily Chou-Chou. Under the respective aliases “Philia” and “Blue Cat,” Yūichi and Shūsuke unknowingly reconnect online behind the anonymity of their keyboards, waxing poetic about the “ether” from which Lily’s music is conjured and their equal desires to find peace in the material world. Simultaneously, Shūsuke and his cronies inflict horrific acts of physical suffering on Yūichi and his classmates, including piano prodigy Kuno (Ayumi Itō) and melancholic Tsuda (Aoi Yū). Replicating the accelerating intermediality—or fusion of media forms—of the Internet’s boom years, the film makes use of mixed media including text, music, and video. Through the interaction of these forms and the tension within the relationships of Yūichi and Shūsuke’s real-life and online identities, All About Lily Chou-Chou portrays coming-of-age in the early 2000s as an often-violent play between interpersonal connection and rupture, all facilitated by the technology that revolutionized the ways in which we understand ourselves and one another. 

Let’s start with the most assertive of these media forms: text. The text that flashes on-screen is most often a transcript from the Lily fan forum that Yūichi administers as Philia, like conversations about her new releases, existential adolescent musings, and the occasional cry for help. Each bit of text is attributed to anonymous writers, with aliases like “Bear” or “Ice.” As the preferred and most personal form of communication across a mostly wordless performance on the part of Ichihara, the forum’s text offers a lifeline of connection between Yūichi and his kindred Lily fans—Shūsuke included—despite the barrier of anonymity. This paradox, by which the forum’s contributors develop intensely intimate relationships without ever meeting offline, manifests itself visually in the text’s intrusion on-screen. The film presents several breathtaking views of the suburban Japanese landscape, full of vibrant green rice fields and long dirt roads hedged in by towering electrical lines. These landscapes, however, are fragmented by the intrusion of text, which abruptly cuts to black mid-tracking shot. By preventing the viewer from lingering on the beauty of the natural world that the characters physically inhabit, the on-screen text represents the disjuncture inherent in forms of virtual communication. Thus, the paradox is reinforced: Technology as a fragmentation on the visual plane but a method of connection and intimacy on the narrative. 

The subject of these forum conversations is, of course, Lily herself, emphasizing the bonding capacity of music in a text-based relationship. Music thus occupies a central role in the film’s observations on adolescence in the Internet age, appearing both in contemporary styles in the form of Lily’s songs (performed by Salyu) and more classical elements like the piano suites of Claude Debussy. Debussy, as one of the first composers of the ether, is said to be a direct influence on Lily herself—and Kuno is an admirer of both, spending hours practicing Debussy’s “Arabesque” on the school piano while also first introducing Shūsuke to Lily’s music before the events of the film.As stylistically diverging composers, Lily and Debussy mirror the paradox of Internet relationships in the interplay between contemporary and classical art. In other words, just as Yūichi’s online friendships house both old and new forms of relationship- and identity-formation, so too does the music of Lily and Debussy in their pairing as old and new musical styles. 

Yūichi, in his school uniform of white shirt and black pants, stands in a vast green rice field with a CD player in one hand.
Image courtesy of Rockwell Eyes, Inc.

Yet when these songs appear in the film generates a further paradox. For Yūichi and Kuno, Lily and Debussy respectively represent a safe haven from the violence of adolescence; Yūichi spends his most introspective moments listening to Lily in a vast rice field while Kuno drifts “Arabesque” across the piano keys, bathed in the light of the school music room. These are some of the film’s most beautiful and solitary moments, insulating the characters and keeping the suffering out of earshot. However, the songs of Lily and Debussy are also used as the soundtracks to Yūichi and Kuno’s most painful humiliations. In an early sequence, Yūichi is set upon by Shūsuke and his gang, stripped in an auto dump, and forced to masturbate in front of them—all while Lily’s “愛の実験 (Experiment of Love)” plays in the background. As for Kuno, she is ambushed by Shūsuke’s friends in an abandoned factory, raped, and has her head shaved to the dulcet sounds of a Debussy suite. Like the creative and destructive capacities of the Internet, the music of All About Lily Chou-Chou develops a quality simultaneously comforting and tragic, perhaps alluding to the indifference of media forms to the contexts in which they are often implemented. 

Turning to its use of video, the film’s occasional preference for grainy, handheld footage over clear widescreen emphasizes the DIY nature of early Internet media and the pitfalls of such a democratization. Yūichi and Shūsuke’s eventful vacation to Okinawa before their falling-out serves as one example, as does Kuno’s assault sequence that is filmed with a handheld camera from the perspective of her assailants. Sure enough, Tsuda’s storyline revolves around her blackmail into sex work by Shūsuke, who holds compromising videos over her head. Here, another double-edged sword: the proliferation of web-based methods of distribution encouraged by the Internet gives broad access to the creation of art while also permitting violence that is sustainable and hyper-circulative—think, for example, the emergence of revenge porn. With the maxim of “if you put it online, it’s there forever” in mind, this creates a near infinite cycle of humiliation and entrapment, which ultimately pushes Tsuda to her final act of self-repossession; she commits suicide by jumping from an electrical tower while Shūsuke, transported by the music, writes “I’m flying!” in the Lily forum.

A black screen with white text, reading, "I'm flying! I'm flying!" in Japanese
Image courtesy of Rockwell Eyes, Inc.

In its use of text, music, and video to replicate the accelerated intermediality of the early 2000s, All About Lily Chou-Chou exposes the simultaneous atomization and convergence of a virtually connected society. As an exploration of youth in such an era, it charts the development of a new social archetype: the Internet loner, epitomized by Yūichi. Unsuccessful in his search for community in the material world, Yūichi takes to online forums to replicate a sense of interpersonal connection. The term “loner” contradicts itself in this context because the Internet loner is far from alone, using virtual space to build intimate relationships where he can spill all his deepest emotions and desires. But these relationships are equally furtive, blocked from a more totalizing connection by the anonymity of screen names, the distance of geography, and the dependence on technology for their continued existence. In this way, Yūichi, Shūsuke, and their Lily-obsessed comrades are together in their alone-ness, piercing the bubble of their bedroom solitude to forge genuine—if not elusive—forms of intimacy. Whether by correlation or causation, this online intimacy is paired with a real-world brutality, encouraging a further retreat into the safety of the Internet in an unending cycle of self-preservation and dual identity-formation. This is the landscape that the kids of the early 2000s were forced to navigate, a world built on the paradoxical foundation of fragmentation and connection inherent in new virtual forms of social relations. The result is a film steeped in both the nostalgia of simpler times and the pains of being young, complicated by the safety and elusiveness of Internet identity and besieged by the violent reaction of a generation dispossessed. As one client of the salon run by Yūichi’s mother quite simply puts it: “Kids these days are very scary.”