A recent screening series at Japan Society in New York sold out tickets for a seemingly unlikely film: All About Lily Chou-Chou, a 2001 youth drama. The packed house was a testament to the cult following for the movie and its director, Shunji Iwai, whose work was the subject of the series. The other films in the weekend program were 1995’s Love Letter, his 1993 breakthrough Fireworks, and 1998’s April Story, which Japan Society has also made available to stream on its website through Dec. 23.
Such an occasion marks an excellent opportunity to educate the average moviegoer about Iwai, one of Japan’s most consistently overlooked filmmakers. He’s part of a cinematic movement in Japan marked by a kind of quiet humanism. But while contemporaries such as Hirokazu Kore-eda and Ryusuke Hamaguchi have been recognized by the likes of the Cannes Film Festival and the Academy Awards (with Hamaguchi claiming the Best International Feature Oscar earlier this year for Drive My Car), Iwai has largely remained under the radar. Most of his movies, including three of the four which Japan Society screened, aren’t legally available to stream in the United States. (So watch April Story while you can!) But just focusing on what is available, there is more than enough to understand why he has such a passionate following.
The Case of Hana and Alice (2015)
Iwai dipped into animation for this prequel to his earlier Hana and Alice. (You don’t need to have seen that film to understand this one.) Unusually for anime, though, this is rotoscoped, meaning the animators traced over live-action footage to render the images. It helps keep the movie, his only animated feature to date, visually of a piece with the rest of Iwai’s work. The heightened stylization of everyday events—the “case” mentioned in the title is a low-stakes one, with two schoolgirls investigating the whereabouts of a classmate, becoming friends along the way—captures how everything seems of outsized importance through the eyes of youth.
Last Letter (2018)
Many of Iwai’s films add depth to their characters by unspooling increasingly complex backstories in tandem with the plots. (Sometimes the flashbacks, in fact, take up more of the plot than the current-day sections.) For Last Letter, Iwai ventured to China to shoot, and his style proved easily translatable. When a woman stands in for her recently deceased sister during a school reunion, a chance encounter with a former lover instigates one revelation after another, which in turn unravels a series of entanglements going back many years. The interplay within the large cast gives this an almost novelistic feel. (And indeed, Iwai based the screenplay on his own novel, and later adapted it again as another feature in 2020, this time with a Japanese cast.)
A Bride for Rip van Winkle (2016)
Here Iwai turns the real-life phenomenon of hiring actors to pose as friends and family for events into the basis for a searingly emotional character study. Many of his movies explore solitude and alienation, but few with the raw, affecting power that this one has. When a socially estranged young woman faces a deficit of wedding guests, she turns to the Internet to find some paid friends. This leads her down a path of further constructed interactions, increasingly blurring the line between what’s real and what isn’t. Despite being nearly three hours long (and there’s an extended, episodic four-hour version made for television as well), it never stops being riveting.
All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001)
This is, and might remain, Iwai’s masterpiece—hence that sold-out show 21 years after its premiere. It’s one of the best cinematic depictions of teenagers in general, and might be the best portrayal of the young Millennial generation specifically. A boy watches helplessly as his best friend, once studious and kind, coarsens and becomes their school’s main bully. Outcast and disaffected, his one solace is the music of pop superstar Lily Chou-Chou (fictional, though she then became the basis of a real band), as well as the fellow fans he talks to on an online message board.
Iwai’s method of rendering the Internet visually is truly unique, inspired by experimental film technique. Messages are displayed via text overlaid on the film, cut into its montage through a staggered, off-kilter rhythm. Between this and the movie’s constantly roving camera (it’s one of the earliest examples of a truly beautiful digitally shot feature, with the cinematography taking advantage of the mobility offered by the technology), All About Lily Chou-Chou looks and feels like few other movies. Two and a half hours long, it makes room for both everyday observations and escapades in juvenile antics. At first fairly humorous and warmhearted, the plot gets increasingly intense as it progresses, unflinching in its portrayal of bullying, sexual assault, and suicide. It is an indelible depiction of being young, adrift, and desperate for something—anything—to hold onto amidst the cruelty and confusion of the world.
Hopefully more of Iwai’s films are made available in the future. For now, what is out there should provide more than enough evidence that you shouldn’t miss any future exhibition of his works.
Published on December 22, 2022