Directors' Corner, Shunji Iwai

Shunji Iwai’s Filmography Part 2: Swallowtail Butterfly, April Story & All About Lily Chou-Chou


I’m glad I managed to reach the 100th for the Silver Moon site before this two week hiatus. I’m not sure if when I come back I have this much time to watch and blog films (the last two weeks I’ve watched and reviewed movies like a madman, one post per day on average), but I’m well intended to update this site regularly. This next batch of Shunji Iwai is an intriguing one. Many people would point this period as Iwai’s peak of his career, and indeed, I can see his ambition towards those projects. In a way, these three films keep redefine my perception of him as an auteur director. The first thing would be his small-based Western exposure compared to many other contemporary Japanese directors. At first I thought it was because he was the type of director who appeal to the native audience than the rest until Swallowtail Butterfly (1996) completely blows my mind. The film has an international cast, it features multi-linguist dialogues and while it’s set in Japan, the film is shot throughout Asian countries like Hong Kong, Singapore and Iwai edits it in America. In fact, the crew only regards the film as 30% Japanese. Which brings me to the next point, so then why his films don’t have a huge international appeal despite he was one of the few Japanese of his time to cast international cast, and eventually make films in America?

I guess much of it comes down to his film-making styles, whose many have regarded as “pop”. While some compare him to Wong Kar-Wai on how they both deal with romance and find their rhythm through editing, I personally don’t see that connection. Instead, you can trace some of his trademark styles from his root as an TV short and music video director. He employs constantly-moving handheld camera instead of fixed, static composition, rapid editing with hundreds of shots instead of long-takes, and the strong use of score and soundtrack to transfer mood (and he’s the masterclass of it) and other uses of video music techniques like hyper-saturated shots and slow motion shots (the latter in particular he had improved over the times). These styles, as many suggest, feel dated and sometimes disorienting, and his keen focus on adolescence and cyber-communication and pop-culture further make high-minded critics regarded him as pop-oriented director. That might suggest why he’s more appeal to regular viewers than the awards body and the press. But I suppose, many decades from now people might reevaluate his works because love-it or hate-it, his styles still find a way to resonate and are unmistakably his. He;s the kind of director who has more interest on details rather than builds up plots, making his outputs not necessary deep, but rich.

With April Story (1998) serves as a light in-between project from his two grim and ambitious outputs, Swallowtail Butterfly (1996) and All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001). Its fluffy bright tone is a stark contrast to the other two, further inform us about his range as a storyteller. All there are recommendable in their own ways and can stand proudly on their own (he still hasn’t made a bad film so far). So, enjoy this write up, And I’ll see you again after the (commercial) break.

Swallowtail Butterfly (1996)

I come across another hard one to crack, Swallowtail Butterfly by Shunji Iwai. It’s more that the film helps altering my own perspective towards his works (which I will discuss in more details when I do his filmography’s write-up). It’s the film where his distinctive styles are most vibrant (so far), for better or for worse – in fact, many critics hate his styles, but somehow it still grabs me in a way other films can’t. Swallowtail Butterfly is about the people in Yentown in a grim futurist near-future where yen becomes the most powerful currency, which allows the influx of immigrants (mostly Chinese and Western) to the city. Its first strength is the Yentown settings itself, which lies somewhere along the lines with the hopelessness future of Children of Men and the smell of dirt and chaos of passengers who lived in last cabin in Snowpiercer. Iwai makes this settings more realistic by casting international actors who switch between Japanese, English and Mandarin with easy. The handheld camera approach and the rapid editing contribute to the fast pace, messy air of the Yentown’s citizen and promote a sense of rapid speed and youthful vigor. It’s the place where money is squeezed in every opportunity, where nameless people come and go and nameless corpses keep piling up each passing day. The lives of those people already feel small and fragile.

The story revolves around Ageha (played marvously by Ayumi Ito), Gilco (Chara) and Fei Hong (Hiroshi Mikami) and their rise and fall, union and separation, all within the film’s two and a half hour length. Swallowtail dumps lots of subplots, introduces dozen of other characters, and sometimes deal with some plot threads within minutes, but here’s the thing: Iwai fuses those various moods and tones, as well as various genres seamlessly. It shouldn’t have worked the way in one moment we have Gilco sings “My Way” on stage in full performance, followed by the gang members shooting each other, yet somehow the threads remain consistent. It jumbles a lot between different characters, yet somehow the emotional core is still there. They way Swallowtail addresses the power of money and the cast’s attitude towards it is also consistent. At one point, because of the money our main cast has an opportunity to leave that petty lives behind, yet in the end, they’re the true “Third culture kids”, the people for Yentowns.

There’s so much about this film, yet also there’s little to talk about, because at heart this film doesn’t make any over riding message or even any moment to reflect. It’s partly about the power of currency that leads people astray, it’s partly about the identity of these immigrants, it’s also about the growing bond between them and it does say something about the multi-culture, but at the end none of this doesn’t really matter. In one of its most memorable (and highly saturated) flashback, Ageha, while receives a tattoo in her chest (signifies her maturity, by the way), recalls the first time she sees a butterfly. As the little girl who stays in the bathroom closes the window to keep the butterfly from flying out, it crushes the poor thing, one of its wing falls into the girl’s chest. Then she questions if she was the little girl, or the butterfly. It’s the same reading to the whole movie. It’s one of the film where any deeper reading in the meaning is immaterial. It’s not necessary a character study (many of them don’t develop that much), but it leaves me a lasting emotion: that I feel like I understand those characters and their lives, and that I don’t feel it drags in any moment. Swallowtail starts with a funeral and ends with a funeral. It starts with the power of money, it ends with the cast burning the full luggage of cash away. The life then goes full circle.

April Story (1998)

If I hadn’t known this film beforehand, I could’ve easily mistaken this first half as a Koreeda’s film, with its focus on laid-back atmospheric tone than narrative. It’s a slice of life story as its core, detailing, in its measured pace, Uzuki (Takako Matsu) as she leaves her hometown Hokkaido for a college in Tokyo. Iwai’s best strength is more than relevant here: April Story flows like a warm music piece. We starts with the protagonist’s point of view when her family members greet her in the train station (which are Matsu’s real family members). As she settles down to her new apartment, we see her getting accustomed to this new life: meeting new friends at school, visiting the local bookstore, exchanging words with her neighbor. Unlike the gritty Swallowtail, there’s rose-tinted color vibe that exist everywhere in April Story, which is helped by the cherry blossoming (another symbolic image for growing).

What April Story is extremely good at is how it depicts Uzuki’s navigation to the everyday life, from something as quiet and insignificant like her watching a samurai film in the cinema, exploring the city, running away from a creepy man, learn fishing. sharing a curry meal with her neighbor… it’s unassuming but it’s real, melancholy and fluffy in every way possible. It’s until much later we learn the reason why she decided to study in this big city, and the film, like a waltz, shifts slowly to the romance piece that is equally heart-warming and soothing. Uzuki is a kind of character we love to get behind. She isn’t the most complex characters and her shy manner can be a bit too much, but when we learn how she’s determined to pursue her dream of attending certain Tokyo’s college, she already wins our heart over. “It’s a miracle that she got enrolled”, her homeroom teacher said, in which she thinks “I want to call it a miracle of love”. That miracle of love turns out to be just this simple.

Clocking at a mere 67 minutes, we clearly just experienced a tiny slice of Uzuki’s life. It’s a bit of a shame because I won’t mind to get dipped more into this world. April Story is a drama that don’t really feel like drama, in which it has an optimistic outlook and all the threads are just barely touched and hanging there, just like how life is. Her crush might be the main reason she decides to go to Tokyo, but it’s her experience with the people around her, and her slowly adapting to the new environment (the early scenes where she’s alone to this new place struck a familiar chord to me) that ultimately define her growing up. April Story captures perfectly the new beginning of all kinds from this young girl in a new city.

All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001)

“In Okinawan we say people have seven lives, you’ve lost tow, so you’ve got five left”. That casual remark clocks at an hour mark into the film and serves as a catalyst for the rest of the film. I can see why people often regard All about Lily Chou-Chou as Iwai’s definitive work. It’s far from what I thought it would be (where is… Lily Chou-Chou? This film is about her, right?), but it’s a natural progression from the man whose works have always centred around adolescence and the cyber-communication (if you count exchanging letters as one). I said in the review of his epic Swallowtail Butterfly that it’s hard to dig into his themes and it certainly rings true here. On a narrative sides, it’s murky. It introduces characters without much context and leaves them just as fast, it tells the story in the middle section and traces back and then forward, intercut by hundreds insert screens of text or Lily Chou-Chou music. It’s rapid not only in term of plot or characters but also in its handheld camera and quick editing. It runs for too long and communicates so little (or is it a little bit too much?). It shifts perspectives and tones at a drop of a hat, yet despite all that there’s an authentic emotional core that is both raw, urging and universal and there’s many moments that leave a lasting impact.

The film details a group of high school students fumble through lives, enduring some of the nastiest taste of growing up: shoplift, bully, forced prostitution, rape, assault… this film has it all, while at the same time some of them draw into internet-based worshiping of the (fictional) idol Lily Chou-Chou, whom they argue that her music brings out the “Ether”. The film also traces the forming and the falling-apart relationship of Yuichi and Hoshimi, in which the latter later transforms into a heartless bully. It’s a strength, as well as the weakness in Iwai’s storytelling style, that we get many hints from him why his characters turn out the way they are, but the film never makes it clear, or something doesn’t even care, to show us that deeper side. And since we only have one or two lines, or sometimes a single image where characters let out their inner side (before completely disappear again), this undoubtedly leaves confusion to the audience, and worse, put them off on caring about these characters.

With that said, Iwai’s extremely adept at using sound and light to provoke and transfer the character’s feeling. Scenes in his movies aren’t connected by traditional narrative sense, but by the use of music. He and his frequent collaborator Kobayashi and the then-unknown Salyu as vocalist created strong music (in fact, they did release an album a week after the film’s release), especially the “Arabesque” song that link this pop sensation with Debussy classic. His trademark use of highly-saturated sequences, his slow-motion and his uses of light in the nighttime are all there, to good effects. Visually, except from the “Vacation” and the “rape” sequence in which it uses a regular Handicam, the film is shot in high-definition video, creates some of his most stunning sequences to date (the opening scene come to mind). Many of its plot, especially from the first half do need some trimming, while the others need more screen time.

But meandering as the plot goes, its raw teen-angst, teen obsession over the pop-culture, and teen-domination spear right through the heart of the film. The bully part would never hit as hard if not for the first hour where it establishes the fact that Hoshino was just a normal kid. The adults are there but they hardly notice all the issues their kids endure. At that, even more than Yuichi, the character whose role that resonate the most on that end is Shiori (Yu Aoi in her stunning debut. The only young actor discovered by Iwai who becoming a acting star status). Forced by Hoshino to prostitution with older men, she drifts through and bares with it. Her scenes where she slashes out to Yuichi, or later when she eats with him, provide an intimate feeling that the rest of the film can’t never top again. On the other spectrum, Yoko (played by Ayumi Ito after the helm of Swallowtail Butterfly) rarely connects to the film. While she’s undoubtedly a victim of the class bully, she isn’t directly involved Lily Chou-Chou music like the rest of the cast, and she rarely interacts to other cast, which is a bit of a wasted, considering how physically demanding Ayumi Ito had gone through in this film (practicing endless hours for piano, that mentally demanding of the rape-scene, and she shaved her head for this film).

In all, All About Lily Chou-Chou offers a grim and haunting look at adolescence and many ugly aspects of it. It’s not a film that intends to shock you, or a criticism at the Japanese youth society. All it does, most of the time unconventionally, is demand audience to engage, to feel. If you’re in its wavelength you will get swept away by the its waves of raw emotion. People often regard this movie as “depressing”, but to borrow Roger Ebert’s words (amusingly he didn’t like this movie), “no great films are depressing [but all bad ones are], they inspire.”

Next batch of Shunji Iwai features mark the period where he slowed down in cinema as he directed Hana and Alice (2004), then to the documentary territory of Kon Ichikawa Story (2006), before made his first English-language film half a decade later with Vampire (2011). Will see you then.

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