By Corey Birkhofer
All About Lily Chou-Chou, Japan, 2001
Written and Directed by Shunji Iwai
“Presumably, the only way excess can fail to affect meaning is if the viewer does not notice it.”
– Kristin Thompson
In her article, “The Concept of Cinematic Excess,” Kristin Thompson forms a compelling argument towards an analysis of film that looks beyond arbitrary narrative devices. As the title of her article implies, Thompson employs the work of two separate theorists (Stephen Heath and Roland Barthes, respectively) to form her argument around a concept known as excess. In analyzing a film like All About Lily Chou-Chou, a concept such as excess bears much weight in bringing to attention the formative elements that make a film such as this oppositional. Furthermore, in analyzing a film like Lily Chou-Chou, to avoid analysis of its formative structures (particularly its use of color) and focus full attention on its narrative devices is to miss the very aspect of why this film is oppositional.
Thus, the following explication seeks to coincide with Thompson’s line of thought that “once the narrative is recognized as arbitrary rather than logical, the viewer is free to ask why individual events within its structures are the way they are.” In short, in order to analyze Lily Chou-Chou and discover why it is oppositional, the analysis of narrative devices must be placed behind formative elements. Therefore, the following analysis will argue that through excess rising from its form (specifically the use of color), All About Lily Chou-Chou draws attention to the very fact that it is a film, that it is a structure of cause and effect that we as spectators either give ourselves up to willingly, or strive to attentively recognize its formative structure(s). However, before analysis can be achieved, it is important to explicate exactly why narrative analysis is arbitrary. Furthermore, it is important to establish a strong definition of excess. In juxtaposing explanation and definition of these previous aspects alongside specific sequences from the film, the following analysis can successfully make its argument that All About Lily Chou-Chou is indeed an oppositional film, with a knowledge-effect that emerges from its formal structure.
In making her argument, Thompson is calling for a kind of analysis in which formative structure takes precedent over narrative devices. Simply put, her justification is that narrative devices are arbitrary when looking for the inherent meaning of a film. Why are these devices arbitrary? Is it not possible for interesting epiphanies to arise from narrative analysis? Thompson, as well as many other film scholars, would disagree. The general argument is that narrative in its inherent nature has no coherent beginning or end. Yet this statement is not literal. If that were the case there would not be the standard narrative structures that are an integral component of storytelling. Narrative structure does have a beginning and an end (arbitrary as it may be). However, the initial event that starts the chain of narrative cause-and-effect is where the arbitrariness of narrative analysis comes in. What decides when a story begins? What decides how long it will be or what will happen along the way? Furthermore, when does the denouement come about? Who can say the story does not continue after the film’s credits roll? The point of these questions is that no analysis can make such a claim toward a solid answer. In other words, because the beginning of a narrative essentially springs out of nowhere, almost as if to pose the question, “what if,” the narrative that ensues is more or less an arbitrary answer to this very question.
Thus, a narrative is a chain of causes and effects, but, unlike the real world, the narrative world requires one initial cause. The choice of this initial cause is one source of the arbitrariness of narrative. Also, there is nothing which logically determines how long the narrative will continue; more and more delays could prolong the chain of cause-and-effect indefinitely. The point is clear: because film narrative is inherently arbitrary, gaining an understanding of a film through its narrative devices is also arbitrary. Thus, Thompson calls for viewers to look “beyond the narrative, at both the unified and the excessive elements at work on other levels.”
With the arbitrariness of finding meaning and oppositionality through narrative analysis established, the following explication can now address what the viewer should do when not analyzing film narrative. For Thompson, the key to this “dilemma” is simple: the viewer must free themselves of narrative analysis so that they can focus on the cinematic concept of excess.
What, then, is excess? In her argument, Thompson introduces two slightly opposing definitions of cinematic excess (the first from Stephen Heath and the second from Roland Barthes). Taking little more than the name Heath attaches to his version of the concept, Thompson moves on to fully employ Barthes’ version of excess, or what he calls Le Troiseme Sens (The Third Meaning). As Thompson discusses Barthes’s version of the concept, a strong definition of excess begins to emerge. Defining excess in her own words, Thompson states that excess emerges when style becomes, “foregrounded to an unusual degree necessarily calling attention to the material of the film.”
Yet, however concise this definition may be, it still leaves much to be desired in fully understanding excess and its constituent relation to film analysis. It also brings to attention the relation of style and material to excess. In short, excess is not a simple cut-and-dried concept that can be defined without bringing further explication to the fore.
In her article “The Concept of Cinematic Excess,” Thompson defines style as “the use of repeated techniques which become characteristic of the work; these techniques are foregrounded so that the spectator will notice them and create connections between their individual uses.”
However strong this definition may be, the overall argument is still likely to lead one to believe that full one-hundred percent focus should be placed on excess, not style. This is not the case. Thompson goes on to state, “excess does not equal style … the two are linked because they both involve the material aspects of film.” Of course style is linked to the material of film. How could style not be linked when it encompasses everything from costumes to sets, to music, to cinematography? However, why then is excess linked to film material? More appropriately, does excess really arise with the foregrounding of style? It is all well and good to argue that excess and style are linked to the material of the film, but as the earlier definition implied, excess arises when style is “foregrounded to an unusual degree necessarily calling attention to the material of the film.”
Simply put, excess “arises from the conflict between materiality of [the] film and [its] unifying structures.” This unifying structure is style. Because style attempts to constantly subdue viewers, drawing them away from attentive recognition, a focus of attention on style does not reward the kind of analysis for which Thompson is calling. As a result, in ignoring these tantalizing stylistic elements (as seen in All About Lily Chou-Chou, for example) one can start to see the conflict between excess and style. Thus, a more critical understanding of the structure of the film can finally be attained (if the viewer so chooses).
This leads naturally into the discussion of the formal, stylistic and, to a lesser extent, narrative elements of the film in question: All About Lily Chou-Chou. Arguably one of the most lyrically gorgeous digital films ever created, Lily Chou-Chou is indeed a difficult film to watch while ignoring the emotional pull of its narrative devices. The aforementioned beautiful stylistic elements (including especially the diverse range of sets, and of course the masterful use of color as seen in the blindingly green rice fields) merge with the hypnotizing soundtrack to create a truly remarkable film. That said, Lily Chou-Chou is so imbued with fore-grounded style that achieving attentive recognition in this film is indeed rewarding, for it is rife with examples of cinematic excess (both formatively and narratively speaking) that lead toward a greater understanding of its oppositionality.
For a film shot digitally nearly a decade ago amidst a sea of constantly upgrading digital shooting formats, the visuals of the film fully utilized the latest in high-definition technology at the time. Employing a bursting palette of color, the digital medium offered a level of such incredible richness vis-a-vis scenes taking place in vibrant green rice fields, dingy alley ways, interior rooms and the contrasting simplicity of the school children’s uniforms, bringing to the screen an unparalleled level of depth, range of color and lighting for the time. It would seem that many pages could be devoted to just how visually beautiful the film really is. Perhaps even Thompson herself would struggle to transcend the stylistic pull of Shunji Iwai’s 2001 film. In fact, near the end of her article Thompson admits, “Obviously there is no completely free viewing.” In other words, it is okay to just enjoy a film for the sake of enjoying it. Thompson is just here to say that if this is what viewers choose to do, a deeper meaning of the film’s formal (and even narrative) structure will not come about.
So far it has been argued that formative analysis is the key to finding a deeper meaning in film. But can the same be said for narrative analysis? If so, as Thompson begins to argue in the latter portion of her article, then it would also seem that at this point she begins to contradict her original argument. Throughout most of the article, Thompson’s main line of argument has been devoted to denouncing narrative analysis. However, as the latter portion of her article suggests, excess can arise from not only conflict with style, but also from certain aspects of narrative devices. As a result of this new dimension to her argument, the remainder of this explication must branch out to employ an additional concept.
The claim that excess arises from narrative devices is not unfounded. Thompson brings validity to this new line of argument by applying the concept of motivation. First, she breaks down what motivation does into four distinct, albeit overlapping, categories:
1. Narrative function may justify the presence of a device, but it doesn’t always motivate the specific form that individual element will take.
2. Motivation is insufficient to determine how long a device needs to be on the screen in order to serve its purpose.
3. A single bit of narrative motivation seems to be capable of functioning almost indefinitely. It may justify many devices which have virtually the same connotation, even though they may vary greatly in form.
4. A single motivation may serve to justify a device which is then repeated and varied many times. By this repetition, the device may far outweigh its original motivation and take on an importance greater than its compositional or narrative function may seem to warrant.
These categories help to bring clarity to her argument of the validity of narrative device analysis. In essence, these categories as a whole claim that when the motivation to establish a narrative device in film becomes overdone to the point that the purpose of the device is totally lost, a form of excess emerges. However, it is crucial to point out that this kind of repetitive narrative excess is not necessarily oppositional. In other words, just because a narrative has repetitive elements, it does not mean the film creates an effect that screams to its viewers, “I am a film!” Yet in regards to a film like All About Lily Chou-Chou specifically, take for example the countless internet chats, flashing web pages of text that flicker past the viewer’s eyes almost too fast to read. Iwai, who did a sizable amount of research and even went so far as to create an internet message board before the making of the film (so as to add another dimension to his narrative), then takes the inspirations he gained from the making of his message board and centers the depth of his character interaction around the many flashing and repetitive screens of chat. It is not what is said in these flashing screens that is excessive or oppositional; rather, it is in the abruptness of the transitions of the film to the plain black screen with white text, and the overall repetitiveness of the flashing “reload” screens of the internet chat room that conveys to viewers that Lily Chou-Chou is indeed a film. And yet the most distinctly excessive formal element in Lily Chou-Chou is not the repetitive flashiness of the internet chat room sequences. Rather, Lily Chou-Chou foregrounds its style most evidently in the Okinawa sequences of the film, as seen in the use of the handheld digital camera.
The style that a tripod-less and overall shaky handheld camera brings to a film such as Lily Chou-Chou gives Iwai the ability to add another excessive element that allows his viewers to realize that what they are watching is indeed a film. This excessive element is the fact that not only do we as viewers see the boys with multiple digital cameras shooting each other and everything around them, we are also given POV shots through the very lenses of the cameras to observe from the perspective of someone who is actually in the film. In short, only in film are shots such as these possible, and thus Lily Chou-Chou, through its intended stylistic use of the handheld digital camera, draws attention to the fact that it is a film. That said, the overall repetitiveness of the Okinawa sequence, with the style the handheld camera brings, is also an example of how this shaky style is arguably overused to the point of excess.
Yet as shaky and excessive as this handheld camera can be argued to be, there is still one only briefly mentioned sequence of Lily Chou-Chou that bears more analysis in regards to its excessiveness. This sequence is actually a series of sequences set in rice fields the definition of the color green. The lyrically luscious green of these sequences is where the film harbors the potential to initiate what Thompson speaks of in the following: “the minute a viewer begins to notice style for its own sake or watch works which do not provide such thorough motivation, excess comes forward and must affect narrative meaning.” Thus, as the #4 category of what motivation does in narrative states, “by this repetition, the device may far outweigh its original motivation and take on an importance greater than its compositional or narrative function may seem to warrant.” In showing scene after scene of these beautiful rice fields, the weak claim that these are legitimized as establishing shots of the characters as they navigate through their world of idolizing Lily Chou-Chou quickly dissolves to reveal how this narrative aspect is really just overdone excess. Thus, for Thompson and many theorists like her, viewing scenes such as the aforementioned is where films have their greatest potential to draw attention to the very fact that they are films, almost as if to make the viewer say to themselves, “I am watching a film right now, I am really watching a film!”
In terms of excess, as the definition has previously implied, whenever a film leads one to realize that they are watching a film, that is, whenever the “illusion” is dispelled and a glimpse of the real is provided, a knowledge-effect is achieved. In other words, the only way to get a knowledge-effect is to be aware that the film you are watching is a film. These conclusions are all well and good; yet, even though excess may be present, this does not always mean a knowledge-effect will emerge that makes the film, scene, or sequence of scenes oppositional. Thus, just because the previously explicated segments of Lily Chou-Chou can be read as excessive, this does not qualify it as oppositional. In short, excess is not always oppositional.
In another example of repetitive motivation simultaneously regarding the film as a whole, the narrative of Lily Chou-Chou is centered on a small group of schoolchildren who struggle through the difficulties of growing up in a generation dependent on technology, while showing the things kids will do to find their place in the world. The universal means by which the children of Lily Chou-Chou seek to do this is through repetitive bursts of internet chat revolving around their one universal commonality: the music star Lily Chou-Chou. Thus the viewer of Lily Chou-Chou is privy to segment after segment of the children and their attempts to come of age and feel that they belong.
Again, even though the motivation of this narrative device is indeed repetitive and argumentatively excessive (just like the green rice field segments), the purposes of the children attempting to come of age are not only diegetically futile, but are also unsuccessful in making Lily Chou-Chou a bona fide oppositional film. In short, the excess of these previously explicated narrative segments do not arise from the form of the film. Because of this arbitrariness (as Thompson would call it), these narrative segments, as repetitive as they arguably are, do not create a knowledge-effect in All About Lily Chou-Chou. Simply put, they do not make the viewer realize they are watching a film. However, with the previous examples in mind, there is one specific formal element of Lily Chou-Chou that does create a knowledge-effect. In fact, this element forms the lynchpin of this entire explication; not only is it the most excessive element, not only does it create a knowledge-effect, but it is the element that makes All About Lily Chou-Chou oppositional: the film’s use of color.
So far it has been argued that (1) excess provides a glimpse into the real; (2) this glimpse into the real creates a knowledge-effect; and (3) whenever a knowledge-effect arises from the film’s form (unlike the previous repetitive “children coming of age” narrative argument), a film becomes oppositional. With this in mind, the formal structure of color is the one aspect of All About Lily Chou-Chou that undoubtedly fills all these requirements. In fact, Iwai’s groundbreaking use of color in the film is evident right from the start. Thus, we the viewers are given aerial crane shot after aerial crane shot of the lush landscape of the green rice fields, the sepia-toned night shots of children out riding their bikes, the late afternoon glow of the sun as children urinate off a bridge down to the street below, and the fluffy white fuzz of a run down cotton factory while a schoolgirl is gang-raped. Granted, as it has been argued, there really is no reason for the narrative or the structure of the film to spend as much time on these segments as it does. And yet, because they are shown in such vibrant color, and because the excess of the color is so apparent, the viewer can do one of two things: give themselves up to the film, or ignore it and thus see the film and its inherent oppositionality for what it’s worth. Thus, the excess of color emerges from the form of the film, not the narrative, and the concurrent knowledge-effect that is created makes Lily Chou-Chou an oppositional film.
Conclusively, and in regards to the film’s oppositionality, Shunji Iwai’s use of color in All About Lily Chou-Chou hits on exactly the sort of thing about which Thompson warns viewers of film who seek to gain a deeper understanding of cinema through realizing the knowledge-effects created by the films they watch. Thus, as explicated in her article “The Concept of Cinematic Excess,” because the use of color in Lily Chou-Chou makes it such a universally beautiful film, to gain an understanding of the formal structures (with the help of excess) one needs to ignore the pull of this fore-grounded stylistic element (color). That said, if indeed excess is the means by which film creates a knowledge-effect, the only way a knowledge-effect can be realized is if the viewer can ignore the hypnotizing beauty of this film. Only then can the viewer realize they are watching a film, and thus achieve the knowledge-effect.
And yet, however powerful this knowledge-effect and oppositionality through excessive use of color may be, Lily Chou-Chou is not political to the extent that it works against, or makes a coherent critique against the status quo of the nation/state. In the end, despite its valiant effort to subdue its viewers through its use of color, the very reason Lily Chou-Chou is oppositional is because of the excessive use of this formal and stylistic element. As a result, viewers seeking cinematic enlightenment and understanding of All About Lily Chou-Chou will do one of two things when watching the film: either ignore it and hopefully see its inherent oppositonality, or give themselves up to it and be taken away to the beautiful islands of Okinawa, or the thriving green of the rice fields in the Japanese countryside.
Contact the Author: CoreyBirkhofer@MoviesIDidntGet.com