Content warning: This article includes mentions of assault, sexual violence, self-harm, addiction, mental illness, suicide, and child sexual abuse images. 

When I was in third grade, I moved into a skinny townhouse with a small lawn and paved granite driveway. It was the exact same build as neighbouring homes except coated in a lighter permutation of beige — which, to my 11-year-old self, meant they all looked the same. So for the first few months of settling in, I constantly got lost in this suburban house of mirrors.

Time moves slowly in the kingdom of cul-de-sacs. There was quite literally nothing to do in my new sterile community but read dusty novels or observe the ants scurry between cracked pavement. “I’m so bored I could die,” I’d bemoan, before my dad flicked my forehead in superstitious disapproval.

As I grew older, I found solace in senseless consumerism — a suburban rite of passage — which, more often than not, left me feeling just as empty as my wallet. When Costco and the strip mall lost its edge, I found joy in one or two or three glasses of prosecco, stolen from my parent’s liquor cabinet. My days passed in a sludgy, motorik daze. I felt like I was loitering, procrastinating in stucco purgatory, before my ‘real life’ could start in the big city.

I recently had the opportunity to program Shunji Iwai’s All About Lily Chou Chou (2001)  at Innis Town Hall as a collaboration between the Cinema Studies Student Union and Professor Sammond’s new School Daze course, CIN199. As I rewatched the melancholy unfold, I had this uncanny feeling that I was witnessing a B-roll of my own adolescence.

Part hangout movie, part elliptical coming-of-age story, All About Lily Chou Chou follows Yûichi Hasumi, played by Hayato Ichihara, and Shusuke Hoshino, played by Shûgo Oshinari, as they navigate feral adolescence amidst luscious dreamscapes. Whereas Yûichi is a goofy, self-proclaimed misfit, Hoshino is a mini King Midas, excelling at everything he does. We witness their unlikely relationship develop through vignettes of them recounting silly dreams about leaving their hometown, bemoaning the monotony of school, and committing to extracurriculars because, well, there’s nothing else to do in that dust bowl. It’s a remarkably canon depiction of friendship amidst suburban ennui.

But this banal-yet-idyllic veneer is broken three quarters of the way through the film, when Yûichi and Hoshino visit Okinawa. It’s a cheery sequence sprinkled with some classic tomfoolery, pubescent horniness, and near-death experiences. However, the gaieties are brought to a startling end when Hoshino tosses their money off the boat. This is an odd, illogical action — especially coming from his sensible character — which is followed up by an even stranger turn of events. The film cuts, and now we’re back in the classroom, confronted by an awful sight: Hoshino is savagely assaulting his classmate. A perverted, self-satisfied smirk sprawls across his face.

As if baptized by sin, Hoshino’s character takes a swift, Luciferian downturn. His victory earns him the title as the school’s new tyrant. Under his oppressive reign, students are violently assaulted. A girl is gang raped. Another is sexually extorted until she jumps off a transmission tower, landing squarely on her neck. The once boring yet comforting school thus becomes an unrecognizable hell.

The suburban gothic 

Over the last half century, suburban life has become the pinnacle of class aspirations. To live in a suburb means that you are wealthy enough to abandon the grimy, miscegenated city for the gated peninsula of society’s middle-class charading as elites.

Sterility makes any stain seem all the more prominent. Amidst the white stucco wonderlands, even an ounce of vice will appear ever more jarring and terrifying. The Suburban Gothic is a literary subgenre which plays on this tension; it typically involves a macabre force — such as delinquents, infidelity, addiction, or perhaps the supernatural — that infiltrates the suburban paradise. The result is an eerie defamiliarization of these ‘picturesque’ neighbourhoods.

Part of the brilliance of All About Lily Chou Chou lies in its depiction of cruel, absurd vagary. Why Hoshino snapped is unclear; the film is too impressionist to offer a concrete answer. And without a proper reasoning or buildup, we are left with a bunch of questions like, how is it that violence could occur in these utopic spaces, populated by economically stable and presumably sane people of the same cultural mindset? How could teenagers fertilized with decent education and luxuries provided for by their parent’s lavish corporate salaries turn into bad apples? It is unfathomable. So when Hoshino experiences a sudden, unexplainable malignancy, it completely uproots the veritable logic of suburbia. It is this puncturing that makes All About Lily Chou Chou particularly unsettling.

The film’s portrayal of suburban school life evoked flashbacks of my own grim experience. Despite its reputation, my banal ‘burb also hinged on rotten scaffolding. I remember teachers regurgitating textbooks and Wikipedia articles with absolute dispassion. Popular girls, dressed in their uniform of TNA leggings and Forever 21 crop tops, snickered at any eclectic fashion choice. Hockey boys posted cruel ‘tbhs’ and ‘hot or nots’ on their Peopleleaked each other’s nudes as a post-breakup parting gift. How romantic.

I didn’t fit in. Although I put in a tremendous effort to assimilate — from begging my mother for overpriced Aritzia basics to astutely studying Drake lyrics — my pantomime never seemed to work. And suburban existence is terribly lonely when you do not conform.

This distinctly grungy tone that hung over our milieu eventually became too much. Many struggled with addiction, depression, and self harm — myself included. Others dropped out. And in a neighbouring academy, two kids died by suicide in the same school term. By junior year, my school had removed any bathroom hooks in case there was another attempt.

All About Lily Chou Chou ends with things returning to normal. Yûichi is one of the last few standing. But instead of succumbing to his malaise, as do the other characters, we see him put the noose down. He starts anew; Yûichi dyes his hair, reconciles with his teacher, and approaches his victims for silent forgiveness. Though small, these acts demonstrate his grand effort to overcome his trauma and enjoy life again. My senior year consisted of similar steps: I began professional therapy, DIY box dye therapy, sobriety, and connected with those whom I had wronged and who had wronged me. For the first time in a long while, existing in the suburbs felt tolerable again.

In the following months, I started going on ‘hot girl walks’ around my neighbourhood, following the same hidden pathways I’d discovered when I first moved in. Except this time, I felt strangely beguiled by these hinterlands; suddenly, there was so much to explore, so much to experience, so much colour to admire — from cream to camel to khaki.

Like Yûichi, I had somehow survived the suburban gothic.