Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh

Languid and fragmented, this opaquely bleak story of teenage anomie takes place over the course of two years, as a group of high-schoolers make the awkward transition from children to quasi-adults amidst academic pressure, schoolyard bullying and parental indifference. Friendships are formed and dissolved, and youngsters struggle to break free of the enforced conformity of the Japanese school system (which extends to uniforms and regulation hair cuts) by trying on new and sometimes disturbing identities. Slight, quiet and ordinary, Yuichi Hasumi (Hayato Ichihara) lives in an isolated small town with his pregnant mother and her boyfriend. During his freshman year, he befriends transfer student Shusuke Hoshino (Shugo Oshinari), a rich kid tormented by feelings of failure. Their friendship isn't rooted in shared interests or background, just proximity, but Hoshino introduces Yuichi to pop idoru Lily Chou-Chou, who was born December 10, 1980 (the day Mark David Chapman murdered John Lennon) and seduces her fans with visions from "the ether." Yuichi becomes devoted to Lily, whose breathy, druggy delivery and spacey lyrics suggest an unholy amalgam of Tori Amos, Kate Bush, Fiona Apple and Bjork, and her music provides refuge from an increasingly hostile world. He hosts a website devoted to his idol and strikes up an online flirtation with a girl who signs herself "blue cat" — the film's action is frequently interrupted by typed exchanges between anonymous Lily fans, who blossom in their shared obsession with the minutia of her life and work. Over summer vacation, Hoshino, Yuichi and their friends long to vacation in Okinawa, but can't afford it. Hoshino finances the jaunt by ripping off a gang of punks who've just robbed a man in a parking lot. Something changes during the trip, which is haunted by odd events and the presence of a slightly menacing drifter. When the new term begins, Hoshino reinvents himself in sinister terms: He humiliates the biggest bully in school and takes his place, forcing Yuichi to shoplift, blackmailing pretty Shiori Tsuda (Yu Aoi) into afterschool prostitution and endorsing the popular girls' increasingly vicious abuse of musically gifted Yoko Kuno (Ayumi Ito), on whom Yuichi harbors a secret crush. As the semester progresses, the teens' miseries escalate into rape, suicide and finally murder. Shunji Iwae's film began life as an interactive online "novel" and unfolds in a series of achronological vignettes whose cumulative effect is chilling. Shot on digital video, its limpid beauty belies the inchoate unhappiness it chronicles. (In Japanese, with English subtitles.)