Sound And Vision: Shunji Iwai

Contributing Writer; The Netherlands
Sound And Vision: Shunji Iwai

In the article series Sound and Vision we take a look at music videos from notable directors. This week: several music videos by Shunji Iwai.

Shunji Iwai is very prolific. Not only has he made about more than ten feature movies, all equally sprawling and epic in scope, he also made many shorts, several television series, wrote many (online) novels, and above all directed more than 100 music videos. All About Lily Chou Chou, his most famous movie, started as an online serial in the form of a semi-fictional message board for a fully fictional artist, called Lily Chou Chou. When it eventually got turned into a movie, using a lot of the input Iwai had gathered from his interactions on these messageboards, Iwai decided to make Lily Chou Chou, as an artist, a reality.

His composer Takeshi Kobayashi and the singer Salyu, together made ethereal sounding tunes, that began to live a life of their own. For example, one of Lily Chou Chou's songs made it into Kill Bill Vol. 1, in the scene where Hattori Hanzo shows The Bride his swords. An album followed, and even a later song on the Lily Chou Chou moniker was released almost a decade later.

According to what I could find online Iwai directed two tie-in music videos for Lily Chou Chou, only one of which I could verify and track down for sure. The one I couldn't track down was for Resonance (Empty Stone). But the one I did find, Wings That Can't Fly (see below) uses some footage from the movie, but is also partly built from material shot in the style of the Lily Chou Chou promotional materials seen in the movie.

It is an evocative piece, made more special by the idea that something so ephemeral as a fictional band really starts to come alive with all the tie-ins. It's an outright reversal of how the process is normally done: first the message boards and fan culture existed, then the movie came to life, and only then the artist came to be to release her music. It would be a poetic story in its own right, an outlier in the annals of Sound And Vision, but here's the thing: Shunji Iwai did it twice.

His breakthrough film, Swallowtail Butterfly, is set in a fictional future Tokyo, that is slightly out of time and place. Tokyo has become a sprawling metropolis full of immigrants living in slums trying to chase a buck to survive. Some become sex workers, others work on scrap heaps, some become yakuza and con men, others survive in the illegal boxing circuit. We follow a band of solidary immigrants helping each other out to survive, some of which form a band called Yen Town Band. Character Glico, played by the famous J-pop singer Chara, is the front person of that band, and performs several tunes cow-written by Iwai and the aforementioned Takeshi Kobayashi. Chara is a firecracker, an immensely charismatic presence, who all but steals every scene she's in. Around the time that Swallowtail Butterfly came out a single was released by Yen Town Band, called Swallowtail Butterfly (Ai no Uta) again featuring a music video directed by Iwai. I couldn't track a verified version online.

What I could verify is that Yen Town Band did, like Lily Chou Chou, released more music long after the film was done. In 1996 they released the album Montage, which is mostly tie-in songs to the movie, but in 2015 Yen Town Band released Diverse Journey, a fully new album. The two singles got tie-in videos directed by Iwai.

Both are experiments in rotoscoped animation. At the time Iwai had just released his first animated feature, The Case of Hana and Alice, a prequel to his other break-out movie Hana and Alice. The two singles for Yen Town Band feature a similar style. Ainone (see also below) features a lot of rotoscoped footage from Swallowtail Butterfly, intercut with images from singer Chara in a blood red dress. It's a nice, evocative music video, in beautifully murky browns and washed out sepia. It plays like a childhood memory version of the footage of Swallowtail Butterfly, its drawing style having a childlike nature to it.

The second music video, for My Town (see finally below), stands more on its own. It shows an animated swallowtail butterfly flying across the skyline of Tokyo, or possibly Yen Town. What ties the two songs videos together is that both feature only partial tracks, giving leeway to my theory that these were meant as experiments or sketches for Iwai, less than fully fleshed out promotional material. But what beautiful sketches they are. Both Swallowtail Butterfly and All About Lily Chou Chou are masterpieces. But both also get a lot of their aura from the fact that Iwai willed them into being by sheer force, going out of his way to create bands, promotional material, online tie-ins. These are films with a legacy so big, the films couldn't contain them. These are films so great, they manifested two fictional bands into two actually existing working bands that make great music. Not many other directors can say that.

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