Through its entertainment, Japan has put the school life on the forefront. Particularly through manga, and thereby, anime, where even its masterpieces cannot escape a healthy dose of scenes in schools. Mental images of the protagonists in school uniforms can be easily recalled; from Neon Genesis Evangelion, to the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, to Boogiepop Phantom.
The fascination is such that it has transcended mere cosplay: designer school uniforms are sold, that are worn in schools that don’t have such requirement, and as casual clothing for after school(1). Born in Japan, diffused by anime, but propelled by the internet, the trend is not exclusive to this nation; if you have ever wanted to dress yourself (or a special one) like a japanese high schooler, here(2) is your chance. The school days cause such nostalgia that there is even an Izakaya(3) concept where school lunches are served in rooms that are adorned like classrooms(4).
Although the reasons of why these years are so longed are not much different to those of the rest of the world, Japan, as a first world nation, has it peculiarities that add to a richer school life:
-Second Language: In third world nations, having a class for a second language already pushes (or is often outside) the school’s budget. A current model in Japan uses the approach of having a teacher that is a native speaker (of the foreign language) and a japanese teacher, both working together, at the same time, for the same class.
-PE: Physical Education is taken seriously, it is competitive, organized and inclusive, with proper installations, that keep children close to sports and physical activities. A school without track and field premises or without volleyball/basketball court is considered lamentable.
-Cleanliness and Order: Students have to take care of their own school. They clean it, they attend their own “cafeteria,” and they “grade” themselves(5).
-Clubs, Clubs, Clubs: Although, not as extraneous to developed countries, spending your after school time in school is the norm. Whether it’s archery, judo, gardening, calligraphy... the japanese education system is enhanced by the culture of clubs. Students are encouraged to plan and organize the club themselves, to the point the participation of a teacher can be nil. Needless to say their importance in the social development of a kid, instilling concepts like the Senpai/Kohai relationship(6).
-Cram Schools: For those with the money, the school day elongates with cram school. These private schools tend to use more free form methods with a more relaxed atmosphere, although the ones specialized for entrance exams can be significantly stricter.
-Festivals: Sports and cultural festivals are a tradition. Halting studies to prepare for these festivals is intertwined with the club culture and the prominent role of P.E. in japanese education. Further extracurricular activities like marathons, parades and trips, assure that the life of a student contains as little idle time as possible.
Yet, japanese themselves could be quick to point out that not all is flowers and sunshine.
Bullying is, evidently, global, or more precisely, human. Attempts to fix it, or the pursue of its eradication, as it is the current vogue, remarks the distance between adults, specifically parents and teachers, and the kids and adolescents. A distance from both victims and perpetrators. The problem is that being bullied in not the disease, but a symptom, just like being a bully goes beyond the act of abusing a classmate.
In All About Lily Chou-Chou, Hasumi Youichi is a high school boy that leads a pathetic life, devoid of character and impulse; his quietness ask loudly to be dismissed, abused and used. Kuno Youko, beautiful, talented, serene and smart, sparks jealousy and repudiation amongst her classmates, by just being guilty of being herself. Hoshino Shusuke, as a new student in the school, finds himself on the verge of being outcasted, however he rejects that path and casts himself in by joining the bullies, deforming himself, ending as the meanest, most sadistic of them all.
Three teenagers with different backgrounds, managing peer pressure in different ways, facing bullying with contrasting mindsets.
Such a shame to live the secondary/high school days like that. Without retorting to the “best time of our lives” phrase, these years are the twilight, the horizon, where kids act like adults, where youngsters get their first tastes of the adult world. Still far away from worries like debts, unemployment, jail time, taxes, prostate checks and one week only vacations.
The school becomes like some sort of self contained mini world. Smaller in size, therefore bigger impact. Every crush, every friend, every enemy, every embarrassing moment feels like it could be your demise and end your life.
The film, a heartfelt, respectful, transparent, but most importantly, lucid depiction of these years, takes us back in time, and at the same time, opens a window to the events, that ring utterly real, of other’s people life during high school. Subtly, everything is present: from the incoherent fights between friends, to awkward declarations of love, to forced interactions with the teachers, to the girl that hooks up with twenty-something year old guys, and public transport commuting with your group of friends, as well. All so nostalgic and magical.
Things quickly escalate to a point where consequences are more than mere visits to the principal’s office or three weeks without TV. On the verge of joining college, the rest of the life can be decided.
Enter Asahi High, a dropout factory (see Waiting for Superman,) where options are limited: repeat senior year indefinitely, join the yakuza, stab a classmate and go to jail, die by stabbing before graduating, or actually graduate without hope of ever joining any university.
After eighteen or so years of being forced to be constantly around other thirty or so persons every weekday, all that time in clubs and cram schools, suddenly, things loosen up. Everyone starts to go their own way, with their own job, own family, own home.