It's a tough story to follow and is quite open to interpretation but here's the gist: Told over several years the story follows two schoolboys growing up in middle-class Japan--the bullied Yuichi (Hayato Ichihara) and the bully Hoshino (Shugo Oshinari) who are both fans of a sort of Goth-like alternative Japanese singer named Lily Chou-Chou. First we meet the angst-filled lonely Yuichi who finds solace from his pitiful life in Lily's music. He's so obsessed about Lily and her ethereal trance-pop that he even manages her fansite which is the only place he can express himself and communicate with others. Next we get to know Hoshino Yuichi's best friend until the tragic events of one summer in Okinawa destroy their friendship for good. Once a bullied kid himself Hoshino has become a handsome smart commanding and ultimately sadistic gang leader who delights in victimizing his classmates in ways that lead to rape suicide and murder. Yuichi is alternately witness to and victim of Hoshino's grievous wrongdoing. Through it all the only thing that comforts him is Lily and her fansite.
Over this way-too-long film Ichihara says maybe 10 words--he's so introverted he can barely look at people when they speak to him. This turns out to be the beauty of his characterization. One only needs to look at his downcast expression hunched shoulders and shuffling walk to know exactly what he's feeling: the pain of being an outsider and not knowing what to do about it. There are moments where he just stands there and your heart breaks. Oshinari gives an interestingly multi-layered performance as the abusive bully. He's not altogether an unsympathetic character as we're given glimpses of his life and what might have caused him to be so cruel. Both feel like outsiders but it's what they do with that feeling that drives their lives. Ichihara's Yuichi would rather turn his pain inward than stand up for himself; Oshinari's Hoshino chooses to pick on others the way he was once picked on. Through it all we're introduced to such secondary characters as Kuno (Ayumi Ito) the fellow outcast and Lily-philiac Yuichi has a crush on and Shiori (Yu Aoi) whom Hoshino has coerced into prostitution.
Here's where it gets tricky. Director Shunji Iwai developed this film from an ongoing online soap opera he launched several years ago in Japan. Perhaps this explains the rambling disjointed quality of this film. It's gorgeously shot on digital video--the scenes of the boys' summer on the island of Okinawa are absolutely lovely--but is meandering and difficult to follow. At a good 2-1/2 hours this film feels like you're watching every day of the 2-plus years the story spans in real time. Iwai indulges himself in fancy camerawork and too many unnecessary scenes of violence that hammer home the point-- perhaps he was in need of a good editor. Too many characters come and go elements are introduced that disappear never to be followed up and cuts that jump in time and space leave you wondering where you are and what's going on. It's almost as if Iwai forgot what his movie was about halfway through then remembered and picked it up about 45 minutes before the end.