Then there is the ersatz family of school clubs and eventually peer created social groups, which exist as much around who they exclude (or position themselves against) as who is celebrated and included.
All of them adrift within the society that is supposed to have a place for them, but as we can see by the regular appearance of middle aged to elderly salarymen, seemingly only there to be kicked around, abused and robbed of their wads of cash and promissory notes (when they are not preying on female students), there is little security on display elsewhere either. Maybe that is what causes Hoshino to do the mid-film turn into gang boss, treating the school and students within it like a prison that he needs to exert brutal control over, initially taking down the previous head bully but suddenly becoming just as bad if not worse (running organised prostitution rings is quite a step up from being cruel to another classmate over their hairstyle and roughhousing with them!). Perhaps after his near death experience on the island holiday (and seeing the left in limbo fate of the traveller they regularly meet on their trip), he feels there is no structure except that which is made by ones self, and takes that to hideous extremes.
Perhaps the most devastating aspect is how entwined the internal and external worlds are. There is no escape from other classmates even when you want to be away from them outside of school, and eventually even the online 'safe space' of Lily's ether provides no respite. Because the same human beings in the real world are online too (and this was a film that came out decades before 'cyber bullying' became a mainstream term).
Everyone has a past history and along with the sharing of culture that provides both the moments of potential connection. The girl, Kono, who first introduced Hoshino to Lily (who himself introduced it to Yuichi) but has kind of 'moved beyond' Lily into the singer's influences of Debussy and Satie, gets the most brutal treatment from Hoshino whilst Yuichi looks on impotently. But the one hopeful aspect is that she has a wider cultural world beyond both of them, and the clique of bullying schoolgirls, that she can not be totally destroyed by the events she is put through.
Unlike the other girl, forced into prostitution, who Yuichi tries to share Lily's music with and who commits suicide. As the booklet essay says, she finds 'no escape' in the music which in the rest of the film has been elevated to such status by Lily's online fans. Which suggests that no matter how beautiful and 'ethereal' music (or any other cultural artefact) is in isolation, it can still be 'rotted' by the context of how it gets used. So Lily's 'pure' music of the Ether, introduced to Shusuke by Kono becomes the music of the abuser, passed on to his subsequently abused friend (who loves the music so much he creates a fan web forum about it), which he 'accidentally' interests the prostituted girl in, almost as a 'compensation' for her experiences. That's not the fault of the music, but it illustrates the incestual web of interconnections between people and the culture that they consume that only becomes more devastating at the final concert.
There is often a suggestion that these commercially created, existing 'out there' music acts are floating somewhere far away from the experiences of 'ordinary people', and that they should do so because they are creating an alternate escapist universe for people with troubles to dive into, for however brief a moment until they have to confront the brutal reality again. For the longest time in the film the online space is that too, with messages about Lily's work fortified by the release of new albums (though of course that causes Yuichi problems in his 'real world' life by shoplifting it rather than being able to buy it, as all of his money has been taken by Hoshino. And being one of the people running the forum devoted to the singer he really needs to keep up with what she is releasing!) and discussion of her 'Ether' in general.
I particularly love the way that the messages from Yuichi (under the username "philia") develop in the early part of the film from more impersonal ones describing the forum and what the Ether is and the history of Lily's band, to eventually dropping in 'informational' posts about her "Arabesque" track being based on Debussy (which comes from the teacher called in by the store who caught him shoplifting the album), to eventually the posts developing into how certain tracks remind him of better times a year or so before which spins the film off into the big flashback that takes up the middle of the film. It is as if even in the new online space people cannot stop bringing their humanity to it, for better or worse. And eventually "philia" and "blue cat" have a series of exchanges on the forum that feel as if they really connect together over the music.
Simultaneously to this the crowd of Lily fans gets humanised on a wider scale and turns out to have cliques all of its own, some actively antagonistic against others. Some people even voicing the heresies that Lily might not even sing her own songs. Or exist at all! Which makes Yuichi whipping the crowd up into a frenzy by saying that Lily is in the crowd somewhere the ultimate confirmation of her 'ethereality' and attack on the nature of blind love. And a cover for a crime of passion.
Maybe this particular cultural artefact (the singer and their music) has become inescapably tainted for the group of characters we have been following (and will always mark a particular time in their lives), but maybe there is other culture out there that is yet unaffected by that stigma that will be able to provide comfort to all of them? No cultural artefact can truly 'save' someone in a true, physical sense, but on a more hopeful note perhaps all artefacts hold within them that promise of true, positive connection that can at least make things seem bearable for a while and might actually lead to forged connections between people that are impossible in the real world. Maybe that is why we still see all of the (surviving) characters in the field listening to their CD players over the end credits, not just emphasising that interwoven web of connections, but that they may all still be searching for their own 'Ether' out there.
And really the other hope is that all these relationships seem inescapably intertwined only because the characters in these awful situations, upsettingly, are still schoolchildren dealing with all of these issues (and this is all taking place over the span of one to two years). Soon they might not be in contact with each other at all, and have entirely separate lives, and things will not feel so inescapable after that? (Or not as the case may be, as suggested by the meeting between the teacher and the guy at the record store after the shoplifting incident, who appear to have been schoolmates)