Shunji Iwai's Hana
and Alice started out as a series of short films
in 2003 for the webpage of a certain chocolate company.
The three-part series chronicled a love triangle between
high school students Hana (Anne Suzuki of Initial
D), Alice (Yu Aoi), and Miyamoto (Tomohiro Kaku).
Later, Iwai would add over an hour and a half of footage
to form the feature film version of Hana and Alice.
After the dark high school drama All About Lily
Chou-Chou, Iwai decided to return to a more innocent
side of high school. This time, the bullying and cultural
reflection are gone, replaced by good old-fashioned
puppy love and a bit of ballet. For any other filmmaker,
a film like this might merely mark a diversion in
their filmography, but a new Iwai film is always an
event. However, though possessing of the usual Iwai
quirky humor and charming detail, Hana and Alice
goes to show that perhaps high school in the Iwai
universe can be too innocent.
Hana and Alice (short for
her last name Arisugawa) are junior high school classmates
and the best of friends. Alice is the free spirit
who acts on her impulses, and Hana complements her
thanks to her penchant for following others. One morning,
Alice leads Hana on a trip to a strange train station,
where they begin to spy on a tall foreign man and
someone they presume to be his Japanese younger brother.
While a random conversation about Hannibal Lecter
ends Alice's schoolgirl crush (Iwai's sense of humor
works in mysterious ways), Hana encounters the young
Japanese man, named Miyamoto, again when she joins
the Japanese comedy club in high school. Instantly
taking a liking to Miyamoto, she begins to follow
him after school when he accidentally bangs his head
against a metal gate. Hana immediately seizes the
opportunity and tells Miyamoto that he has not only
suffered amnesia, but also that he is dating her - a new plot addition that was not in the short films.
Despite his skepticism, Miyamoto
plays along until he discovers the pictures Hana took
months earlier during her stalking sessions with Alice.
Suddenly, Hana has turned Alice into Miyamoto's ex-girlfriend,
whom he has also supposedly forgotten, thanks to his
"amnesia." As Miyamoto tries to put together
his "lost" past with Alice, Alice realizes
that she, too, has started to like him. However, Alice
has issues of her own: her divorced mother would rather
spend more time dating than parenting; her father
treats her well, but rarely sees her; and she gets
scouted by a talent agency, even though her acting
skill is next to nil.
While the short films emphasized
the love triangle elements, Hana and Alice
is ultimately about the creation of a past. As Hana's
deception goes further and further, Hana is forced
to create more and more details about not one, but
two relationships that never existed. She eventually
makes up so many lies that she even begins to believe
that Miyamoto is really her boyfriend. On the other
hand, Hana believes she deserves Miyamoto in the short
film simply because she met him first. Even though
the short film contains the same scenes featured in
the feature film, Hana and Alice the short
films and Hana and Alice the feature film are
two different creatures altogether.
However, do these new elements
help Hana and Alice? Yes and no. While the
new additions thankfully expand on Alice's background,
they also add context to the Hana-Miyamoto-Alice relationship,
such that it's not simply another high school puppy
love romance. The bad news is that even though its
the main conflict of the film, the love triangle in
Hana and Alice has softened considerably. Since
Alice is now a part of Hana's deception, the only
real conflicts of the story (Who will get Miyamoto?
Will Miyamoto lighten up? Can the girls can any cuter?)
possess little to look forward to. Moreover, the film
also loses its balance between the two leads by adding
only major details to Alice's background. In the end,
even though Alice's story is one of the strong points
of the film, the character of Hana has been reduced
to a young con artist who'll do anything for love.
Nevertheless, the two leads
are absolutely charming. Hana and Alice comes
alive whenever the two share the screen thanks to
their chemistry. They have such rapport playing best
friends that it's hard to imagine they are anything
less than that in real life. Of course, the fact that
they're playing their own age doesn't hurt either.
What's even better is that the two leads are just
as good on their own. Anne Suzuki gives an enchanting
performance as the head-over-heels in love Hana. Even
though her character threatens to become one-note,
she still has a few good dramatic moments. However,
it's Yu Aoi who has some of the film's best moments,
including a memorable dance performance in the end.
While Tomohiro Kaku's deadpan Miyamoto takes some
time to get used to, he eventually left a favorable
impression upon me as well. Then again, his character
could've been better written in the first place.
The crew behind the camera
is excellent as well. Every technical detail in Hana
and Alice is probably helped by the fact that
Iwai not only wrote and directed, but also composed
the music and edited the entire film as well. For
their final collaboration, cinematographer Noboru
Shinoda (who passed away before the film's release)
stunningly retains Iwai's signature soft-lighting
from film to digital. The result is a teenage fairy
tale given a truly magical atmosphere that is rarely
seen in Western films.
At 45 minutes, the short
films were also filled with charm and that high school
girl cuteness. Iwai has always paid attention to the
details, even in a simple conversation scene on a
train platform when the girls start practicing random
ballet forms mid-conversation. However, at 135 minutes,
Hana and Alice is ultimately too many details
and too little story. Even when Iwai adds deception
and fabricated pasts into the plot, it feels like
a graduate philosophy course for high school - the
idea is there, but it feels out of place. In the end,
Hana and Alice is a beautifully made and enjoyably
charming story about the strength of friendship, but
not much else. (Kevin Ma 2006)