EXPECTATIONS: A film as charming and beautiful as its live-action predecessor.
REVIEW: In my previous review of April Story, I’ve mentioned that the first live-action Japanese film that I saw was Hana and Alice, so you can probably assume that I had high expectations for this animated prequel. And to hear that all of the original cast had returned for the film had me excited (although one actor plays a different role). Even more so is the type of film-making for the prequel (rotoscope animation, like in A Scanner Darkly), which is an ingenious way of sidestepping the age of the actors as well as still filming in real environments and sets. But I was afraid that Shunji Iwai would not be able to capture the magic of the original as well as not conveying his visual film-making to his bet to the media of animation. Well guys, I am happy to report that this film is not only a fantastic story about lost love and what it can do to a person but it is also a charming, beautiful and oddly weird story about the beginning of a delightful friendship.
Set in the year 2000 (as evident by the flip mobile phones), three years before the events of the live-action film, were are introducted to Tetsuko “Alice” Arisugawa (Yu Aoi), a 14 year old girl who moves into a new town, Fujiko, with her recently divorced mother (Shoko Aida). The people there aren’t exactly the helpful kind, with many weird and eccentric characters that you think it might not get any weirder, until Alice is swept into a case that involves ghosts and a murder of a student, Yuda (a playful way of saying Judas). Through her investigations, she is led to meet with a shut-in, Hana Arai (Anne Suzuki), who not only is an integral part of the case but she is also a neighbour of Alice. The two work together in solving the case but what they might end up with in the end is more than a solved case.
Now you’re probably wondering (especially for people who have seen the live-action film) is why in the world would the prequel involve ghosts and murder? It turns out it is a lot of fun, similar to cases that Scooby-Doo or Nancy Drew would investigate, but this is a Shunji Iwai film. His films were always more about details than story so if people are reading this review and/or are planning to watch this film expecting a true mystery will be quite disappointed. Fortunately, Iwai succeeds in making the film a character study about two girls who forge a friendship that made the live-action film so compelling. The rotoscope animation does take a bit of time to adjust at first but the movements of the characters look surprisingly natural and the scenery and locations such as Hana’s flower garden to the playground gymboree where Alice plays look breathtaking. One of the things that make the film such a great thematic follow-up to the live-action original is how the film is so naturalistic, you forget that you’re watching an animated film but a fairy tale come to life, and the cinematography and music of both films really capture that feel.
Another thing that makes the film a resounding success is the cast. The only way the film would work is that the two leads can make you believe that they could be the best of friends and they clearly are up to the task. Yu Aoi is still the goofy, playful and strong Alice and has plenty of opportunities to show it, like investigating a lead who may or may not be the right person or hysterically pleading her mother to move out of their new house because it might be inhabited by ghosts. Anne Suzuki is still the timid, lovesick instigator, who may or may not have been responsible for the murder, that you can’t help but want to give her a hug. The actresses still have the lovely chemistry that again makes you question why the two weren’t friends in the first place. There’s a scene later in the film where they lay snugly under a car for warmth and the two bond that I really enjoyed, and it is one of the many scenes in the film that bring it to life. Even the scene when the two first meet played out exactly the way I wanted it to be, with amusingly bad first impressions. What makes their interactions even more joyful is the fact that the two are playing 14 year olds, yet the actresses are double their age, so whenever they act out the character’s youthfulness, it comes off as hilarious.
I also loved that Iwai got every actor from the original film and have them reprise their roles. Like a scene with Alice and her father (Sei Hiraizumi) who visits every month is very touching due to the restrained sadness of Hiraizumi’s performance. Or how Alice’s mother is beginning to flirt with men, trying to regain her lost youth is amusingly portrayed by Shoko Aida. There’s a scene when Alice joins her childhood friend to a ballet studio, with Tae Kimura reprising her role as the ballet teacher. Even Tomohiro Kaku comes back, but in a different role as a teacher, who has a passion for snails (a visual joke that appears in the live-action film). It is callbacks to the original film like these that the initiated will definitely appreciate. The callbacks don’t just come from the reprising cast, but from the costumes (Hana wears the same sweater from the earlier film, as well as Alice in another scene), duplicated shots and even the live-action film’s origins (the presence of Kit Kat, which was integral to having the short films of Hana and Alice that lead to the live-action film).
But the uninitiated do not need to be hesitant to watch this film since the final product is so endearing and wonderfully realized that it will make you nostalgic for the friendships and times at school. A truly beautiful story about a blossoming friendship by Shunji Iwai.
The move from live-action to rotoscope animation has not dulled Shunji Iwai’s visual film-making
The chemistry from the two leads has not dulled over the past 11 years
Shunji Iwai’s weird and quirky humour is still apparent
Many small and amusing callbacks to the original live-action film
The original supporting cast reprise their roles with great effect
Some of the animation looks jerky at times
Those looking for an actual mystery will be disappointed
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Cast: Yu Aoi, Anne Suzuki, Ryo Katsuji, Haru Kuroki, Tae Kimura, Sei Hiraizumi, Shoko Aida, Ranran Suzuki, Tomohiro Kaku, Midoriko Kimura
Director: Shunji Iwai
Screenwriters: Shunji Iwai