EXPECTATIONS: I had none whatsoever.
REVIEW: I knew this review had to be written sooner or later. To clarify this statement into detail, this is the very first live-action Japanese film that I witnessed without intent. It was a time when I was in high school and I was basically discovering who I am and after a long day of school, I was watching afternoon television; obviously the perfect time for top A-grade programming. Skimming through channels, I switch to SBS and I see two schoolgirls walking in an early cloudy morning. Sounds uneventful and boring but what really captured me was the cinematography and how clean it was. Little did I know, it was a Japanese film, especially when the title of the film was shown in English. Ever since, I was hooked and I have never looked back. Until now. Hana and Alice is definitely a Shunji Iwai film through and through. But is it worth a viewing for the uninitiated or will be a long-trudging slog?
Anne Suzuki and Yu Aoi star as the titular characters; junior high school classmates, ballet students and they are the best of friends. Hana is the closed book who conforms with others like a passenger while Alice is the free spirit who acts on her impulses. On 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 an incredibly random conversation about Hannibal Lecter abruptly and amusingly ends Alice’s schoolgirl crush, Hana serendipitously encounters the young Japanese man, named Miyamoto (Tomohiro Kaku), 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 hits 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.
Miyamoto plays along with despite his skepticism, 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 supposed 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 (Shoko Aida) would rather spend more time dating than parenting; her father (Sei Hiraizumi) treats her well, but rarely sees her; and she gets scouted by a talent agency, even though her acting skill is amusingly next to nil.
The story sounds like a sappy love triangle that would be right at home for a sappy Nicholas Sparks film, but fortunately, it is anything but. The story has a lot of fascinating details and odd quirks that gives the film good replay value, like the Hannibal Lecter reference or the barbed commentary on the Japanese entertainment industry or the use of snails or how the leads subtly practice their ballet stances while waiting for the train to arrive. Just in the recent viewing of the film, I realized that despite Hana’s persistence in her fabrication of a relationship with Miyamoto, the film gradually features the presence of flowers throughout. There might not be a growth of a relationship, but there is growth of Hana as a person. The film-making is absolutely stellar, with magnificent production values considering the budget. The cinematography by Noboru Shinoda (R.I.P) is done on digital cameras, but it preserves Iwai’s feel for soft-lighting that gives the film a magical atmosphere that is usually reserved for fantasy films. The music, the editing and the directing, all done by Iwai, is above reproach. The music in particular is a piano-melodic delight to hear and accentuates the breezy magical feel of the film.
But we all know the real reason why the film works: the two leads. The film just comes to life spectacularly whenever they share the screen together and their chemistry is fantastic to witness. Like I said in my The Case of Hana and Alice review, the two have such a good chemistry, it is incredibly hard to believe that they weren’t friends before filming. Don’t get me wrong, the film does not fall apart when the leads are apart; they are just as good when they are separate. Anne Suzuki (who is famous for her role in Initial D) is a joy as the lovestruck Hana (which is Japanese for flower) who causes quite a bit of trouble to get the love she desperately strives for. Her character isn’t the most developed out of the two, but her role in the story is the most important and although her methods almost endanger her to become a bit unsympathetic (she gets Alice into her deceptive ways), her character is quite relatable and Suzuki sells it with conviction, particularly in a scene when she is in a confrontation with Miyamoto backstage. The standout of the two is Yu Aoi, as Alice (short for Arisugawa) who plays the high-spirited side of her character perfectly. Her character has the best moments in terms of scenes (her ballet dance is a highlight) as well as her character development (her scenes with her mother and father exemplify that).
The supporting cast are just as good in their roles, with Sei Hiraizumi providing a subtle sadness as Alice’s father, due to their disconnect (the scene he has with Yu Aoi is a very touching scene) and Shoko Aida as Alice’s mother, who is busy focusing on dating rather than parenting. She has a scene where she comes out in her underwear, which leads to a shock for Miyamoto, and it is awkwardly hilarious as you expect. As for Tomohiro Kaku, it took quite a bit to me to warm up to but his quirks (including his well-timed hiccups) shy attitude got to me. His character is not so much a fully-formed person, but is essentially a catalyst of what obstacles the two leads will end up going through. Who knows, if two pubescent girls were yearning for an average guy like myself in my high-school days, I’d probably react the exact same way. There are some surprising cameos that all amuse; from Sadao Abe, Ryoko Hirosue, even Hiroshi Abe, who plays a suitor of Alice’s mother.
As much as I can rave on and on about this film, there are some flaws that stick out to me like a sore thumb. For one, at 135 minutes, the film is quite long for a simple story such as this. Secondly, the film tends to focus more on details and character and not enough on the storytelling. Those who want their films focused and plot-driven will definitely be irked.
But overall, with an odd, yet amusing sense of humour, a plot that dwells more on details than actual storytelling, beautifully melodic music, captivating female characters and immersive cinematography, Hana and Alice is a great starter for those who love slice-of-life films as well as getting into Shunji Iwai’s work.
The leads have such fantastic chemistry, it’s hard to think that they weren’t acquainted before the film
Many minute details add to the joy of the film (like how the leads stand on the train platform, subtly practicing their ballet)
Cinematography looks great, especially when it was filmed on HD digital video
Not much of a plot (reliance on minute details and character than plot, like many Iwai films)
Overlong running time
Cast: Yu Aoi, Anne Suzuki, Tae Kimura, Sei Hiraizumi, Shoko Aida, Tomohiro Kaku, Takao Osawa, Ryoko Hirosue, Hiroshi Abe
Director: Shunji Iwai
Screenwriters: Shunji Iwai