Hana & Alice Review
Over the past few years director Shunji Iwai has attained quite a following, amidst several of his short stories and four feature length films (discounting the recent Kon Ichikawa Story). Following on from Love Letter, Swallowtail Butterfly, April Story (’98 short) and All About Lily Chou-Chou, Hana & Alice continues to thematically link the director’s ideals of young love, family and friendship and the trials of simply growing up and learning through experience. However, Hana & Alice might never have come about had it not been for Iwai’s fortunate advertising streak with Nestle. In 2003 he was hired to write and direct a short series of films to promote “Kit-Kit” chocolate bars, which subsequently made their way onto Nestlé’s website. Due to the popularity of these shorts, which featured best friends Hana and Alice, Iwai was given the green-light to produce a fully fledged film.
The story follows best friends Hana (Anne Suzuki) and Alice (Yu Aoi) as they go through adolescence. One day, while taking their regular train journey to school, Alice, an aspiring actress, points out a Japanese-American boy she’s attracted to. Next to him is a much shorter, younger man who they assume is his half-brother. From there they start taking photographs and looking out for the pair every day on the train. Some time passes and the foreigner who Alice once admired from afar is no longer around. She soon forgets about him, but Hana can’t stop thinking about the younger bookworm who always stood beside him.
Soon it’s back to high school and Hana discovers that the boy she likes belongs to the Rakugo club. His name is Masashi Miyamoto (Tomohiro Kaku) bearing an amusing similarity to a famous swordsman. She joins up in the hopes of getting close to him, and it works - to a certain extent. She also gets into the habit of discreetly following him wherever he goes. On one such occasion she witnesses him banging his head on a half-closed shutter, whilst reciting some lines for the upcoming school festival. As he lies on the road in a daze she hurries over to see if everything is OK. He seems fine, except he can’t recall who Hana is. On impulse she decides to tell him that she’s his girlfriend, which sets into motion a series of not-so-innocent deceptions which Hana thinks is all too perfect. Only it isn’t as easy as she thought. She soon asks of her friend Alice to act as an accomplice in her efforts to win the heart of the confused Miyamoto, to which Alice agrees. But the more Alice gets into her part of being ex-girlfriend to Miyamoto, the more she enjoys making up more lies in order to appear authentic. Soon Miyamoto finds himself drawn to Alice, which soon creates friction between the close friends, who appear to be now heading their separate ways.
It would be simple enough to pick apart Hana & Alice for employing a narrative device that’s not exactly original; after all it makes itself quite an easy target by taking a well worn premise such as a conflicting love triangle and letting it stew for two and a quarter hours. But then anyone who knows anything about Shunji Iwai knows that he never does anything by halves; rather than indulge himself with a conventional narrative and have it play out in a routine manner, his films seek to deliver a myriad of existential emotions through the use of poignant and realistic dialogue, gorgeous framing devices and mellowing concertos which compliment his likeable characters. True to good form, then, Hana & Alice has all of the redeeming qualities that makes Iwai’s work so memorable and yet it also goes that little step further by injecting a hefty dose of light humour. While the latter statement might suggest it as being gimmicky by nature, the truth is that overall it’s far too well realised to allow itself to become a silly experimental exercise.
Hana & Alice isn’t your typical quirky comedy, deriving its humour from serious situations and playing out its scenes with genuine sincerity. Much of this stems from the fact that our female protagonists create their own complicated situations from the get go, which inadvertently but inevitably threatens to destroy their close-knit bond over something as normal as the infatuation over a boy. Their romantic naivety contributes to the deepening hole which they’ve begun to dig for themselves, thus evoking a sense of impending tragedy, although it’s fairly restrained all things considered. Iwai never greatly oversteps his mark; said tragedy is one which can be readily fixed before it escalates into a saddening mess, and as such the film manages to balance itself nicely enough thanks to some well timed exchanges. Sure, the director toys with the obligatory cliché, which might suggest a parting of ways for Hana and Alice, but there’s a sense that deep down even they know that something such as this is small fries when weighed next to the meaningfulness of their love for one another, and so it’s no great surprise then to see the director throw in a suitably fluffy denouement to warm our cockles.
Seeing as Hana & Alice resists the temptation to stray into hardened melodrama to remain a charming comedic tale, it’s certainly true that the story lacks a grandiose emotional pull. In actuality this works to the film’s benefit, as we’re drawn to the leads without being force-fed sappy sentiments, and in exploring the household lives of Hana and Alice Iwai truly impresses in a wonderfully understated way. He never examines his subjects too closely, but frankly speaking he doesn’t have to, allowing for the smaller moments that seep through to resonate on a higher scale. We have Alice’s somewhat distant relationship from her mother who runs a tip of a house and tries to keep her daughter out of the way of her new boyfriend (Abe Hiroshi in a small cameo), and then there’s Alice’s somewhat estranged but heartening meeting with her father which is wonderfully handled. Iwai skilfully establishes the essence of the characters and exactly what they mean to each other, while also signifying communication breakdowns between families.
Of course this all happens in-between the main drive of the story, yet Iwai does remarkably well in dividing his time between both Hana and Alice, allowing them live out their individual lives at a distance, whilst also keeping their bond firmly secured. Hana studies a Rakugo monologue for the upcoming school festival, in addition to hounding Miyamoto, the boy she likes, while Alice goes from audition to audition, just hoping for her first big break. And we want them to succeed. Despite Hana’s dubious lies we want her to be happy, just as we tire of seeing Alice fail time after time and being teased because of her rather simple nature. The strength of Hana and Alice’s relationship and how it’s portrayed through two marvellous performers such as Anne Suzuki and Yu Aoi (returning after Iwai’s Lily Chou-Chou) is enough to ensure that any other characters who come and go can be dismissed with little fuss made on their part, such as the object of affection himself, Miyamoto (Tomohiro Kaku also returning after Lily Chou-Chou): your typical, despondent male caricature of any Japanese melodrama or otherwise. Sure enough, as with almost everything Shunji Iwai, it’s the female contingent which warrants our attention.
In trying to illustrate and highlight the affection that these girls share for one another, Shunji Iwai adopts an almost documentarian-like study on friendship, family and school life. Indeed from the film’s opening montage we get the feeling of an outsider’s approach to the material as the camera wavers and often lingers during single takes, capturing perfectly innocent moments in time, which can be as simple as one getting on a train, admiring a person from afar or taking dainty walks. He creates a majesty of images, accompanied by a wonderfully self-composed score consisting mainly of piano and violin solos, which turns the film into quite the audible experience. But Hana & Alice is as much indebted to regular Iwai cinematographer Noboru Shinoda, who sadly passed away shortly after the film’s completion. Iwai’s aforementioned score and Shinoda’s compelling attention to details work in perfect unison, demonstrating firm adherence with regards to the inner struggles and personal feelings of the characters they support. On occasion Iwai does let his images get in the way, to the point that they become almost distractingly beguiling, but these occasions are often rare and easily overlooked in favour of scenes of utmost beauty, some of which cannot be fully expressed without having seen them play out: when Alice performs a ballet routine for an audition, Shunji Iwai’s music and Yu Aoi’s heart-stopping talents create an emotional impact which words needn’t express. Hana & Alice probably shouldn’t have worked quite so well, but in the hands of such an assured and confident director even the simplest of tales can be deceptively rewarding.
Image Entertainment presents Hana & Alice with an anamorphically enhanced 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The biggest detracting factor is that the disc is non progressive, showing ghosting and combing effects for a film that’s perhaps not an easy one to transfer in the first place. Shunji Iwai employs various techniques, from diffusion filtering and harsh lighting outdoors, which often gives a hazy appearance and slight softness, to low-lit intimate locations which tend to showcase more grain. There’s perfectly nothing wrong with his chosen mediums, which do well to accompany the pseudo documentary styling, but there’s a feeling that the authoring here isn’t quite up to the task of doing his work full justice. Contrast and black levels are typical for these Japanese productions, with the former being a little high, while skin tones are nicely saturated and colours generally appear natural. Edge enhancement also makes an appearance, but doesn’t overly distract.
The Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 track fares much better, being far livelier than it might suggest. The disc makes full use of all five speakers, forwarding the majority of dialogue to the front channels cleanly, while the rears pick up some nice ambient details, such as background characters chatting and laughing and regular outdoor hustle and bustle (train noises for example being quite noticeable in an early scene). Shunji Iwai’s music is brilliantly brought to life, being steered across all speakers, though enjoying prominence in the back, making for a wholly enjoyable listening experience.
Optional English subtitles are included and they offer an excellent translation, with no grammatical errors or poor timing issues.
Filming H&A: Behind the Scenes is a fun look at the making of Shunji Iwai’s latest story. Running for an hour and five minutes it typically looks at various sections of film making, though without going into too much detail. It touches upon cinematography and art direction, but for the most part it concentrates solely on Iwai and his methods of directing, his working relationship with his cast and crew and his overall ideals. We’re taken through several scenes, while also being shown the cast and crew playfully tease each other and laugh on set, while also getting a look in on the development process, from script meetings to rehearsals. The actors get to discuss their characters and theories on adolescent relationships and Iwai talks about developing his story and how he perceives the film making process. We learn a few neat things, such as Iwai and Shinoda’s self-invented still photography camera cum movie lens. It’s a little saddening to see Shinoda in such high spirits just months before his passing, but we get a great sense of his involvement and how important he is to the production; there’s a wonderful on set comradery and we can clearly see everybody putting in 100% dedication.
A TV spot is also on the disc. It’s a shame we couldn’t get a little bit more though, such as the original shorts.
Despite an initially daunting run time and a concept that might have been thought up in five minutes, Hana & Alice proves to be another triumph for the consistently entertaining Shunji Iwai. Playing to his strengths in delivering pleasant compositions in every respect and allowing his two female leads to bounce off of each other with sheer elegance, his latest story manages to rise above any clichés and still come away with plenty of warmth and sincerity in relation to the sometimes unpredictable nature of the human heart.
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