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Review: ‘The Case of Hana and Alice’

The animated prequel to Shunji Iwai’s 2004 live action film shows us the imperfect origin to a great friendship.

Upon seeing the program for this year’s Annecy Festival I was thrilled to see screenings of Ghost in the Shell: The Movie and The Case of Hana and Alice listed. My delight dissipated a bit, however, when I quickly noticed that I would be sitting in my usual place at the Geneva Airport when Ghost in the Shell was actually screening! So, my focus turned to Hana and Alice.

Although an avid fan of Japanese animation, I do recognize the plethora of anime lacking story and overloaded with schoolgirl uniforms, especially the televised variety. Feature length films, however, rarely disappoint me in that respect – or at least the probability of watching recycled anime dreck seems low. And The Case of Hana and Alice definitely did not disappoint.

If this pair of girls sounds familiar, your gut is correct. In a bit of a reversal from the usual scenario of taking a popular anime and giving it a live-action treatment, The Case of Hana and Alice is the animated prequel to the live action film Hana and Alice, both directed by Shunji Iwai. The original story of two teenage girls falling in love with the same boy was quite the success in 2004. But this success had everything to do with these two quirky characters and very little with the often-used love-triangle story line. So I’m not terribly surprised Hana and Alice are back – as are the original actors, Anne Suzuki and Yu Aoi, who resume their roles.

In depicting how Hana and Alice first met, Iwai pens a humorous teenage comic-drama revolving around a murder investigation, a supposed murder that is. Alice, the new girl at school, finds herself assigned to a classroom where Yuda Kotaro supposedly died of supernatural causes. And since that rumored moment, Yuda’s fellow classmate Hana has refused to come to school. She is now a recluse in her home. Like all good mysteries, one clue leads to another and Alice decides to get to the bottom of this mystery by walking straight into Hana’s place of refuge. Together, they then set off to Tokyo to discover whether Yuda is alive or dead.

Teen dramas and adolescent coming of age narratives are common in Japanese animation, and this is a good thing. Why? Because, more often than not, they do it right. Regardless of the exact details of the story, teenage narratives are given a certain depth and emotion that allows audiences of all ages to connect with the characters. The story is simply allowed to be an engaging story rather than prepackaged with all the current trends and narrowly targeted at one demographic for mass consumption. And so, in tracking down Yuda – I’ll decline to give spoilers – we are treated to unexpected events that make these characters wonderfully human – and typically Hana and Alice. From Alice getting trapped with an elderly salary man for a few hours, with whom she shows great patience and eventual kindness, to this pair of amateur sleuths missing the last train home and spending the night in a parking lot under the warm engine of diesel truck, they have an adventure you either wish you had as teenager, or remember fondly when no one is around. The Case of Hana and Alice is just a good, endearing flick.

On a technical note, a combination of CG and rotoscoping is employed that gives the animation a rough or off the cuff kind of feel. For the purists, this might not settle well. Don’t get me wrong. One of the first things that captured my attention about Japanese animated features back in the early 80s was the sheer artistry of production; whatever I was watching, it was both movie and one long painting. Still, experimentation, deviation from the anime norm, should not only be encouraged, but also expected. In this case, this imperfect feel perhaps adds to the overall story of the imperfect origin a great friendship.