Movie Review, Shunji Iwai, Silver Moon in Full Bloom

Hana & Alice (2004) by Shunji Iwai

Original Name: Hana to Arisu

Director:  Shunji Iwai

Debut at: Mar 2004 (135 min)

Country: Japan (Japanese)

IMDB Link:

Sometimes, it takes a film like this for me to reevaluate my rating system, as for objectively, I know this gem has many flaws: it’s overlong for one thing, it feels slight for another. Yet it’s every bit a kind of film that speaks to me on a personal level, that if I was going to write a story in the future, it’d turn out to be like this. Time will tell whether or not it loses its spell as years go by (hence I’ll settle with this rate for now), but I don’t deny that I have fallen to its charms right now. It might have to do with the fact that I watched its animated prequel The Case of Hana & Alice before, so I’m already in love with these titular characters, and that’s important here because this film is all about them with no real dramatic edge. I remember I had some reservation after reading the synopsis because it gave you the impression that it’s one of these films where the girls have to fight against each other for a boy. This is far from the case here, as these girls are very much in control here. They know what they want and they fight for it.

The very first thing you need to notice while approaching this film is that Hana & Alice isn’t a romance film, or a drama film. It’s a slice-of-life comedy film at heart where Iwai favors the absurd sense of humor and its light-heart atmosphere. Otherwise he wouldn’t include many offbeat factors that help deflating the tensions in its most dramatic sequences. There are three such scenes he uses that approach: 1) when Alice and Hana having their first real fight, followed immediately by them sleeping on each side of Miyamono 2) when Hana threatens to tear up the card, there’s a giant Astro Boy figure lurking behind the scene 3) on Hana’s tearful confession that interacts with the embarrassing rakugo her senpai plays. In the similar manner, the film purposely underplays many of their intimating scenes. When it reveals that Alice is the only audience left who is willing to listen to Hana’s rakugo, for example, the film has all the opportunity to reinforce their chemistry (as most other movies tend to do), which it doesn’t. Iwai doesn’t settle on big, revealing events in Hana & Alice, the film just flows swiftly like a ballet dance.

It helps that Hana & Alice succeeds on depicting Hana and Alice’s solid chemistry before moving them into their own character’s plot-line. These girls spark such strong chemistry together that at no point we doubt that they were going to break apart. Ultimately though, Hana & Alice is about them confronting and going through their own personal arcs, with Alice dealing with her acting auditions (there’s some snarky comments towards Japan’s entertaining industry right there) and Hana keeping up with the fraud she made. Each of them builds up from strong character traits and an eye for small characters details, like Alice’s adorable way of eating snacks or Hana’s quick wit, the most standout scene for me is the two talking while subtly practicing their ballet moves. Both Aoi Yuu and and Suzuki Anne fit their role extremely well (which comes up even more funny regarding how Aoi’s previous role in Lily Chouchou was about a girl who can’t act innocent anymore).

The showman of the movie, however, is Shunji Iwai himself. Up to this point, this is the film where he becomes a master if his craft: his signature touch is the most visible and he is in a total control of the film’s outcome. Hana & Alice contains many of his usual filmmaking styles, but here he comes to the point where he evolves from those. His typical handheld photography is still here, but this is one of the rare times he occasionally lets his camera stand still (you can see at the sequence near the end where Alice learns that she gets a job). His rapid editing is still there but the film’s most recognizable shot is the one that tracking the two girls walking down the street. Not only on the visual level, the writing of Hana & Alice feels like a culmination of everything that he has done before: epic, fractional but rich details in his most ambitious works All About Lily Chouchou and Swallowtail Butterfly and romance at heart, lightheart feel of his more mainstream offerings Love Letter and April Story. Moreover, he takes full command in aural department, as this is his first work as a composer to his films. Indeed, the soundtrack does a wonderful job here. It feels as if many scores are created with these certain sequences in mind, thus they are integrated to the scenes like another character of the story. You don’t recall the scene where Alice dancing in the rain, or her breathless ballet sequence without the soundtrack in displays. The soundtrack further makes Hana & Alice flow like a ballet piece.

People might complain about the weak male lead character, and I agree on that front, but Hana & Alice, as the title suggests, are the girls’ main stage so I don’t take it much as an issue. Another factor to note that the film plays out as several segments. While those segments are connected by the same main thread of the romance between our two girls and Miyamono, the film is episodically and these segments can stand by their own. That make the film highly re-watchable. And like any good ballet performance, it’s the flow, the moments that count the most. Hana & Alice flawed, it’s overlong and somewhat meandering and I could argue that its prequel is deeper than this, but I wouldn’t have it in any other way.

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