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Case of Hana & Alice, The
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by Jay Seaver

"A junior-high prequel that's highly animated."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Eleven years ago, Shunji Iwai made "Hana & Alice", a well-received movie about two high-school best friends smitten with the same boy, praised in large part for the performances by Anne Suzuki and Yu Aoi as the title characters. Now, he's decided to to tell the story of how these two girls met ten years later despite the actresses having aged a decade in the meantime, and rather than recast, he's made his first animated film. It's a charmer.

Tetsuko Arisugawa (voice of Yu Aoi) and her mother Kayo (voice of Shoko Aida) have just moved to a small town after Kayo's divorce, which not only means a new school for Tetsuko but a new nickname - taking her mother's surname rather than that of father Kenji Kuroyanagi means she'll be "Alice" rather than "Kuro" from now on. It's kind of a weird place - the shut-in girl in the overgrown house next door seems to be spying on her, and the other students are adamant she not sit in a certain seat because of a story about how "Judas" sat there and was murdered by one of his four wives. It's ridiculous for a middle-school student, but one of the other kids went into convulsions as if possessed when she sat there before. The curious Alice winds up investigating, and the trail leads in short order to her weird next-door neighbor, Hana Arai (voice of Anne Suzuki), who has her own reasons to find out what actually happened a year ago.

I've not seen the original Hana & Alice, but that's going to have to be remedied because I found myself tremendously fond of these characters. Alice, in particular, is a pip; she's introduced with the sort of red flags that could mark her as the surly new girl - embarrassed by her flirty mother, resigned to giving up ballet because money's tight and she's the practical one - but Yu Aoi gives her this great, spunky personality. She's naturally funny and though she takes no crap, it's not hard to see how she makes friends quickly enough. Hana stays in the background for the first half-hour or so of the movie, but once introduced, she's got a sardonic tone that matches Alice's. It's easy to see how the two will become friends even as they start off somewhat antagonistic, there's a natural banter to their first conversations and their tones match. In some ways, Anne Suzuki's got the harder part; Hana has to be dramatic in a way that's really worrisome when you think about it - going near-hikikomori like that isn't a good sign on top of the events that led there - but it also can't be hugely surprising when she's out and about and more than a bit likable and capable.

I'm mostly crediting the actresses here in large part because the animation style looks highly rotoscoped, as if they played the parts themselves and had the art drawn over them. That wouldn't be surprising, considering that Iwai is new to animation, and this would let him work in a familiar way. Exterior backgrounds often look like filtered photos, although there is some CGI enhancement at certain points. The animation crew does work in a clean, simple style, although they switch things up for flashbacks and the like. Some style choices certainly seem to come from Iwai and perhaps the original film - he'll occasionally frame characters horizontally, as if the camera were laying on its side, for instance - and overall, the medium suits the movie.

Maybe using animation makes the somewhat unbelievable "murder mystery" storyline work better, too. On the whole Iwai's script is very entertaining; he gives Alice a number of nice vignettes before launching into the main adventure with Hana. That last part gives Iwai the room to increase the film's screwball quotient as one slip-up or misunderstanding leads to another, especially since the girls are communicating on early-2000s flip phones (and people would frequently ask them to hang them up). What's most impressive, though, is how so many of both the smaller stories and bigger ones manage a similar upbeat feel - Alice, Hana, and the other characters are put in tough situations but are generally able to meet these challenges with their own cleverness and good will toward each other.

That attitude goes a long way to making "The Case of Hana & Alice" a genuine delight, a great little coming of age film whether the audience has met the characters or not. And those of us encountering them for the first time certainly have a new movie to add to our watch lists for after the festival's end.

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originally posted: 07/21/15 01:11:26
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Shunji Iwai

Written by
  Shunji Iwai

  Yű Aoi
  Anne Suzuki

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