This past weekend was the beginning of the Children’s International Film Festival here in New York. There are two animated films from Japan being shown this year, one of which is The Case of Hana and Alice. This is actually a prequel to the 2004 film Hana and Alice, as well as director Shunji Iwai’s first animated feature. Having never seen the original film, I went into the theater without any preconceived notion about what Hana and Alice might, or should, be. I can honestly say that I left the theater pleasantly surprised.
The Case of Hana and Alice begins with one of our heroines, Tetsuko Arisugawa, moving to a new town in a house near Hana Arai. Although they are in the same class, Hana has become a recluse since an incident took place one year ago. Tetsuko (nicknamed “Alice” because of her family name) eventually learns about the incident from people in her ballet class as well as her school: a boy named “Judas” (or Yuda) was poisoned by his four wives when they found out about one another. Skeptical about how a middle school student could have four wives and curious to learn more, Alice looks into the matter. She eventually discovers that the only witness to the events is Hana. Thus, she tries to get the recluse’s help in solving this mystery.
For Iwai’s first animated film, this is very impressive. Iwai, himself, is also impressive: he not only wrote and directed this film, but acted as producer along with providing the music for it. The style of animation used in this film is rotoscoping, which involves tracing over footage of actors actually performing the scenes. While it’s done pretty well here, there are a few oddities: an early scene has Alice falling, and not only is the movement of the characters slowed down, but it looks terribly unnatural. Along with some unnatural movement, facial expressions are a bit of an issue: sometimes lips aren’t really seen moving when a character is speaking, or certain emotions look a bit flat on characters’ faces. Despite that, though, there are also a number of times when the movement looks quite fluid and detailed: scenes that have characters running or standing still while the breeze moves through their hair look quite nice. The scenery is also absolutely exquisite: certain backgrounds look like they’re paintings, and the colors look great.
The film also has some great scene composition. The problem with some of it, though, is in part because of the rotoscoping technique. One example is a scene with Alice running up the stairs in her house. The camera follows directly behind her, and the movement of it is really smooth. However, the way the stairs turn and her body turns is rather odd-looking. While the angle is a creative decision, it doesn’t end up completely working. A similar issue occurs during a scene in which Alice is teaching ballet to Hana. Still, even though scenes like this may not look the best, I appreciate the risk in going for different angles, since it still offers an interesting view.
The acting is also done quite well. Yū Aoi and Anne Suzuki reprise their roles of Alice and Hana, respectively, and actors from the original film whose characters appear here also reprise their roles. There were two hiccups in terms of acting: one came from Alice’s old friend from ballet. She speaks slowly with all of her lines, and her voice is also somewhat high. I cringed a little when she would speak for quite some time. Alice’s father, while not poorly portrayed, sounds more like her grandfather. This probably is due to the gap in time between the two films. They don’t appear in too much of the film, though, so it’s not a major concern overall. As far as the music goes, I give Iwai a lot of credit for handling the soundtrack composition of the film: it adds something to every scene, whether it’s a silly moment between the girls or a more thoughtful, quiet moment within the film.
The story itself is full of comedic moments, but it certainly has wonderful quiet moments, too. Separately, Alice and Hana are interesting characters with their own distinct personality: Alice stands out, in particular, due to being in more of the film. Together, the two girls have great chemistry, and the dialogue between them feels natural. Not too many secondary characters get attention in this film, but those that do have their own quirks and charm (or lack thereof, though that doesn’t hinder the film). While the story’s beginning may have some silliness to it, it’s still full of heart and engaging. While I found myself laughing a number of times during the film, my favorite scene is during one of the simpler moments: Alice is with an older man whom she’s mistaken for someone else, and before they part ways, they spend a bit of time on the swing set. In terms of plot, it doesn’t really add anything: however, the scene is absolutely beautiful, from the location and background to the characters’ dialogue. It’s just a wonderful little moment.
The Case of Hana and Alice is a lovely little film, and though it certainly has its flaws, the likability of the characters, the charm of the story, and the overall atmosphere of the film help pull it through. While I’m not sure how it stands as a prequel to the original film, it certainly left me wanting to watch it. As of writing this, there are still tickets available for the March 12 showing of the film in New York. If you’re in the area, I would recommend giving it a watch. You may just be pleasantly surprised.
- Beautiful backgrounds that look like paintings
- Movement is for the most part fluid, with a few stand-out scenes
- Alice and Hana are charming and have great chemistry
- Quirky side characters that have distinct personalities
- Mostly solid performances from the actors
- Pleasant soundtrack
- The rotoscoping can look very odd, especially when it comes to facial expressions
- Some camera angles, while creative, don't turn out too great
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