In 2004 Japanese director Shunji Iwai made Hana & Alice, a live-action movie about two high school students who both fall in love with the same boy. Slightly more than a decade later, he made The Case of Hana & Alice which is the story of how those two began their friendship. Rather than cast two different actresses to portray the protagonists younger selves in this prequel, Iwai decided to animate the film and keep the actresses for their voices.
Fourteen-year-old Tetsuko Arisugawa, who will later get nicknamed “Alice” (Yû Aoi ) moves to the suburbs (or the “sticks” as she likes to call it) with her mother after a divorce. Naturally, she hates it there at first. She has no friends, people at the school are mean, and there is a strange girl across the street who keeps staring at her from her window.
At school, she learns she is sitting in an accursed desk. In the previous year, a boy named Judas sat in it and, as rumor has it, he was murdered. He was also rumored to have had four wives and to have been poisoned by them when they found out about each other. The other students perform a cultish ritual around Alice to ward off the evil spirits. Alice is skeptical about all of this.
When Alice learns that she’s also living in this Judas’s old house, she visits the strange neighbor to see if she can get to the bottom of all these rumors. The neighbor turns out to be Hana (Anne Suzuki) who just so happened to be friends with Judas (whose real name is Kotaru) before he disappeared. The two set out on an adventure to find Kotaru’s father to find out if he’s still alive, and if so what happened to him.
The Case of Hana & Alice is a laid back, episodic, hang-out movie. The central mystery of what happened to Judas helps move the plot along, but is hardly the point of the story. The film is confident enough to allow us to spend time with these characters, some of who disappear after a scene or two. It is about being a teenager and forming friendships and life.
There is a long scene in the middle of the film in which Alice believes she is following Kotaru’s father throughout the city, but it turns out to be simply someone who works in his office. They wind up having dinner and walking to the subway (and playing in the park on the swings in a marvelous homage to Akira Kurosawa’s masterful film Ikiru). It is a lovely, beautiful scene, but just as you think these two will form a lasting bond they part ways and Alice dismisses him as some weird old guy as soon as she’s talking to Hana again.
I have not seen Hana & Alice and so I cannot say whether this prequel has any callbacks (or is that call forwards?) to the original. Presumably, some of the events here show the beginnings of things that happen in the first one. But this film is so scattershot by design there wasn’t anything that stood out as obviously foreshadowing things to come. I certainly don’t feel it necessary to watch Hana & Alice before watching this. I had absolutely no trouble following along with what was happening.
The animation is an interesting mix of what looks like watercolors and photo-realistic computer animation with occasional usage of what looks like rotoscoping live actors into animation.
I’m a long way from being a teenager and so my memories and emotions from those times have long since faded. But this film feels right. It has the same aimlessness of teenaged life mixed with very strong emotions, blended with apathy. I very much enjoyed hanging out with these characters.
Bonus features include an interview with You Aoi and Anne Suzuki who play the titular characters and a different interview with Shunji Iwai. Plus a press conference, the stage greeting from the premiers and a message from animator Makoto Shinkai.