Hana And Alice (Hana to Arisu)
Japan (2004) Dir. Shunji Iwai
Best friends are hard to come by (I know as I’ve never had one) so why is it something universally inevitable as love always seems to rock even the sturdiest of relationships? This is mostly a problem among teenagers who have grown up together until attraction to the opposite gender targets one of them and the rest is Armageddon.
Hana Arai (Anne Suzuki) and Tetsuko “Alice” Arisugawa (Yu Aoi) are such a close unit. During the end of their junior school years, Hana spots a boy Masashi Miyamoto (Tomohiro Kaku) at the train station and is immediately smitten with him. This turns into an obsession for Hana, riding on the same train as him and taking photos from afar.
Joining the same high school as Masahi, Hana follows him home one night, witnessing him knock himself out walking into a garage door. When Masashi awakes, Hana is the first person he sees but doesn’t recognise her, so she implies they are dating. But Hana brings Alice into the ruse, leading to a love triangle.
In what is probably a precedent for cinema Hana And Alice is a live action film which was succeeded a decade later by an animated prequel. Both films were written and helmed by Shunji Iwai, whose quirky slice-of-life dramas are such unique beast that this unusual practice its right in with his esoteric approach to life and art.
One doesn’t need to have seen the prequel to enjoy this film and vice versa – the only helpful thing to know is that the events of this story take place one year after the prequel. Thus, the friendship is relatively new and would still have some brittleness to it, but the two girls have been through a lot already so the connection is fairly sturdy.
Employing Godard-esque jump cuts and Kitano influenced flights of quixotic reverie, it is quite the surprise when the plot takes such a conventional turn with the love triangle but this is the only genre concession Iwai makes. Shot in natural light and acted as if it was a documentary, this is a curious combination of arthouse whimsy and teenage melodrama.
With Masashi suspecting his accident has left him with amnesia (not corrected by Hana), he and Hana spend a lot of time together, though Masashi doesn’t feel it. Discovering photos of him on Hana’s computer, Masashi demands answers, so Hana invents a story of Masashi previously dating Alice and they were her photos, which Alice confirms when Masashi asks her.
Still confused, Masashi asks Alice to remind him of his past in the hope he can recover his feelings for Hana, but Alice creates such a plausible and convincing relationship that they fall for each other instead. Soon, one of these liars is going to be found out but which one? And will this mean the end of the Hana and Alice partnership for good?
Bust ups over boys (or girls) is hardly new but Iwai and the cast do such a stellar job in making Hana and Alice such an endearing and suitable couple that we don’t ever want to see them split up. Iwai’s trick is that Masashi is the innocent in all of this so we can’t hate him for being the catalyst for the split – after all, he has been unwittingly thrown into this situation and is acting accordingly.
One look at the 135-minute run time will have people wondering how Iwai can eke the plot out that long, but the reality is he doesn’t. This is a slice of life drama as much as it is a teen romance, and Alice benefits from the split and being let down by her divorced parents – her mother even pretends not to know her when they bump not each other in a café, as she has her latest lover in tow – positing Alice as the primary sympathy figure.
Her escape is being discovered by a talent agent in the street and attending auditions for acting and modelling gigs. Each one is a disaster for Alice, though pathos comedy gold for the audience, making her even more vulnerable and deserving of happiness, whilst providing a wry look at the fickleness of show business. Yet in true Blue Peter style it is amazing what you can do with two paper cups and some masking tape.
That last reference is indicative of Iwai and his inability to help himself in subverting the rules of the cinema, making the crazy and inappropriate actually work when it shouldn’t. A prime example of this is Hana and Masashi having their dramatic showdown in a darkened classroom with a giant inflatable Astro Boy seen through the window hovering in the background.
Such flagrant disregard for mood and emotion might suggest Iwai is a hardened soul keen to make everyone feel his misery or askew view of the world, but there is so much heart in this film, the deal is that it is not worn on its sleeve, it is in the minutiae. I will concede that run time is excessive for what Iwai is trying to say, but he is successful in creating a tangible world the audience don’t mind sticking around in a bit longer.
But Iwai can’t take sole credit for this, as the true appeal is the two leading ladies. Yu Aoi really steps up as Alice, using her natural fragile looks to full advantage whilst Anne Suzuki provides the tomboy energy required for Hana. At the start, it appears Hana will be the comedian and Alice the serious one, yet Iwai gives them both the chance to fulfil both roles with tremendous results.
As unconventional is Hana And Alice is in places, it stands as a very clear celebration of the power of a true friendship that was able to weather many storms and remain unbroken. Likable leads and genuine sentiment help make this poignant tale a rewarding and resonant viewing experience.