Hana to Arisu, 2004
Over the past few years director Shunji Iwai has attained quite a following, amidst several of his short stories and four feature length films (discounting the recent Kon Ichikawa Story). Following on from Love Letter, Swallowtail Butterfly, April Story (’98 short) and All About Lily Chou-Chou, Hana & Alice continues to thematically link the director’s ideals of young love, family and friendship and the trials of simply growing up and learning through experience. However, Hana & Alice might never have come about had it not been for Iwai’s fortunate advertising streak with Nestle. In 2003 he was hired to write and direct a short series of films to promote “Kit-Kat” chocolate bars, which subsequently made their way onto Nestlé’s website. Due to the popularity of these shorts, which featured best friends Hana and Alice, Iwai was given the green-light to produce a fully fledged film.
The story follows best friends Hana (Anne Suzuki) and Alice (Yu Aoi) as they go through adolescence. One day, while taking their regular train journey to school, Alice – an aspiring actress – points out a Japanese-American boy she’s attracted to. Next to him is a much shorter, younger man who they assume is his half-brother. From there they start taking photographs and looking out for the pair every day on the train. Some time passes and the foreigner who Alice once admired from afar is no longer around. She soon forgets about him, but Hana can’t stop thinking about the younger bookworm who always stood beside him.
Soon it’s back to high-school and Hana discovers that the boy she likes belongs to the Rakugo club. His name is Masashi Miyamoto (Tomohiro Kaku) bearing an amusing similarity to a famous swordsman. She joins his class in the hopes of getting close to him and it works, to a certain extent. She also gets into the habit of discreetly following him wherever he goes. On one such occasion she witnesses him banging his head on a half-closed shutter, whilst reciting some lines for the upcoming school festival. As he lies on the road in a daze she hurries over to see if everything is alright. He seems fine, except he can’t recall who Hana is. On impulse she decides to tell him that she’s his girlfriend, which sets into motion a series of not-so-innocent deceptions which Hana thinks is all too perfect. Only it isn’t as easy as she thought. She soon asks of her friend Alice to act as an accomplice in her efforts to win the heart of the confused Miyamoto, to which Alice agrees. But the more Alice enjoys her role of being Miyamoto’s love, the more she enjoys making up more lies in order to appear authentic. Soon Miyamoto finds himself drawn to Alice, which soon creates friction between the close friends, who appear to be now heading their separate ways.
It would be simple enough to pick apart Hana & Alice for employing a narrative device that’s not exactly original; after all it makes itself quite an easy target by taking a well-worn premise such as a conflicting love triangle and letting it stew for two and a quarter hours. But then anyone who knows anything about Shunji Iwai knows that he never does anything by halves; rather than indulge himself with a conventional narrative and have it play out in a routine manner, his films seek to deliver a myriad of existential emotions through the use of poignant and realistic dialogue, gorgeous framing devices and mellowing concertos which compliment his likeable characters. True to good form, then, Hana & Alice has all of the redeeming qualities that makes Iwai’s work so memorable and yet it also goes that little step further by injecting a hefty dose of light humour. While the latter statement might suggest it as being gimmicky by nature, the truth is that overall it’s far too well realised to allow itself to become a silly experimental exercise.
Hana & Alice isn’t your typical quirky comedy, however, deriving its humour from serious situations and playing out its scenes with genuine sincerity. Much of this stems from the fact that our female protagonists create their own complicated situations from the get-go, which inadvertently but inevitably threatens to destroy their close-knit bond over something as normal as the infatuation over a boy. Their romantic naivety contributes to the deepening hole which they’ve begun to dig for themselves, thus evoking a sense of impending tragedy, however restrained it ultimately feels. Iwai never greatly oversteps his mark; said tragedy is one which can be readily fixed before it escalates into a saddening mess, and as such the film manages to balance itself nicely enough thanks to some well timed exchanges. Sure, the director toys with the obligatory cliché, which might suggest a parting of ways for Hana and Alice, but there’s a sense that deep down even they know that something such as this is merely trivial when weighed next to the meaningfulness of their love for one another. It’s no great surprise then to see the director throw in a suitably fluffy denouement to warm our cockles.
Seeing as Hana & Alice resists the temptation to stray into hardened melodrama to remain a charming comedic tale, the story finds itself lacking a grandiose emotional pull. In actuality this works to the film’s benefit, as we’re drawn to the leads without being force-fed sappy sentiments, and in exploring the household lives of Hana and Alice, Iwai truly impresses in a wonderfully understated way. He never examines his subjects too closely, but frankly speaking he doesn’t have to, allowing for the smaller moments that creep in to resonate on a more sympatheitc scale. We have Alice’s somewhat distant relationship from her mother who runs a tip of a house and tries to keep her daughter out of the way of her new boyfriend (Abe Hiroshi in a small cameo), and then there’s Alice’s somewhat estranged but heartening meeting with her father, which is wonderfully handled. Iwai skilfully establishes the essence of the characters and exactly what they mean to each other, while also signifying communication breakdowns between families.
Of course this all happens in-between the main drive of the story, but Iwai does remarkably well in dividing his time between both Hana and Alice, allowing them to live out their individual lives at a distance, whilst also keeping their bond firmly secured. Hana studies a Rakugo monologue for the upcoming school festival, in addition to hounding the boy she likes, while Alice goes from audition to audition, just hoping for her first big break. And we want them to succeed. Despite Hana’s dubious lies we want her to be happy, just as we tire of seeing Alice fail time after time and being teased because of her rather simple nature. The strength of Hana and Alice’s relationship and how it’s portrayed through two marvellous performers such as Anne Suzuki and Yu Aoi (returning after Iwai’s Lily Chou-Chou) is enough to ensure that any other characters who come and go can be dismissed with little fuss made on their part, such as the object of affection himself, Miyamoto (Tomohiro Kaku also returning after Lily Chou-Chou): a typical, despondent male caricature worthy of any Japanese melodrama. Sure enough, as with almost everything Shunji Iwai, it’s the female contingent which warrants our attention.
In trying to illustrate and highlight the affection that these girls share for one another, Iwai adopts an almost documentarian-like study on friendship, family and school life. From the film’s opening montage we get the feeling of an outsider’s approach to the material, as the camera wavers and often lingers during single takes, capturing perfectly innocent moments in time, which can be as simple as one getting on a train, admiring a person from afar or taking dainty walks. He creates a majesty of images, accompanied by a wonderfully self-composed score consisting mainly of piano and violin solos. But Hana & Alice is as much indebted to regular Iwai cinematographer Noboru Shinoda, who sadly passed away shortly after the film’s completion. Iwai’s aforementioned score and Shinoda’s compelling attention to details work in perfect unison, demonstrating firm adherence with regards to the inner struggles and personal feelings of the characters they support. On occasion Iwai does let his images get in the way, to the point that they become almost distractingly beguiling, but these occasions are often rare and easily overlooked in favour of scenes of utmost beauty, some of which cannot be fully expressed without having seen them play out: when Alice performs a ballet routine for an audition, Shunji Iwai’s music and Yu Aoi’s heart-stopping talents create an emotional impact which words needn’t express. Hana & Alice probably shouldn’t have worked quite so well, but in the hands of such an assured and confident director even the simplest of tales can be deceptively rewarding.
Despite an initially daunting run time and a concept that might have been thought up in five minutes, Hana & Alice proves to be another triumph for the consistently entertaining Shunji Iwai. Playing to his strengths of being able to deliver pleasing compositions and allowing his two female leads to bounce off of each other with sheer elegance, his latest story manages to rise above cliché and still come away with plenty of warmth and sincerity in relation to the sometimes unpredictable nature of the human heart.