By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Shunji Iwai’s new animated feature “The Case of Hana and Alice” begins with a young girl dancing ballet in her room. No color in the dancing girl’s figure. No color in the room, or through the window to the outside world. The sequences unfolds entirely in outlines on a light blue background.
For anyone made nervous by this, don’t fret; Iwai switches to normal anime methods and colors, for the body of the film. But he’s made important points early. His new feature will emphasize movement, and it will urge the audience close to the frame, to make sure we’re getting the meanings in small movements. (The characters were rotoscoped; that is, flesh-and-blood actors acted out the scenes, and the animators then electronically traced over those moves.) His backgrounds, too, show even more subtle richness than normal for anime, with treasures and surprises places in the foreground, the background, and along different planes, to reaffirm the depth of the overall image.
Director Iwai’s past projects consist mostly of live-action titles, usually filmed with distinctive visual approaches or conceptual twists. He shot the live-action “Last Letter” in China with a Chinese cast, far from his native Japan. “Swallowtail Butterfly” used hand-held cameras to tell an odd, disjointed crime story starring the Japanese pop star Chara. “Vampire” took him to America, where he explored vampirism with surrealistic touches and a scene of violence so disquieting I saw SIFF audience members walking out on it eight years ago.
For “The Case of Hana and Alice,” Iwai reached back to his 2004 live-action film “Hana and Alice,” about two oddball but strong and determined teen girls whose friendship endures through all kinds of creative mishaps. They stumble into brazen mistakes, but they help each other out of them.
The new anime feature functions as a prequel to the first film, tracing the colorful twosome back to before they knew each other. Also, Iwai wanted to use the same two actresses from the 2004 film as his protagonists, but they were obviously too old, by now, to plausibly play schoolgirls. He got around that part by filming the actors, his leads including, and then rotoscoping their faces and figures.
We start with Tetsuko “Alice” Arisugawa (voiced and body-modeled by Yu Aoi), who arrives at a new school knowing no one and having no idea how to fit in. She’s uncertain and a tad bit shy, but she’s capable of some iron in her spine, especially if she’s bickering with her single mother Kayo Arisugawa (voiced by Shoko Aida).
Her parents’ divorce hit Alice hard, exacerbating her adolescent confusions to the point where she’s not sure what to do, or who she should be. Matters aren’t helped when she arrives in her new homeroom. Her classmates tell her not to say certain things, perform certain actions, and definitely that she must not sit in certain places.
The reasons for all these strictures may lie in supernatural possession, but it may also be a bunch of poppycock dreamed up by one of the other girls as a grandstanding bid for attention. Alice will be become much more confused, before the end. But when she meets Hana Arai (voiced and body-modeled by Anne Suzuki), a guilt-ridden girl who won’t come out of her house and seems well on the way to becoming “hikikomori” (a youthful recluse who withdraws completely from human contact), until Alice shows up. Alice won’t let her new friend fade into the woodwork. She’ll pull Hana out if it risks her own sanity and stability.
In the end, the too-confusing plot seems less important than its emotional underpinnings. The two girls help each other through life, and they cement their care for each other through words, deeds, and the always-graceful ballet dancing. You’ll find yourself thinking of your own best friend or friends, whether or not you ever braved ballet lessons.
“The Case of Hana and Alice” plays on August 31, September 1, and September 8 at the Grand Illusion Cinema, 1403 N.E. 50th Street in Seattle’s University District. For prices, showtimes, and other information, visit http://grandillusioncinema.org.
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.