Hana and Alice
Image: All the Anime

My local secondhand media/electrical goods store has a small anime section with a fairly swift turnover of content. I visit it a couple of times a month, and often there will be something obscure that grabs my eye - like recently a rare Gamecube game (Ikaruga) or a boxset of an anime series I haven’t seen (Michiko and Hatchin). Lately they’ve stocked a drip-feed of premium blu-ray anime movies that I tend to pick up for the sheer novelty - even better if I’ve never heard of them.

The Case of Hana and Alice is one of these. “What is that?” I thought to myself as I grabbed it from the shelf, it’s unusual I find an official UK anime release I truly know nothing about. It’s a DVD/blu-ray combo-pack with a small pamphlet and three postcards - quite an attractive set, released in the UK by All the Anime, who seem to have a monopoly on most interesting anime movie releases here.

The contents of this attractive edition
Image: Doctorkev (My dining room table)

The most striking aspect of this production is the choice of animation style - a combination of rotoscoping and 3DCG for the character models on realistic but vividly hued water-colour backgrounds. Initially I found this quite distracting - sometimes the character animation is choppy and during rare scenes with camera motion the backgrounds judder like a truck on an uneven dirt road. When the camera is static though, some scenes are beautiful with painterly grace and subtle lighting. The ballet-dance scenes in particular are well-choreographed with smooth, flowing movements.

Impromptu ballet performance
Image: All the Anime

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Invaluable to the decoding of this movie is the director’s interview in the included pamphlet. It turns out that this is in fact a prequel to the 2004 live-action movie Hana and Alice, (writer, producer and director all the same) - though nothing on the packaging hints that this is the case. Iwai’s reasoning for making a rotoscoped anime was that he wanted to use the same cast as the first film, but as they had aged 11 years the main characters would not look like middle-school children any more. Painting over them with digital ink fixed this issue and created what sounds like some pretty major production challenges. In order for their faces to be animated properly, the actors had to wear stick-on “anime-eyes” over their own. An unusual acting experience, I’d imagine.

Mild technical grumbles notwithstanding, this is an attractive-looking movie, more anime-style “cute” than uncanny valley creepy, unlike some other rotoscoped productions. Although I occasionally found trouble in telling certain characters apart, the animators did a good job of accentuating each individual’s signature movements. This is particularly marked in the case of the titular Alice who is athletic and full of energy - as a dancer and a runner she is often on the move, with exquisitely captured motion.

Alice jumps into action
Image: All the Anime

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In terms of the plot itself - it’s a meandering shaggy-dog story - a string of only loosely connected vignettes. With a slow start, I had to concentrate on the slightly echoey, quiet voices to get a grasp on what was happening. The first segment of the film follows the trials of Tetsuko “Alice” Arisugawa as a new transfer student after she moves to a suburb with her newly divorced mother and experiences very relatable troubles with snooty peers and minor bullying. This section helps to build a sympathetic portrait of Alice’s character, which is important as the rest of the movie hinges upon it. Once she meets the odd and reclusive Hana Arai, what there is of a plot finally kicks into gear with some frankly hilarious if still slow-paced misadventures in service of their attempt to solve a mystery involving a former classmate.

The “murder mystery” plot is pretty thin, but it’s not really the point of this movie.
Image: All the Anime

There’s never much of a sense of urgency or danger to the plot, though there are a few tense moments mainly due to some cringeworthy social faux-pas and dumb teenager mistakes. I always felt I was laughing with the characters rather than at them and I found I genuinely cared about their fates, if not about the mystery they investigated.

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The best aspect of this movie is the humour which arises naturally from the quirky characters and their unpredictable interactions. Particularly notable is a skit with a long buildup of mistaken identity, aborted attempts at phone communication and a very gullible taxi driver that erupts into deeply uncomfortable hilarity at its climax. Class cult leader/resident exorcist Mutsumi Mutsu is the most overtly eccentric character with a couple of extremely funny and bizarre scenes that provide flavour and a surprising amount of pathos. The relationship between the two leads - Alice and Hana - develops in a sweet, naturalistic way and is a convincing evocation of teenage friendship. Humorous scenes and relatable characters alone make this a worthwhile watch.

The bonkers Mutsumi in one of her more coherent moments
Image: All the Anime

If this had not been animated, I doubt I would have given this movie a second look at the store. I often find Japanese live action productions to be excruciating in terms of poor acting and bad production values. I wonder if papering over with digital paint perhaps mitigated some of this? Is there something about being an anime fan that makes me more likely to accept and empathise with animated characters over real actors? Having considerably enjoyed The Case of Hana and Alice, I’m going to seek out the western DVD release of the original. I wonder if I will enjoy that as much?

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The Case of Hana and Alice

Original Cinematic Release: Feb 20th 2015 (Japan)

Writer, Producer and Director: Shunji Iwai

Runtime: 100mins

UK DVD/Bluray release: Jan 9th 2017

Japanese language (2.0 or 5.1) with English and French subtitles