Welcome back Mr. Iwai. After 10 years of mucking about (doing documentaries, an anthology segment and even releasing his English-language debut almost nobody bothered to watch), Shunji Iwai is back with a new feature film. Hana to Alice Satsujin Jiken [The Case of Hana & Alice] is only tangibly related to Shunji Iwai's last serious effort, but fans of his earlier work will be happy to learn that Iwai made a very worthwhile comeback. The biggest surprise though is that his latest feature is an animated film.
For the longest time, it seemed as if Hana to Arisu would be Iwai's swan song. The film was received well both locally and abroad and it felt as a culmination of everything Iwai had done as a director. Then after its release the big void started. Luckily The Case of Hana & Alice isn't just the final twitch of a dying director, Iwai's next film is already out and doing the rounds, so there's clearly some life in him left. Don't watch Satsujin Jiken expecting a simple prequel/cheap cash-in either, because even though both films are related, they offer quite a different experience.
The move to animation is definitely an interesting one. It's not just Iwai's first venture into the field of animation, it's also the animation world's first real confrontation with a guy like Shunji Iwai. In a way, Satsujin Jiken feels as if Iwai is building upon Satoshi Kon's legacy, only with the strong genre elements removed. There's a realness to the animation and the atmosphere that's usually completely absent from animation films, but not without ignoring the strengths and possibilities of the medium.
The film tells the story of how Alice and Hana meet up for the first time. It's not a true origin story though, as it takes half a film for Hana to even show her face. The first part of the film is structured around a murder mystery/urban legend in Alice's school. It's only during the second half that Hana and Alice actually meet up, determined to uncover the truth behind the mystery. Just don't expect anything too exciting or tense, Satsujin Jiken is still predominantly a drama and the murder mystery is merely an excuse for the drama to unfold.
Iwai used a unique method of rotoscoping to animate his film. Usually rotoscoping is used to attain more fluid animations and more detailed character outlines, but that's clearly not the case here. The backgrounds carry a watercolor look and the characters appear rather simplistic in their detail. Iwai actually pulled back the framerate to give the animation a more Japanese (read less fluent) feel. Even so, the technique is still very noticeable in the smaller motions and bearings of the characters. There's something very natural and lifelike about how they move about, which is largely absent for traditional animation. Add to that the beautiful coloring and the stunning backdrops (they look as if someone painted over some detailed storyboard sketches) and you have a very unique result, pretty difficult to compare to other animation films I've seen so far. Not only that, it's also perfectly suited to Iwai's directorial style.
The soundtrack is very much in line with Iwai's previous films. That means typical string and piano tunes, the kind that can be found in most Japanese dramas. The quality of the music is great though and Iwai uses the score skillfully, never over- or understating key moments. The dub is top notch too, though part of that is because both Yu Aoi and Anne Suzuki returned to voice their characters (while also standing model for the rotoscoping). Both girls are 10 years older now, which could've been a problem if the film had been live action, but through the wonders of animation it's not a bother at all.
The first half of Satsujin Jiken may be a little confusing for people who like to know right off the bat where a film is going. Iwai is playing with several chess pieces, slowly aligning them to properly kick off the second half of the film. That's when Satsujin Jiken settles down to become the type of drama we've come to expect from Iwai. Personally I liked the extra bit of variation in the beginning, I've seen pretty much every Iwai film so far so it's nice to see something a little different, but I'm sure some people will be a little disappointed that the film changes direction after the first half.
The Case of Hana & Alice was better than I expected. It's no easy transition to go from live action to animation after 25 years of directing live action films, but Iwai found the right balance between Japanese live action drama and the magic of animation. The film looks great, the story is moving, the characters quirky but lovable. And in true Hana & Alice tradition, there's another stand-out ballet scene that lingers long after the film has finished. Fans of Iwai and Japanese animation are in for a treat with this one.