When looking at the films I've reviewed so far it might not appear to be that obvious, but I'm a pretty avid Shunji Iwai fan. The thing is that after releasing Hana and Alice [Hana To Arisu] Iwai almost entirely disappeared from the full-length feature scene, leaving me with little to no options to put his work in the spotlight. I'm eagerly waiting for Vampire to leave the festival circuit, until then I can count on films like Hana and Alice to ease the wait a little.
It's not that Iwai fled the film scene entirely, in between he directed two documentaries and popped up in the New York, I Love You anthology, but the availability of those project (especially the documentaries) is less than encouraging. I do understand Iwai's sudden change of interest though as most of his films all share a very common basis, so I wouldn't be too surprised if he was craving for a new challenge. Iwai may not have the most varied oeuvre, but what he does he does with style.
Hana and Alice is a very kind, sweet and upbeat film. It's also very naive, but in a comfortable and recognizable way. Iwai focuses his attention on two young girls and the way growing up affects their childhood friendship. Arisu is the quiet, self-assured type while Hana is the bold yet insecure type. Their relationship is heavily tested when they both fall for the same boy.
When said boy (Miyamoto) bumps his head and falls down unconscious, Hana tricks him into believing that they are a couple and that Miyamoto has some form of partial memory loss. Things get really hairy when Miyamoto starts showing a bigger interest in Arisu, which prompts Hana to make up an entire past involving the three of them. Arisu in her turn also starts to develop some feelings for Miyamoto, completing the love triangle. Needless to say, this situation becomes incredibly taxing on Hana and Arisu's friendship.
Visually speaking Hana and Alice is vintage Iwai and by extension vintage Japanese drama, only maybe a bit dreamier in style. Natural camera work, an eye for atmospheric lighting and some landmark shots in between are the key aspects you can expect from Iwai. The film looks beautiful and knows how to peak at certain times, the ballet scene near the end of the film in particular is of extraordinary beauty and leaves me stunned time and time again.
The soundtrack is a bit more pop-oriented than the ones you'll find in most Japanese dramas, but the film's setting warrants the choice of music. On top of that, considering the genre Iwai has a pretty good feel for what works in his films. Even though the J-Pop influences are definitely there, the soundtrack never ends up sounding too cheap or commercial. Add some classical drama pieces (mostly piano-based) and you know what to expect.
Hana and Alice is partly carried by its two main actresses. Aoi and Suzuki are both perfect for their roles, carrying a very natural flair while going slightly over the top where needed. The chemistry between the two feels real and even though the story is a little far-fetched, the acting irons out any lingering doubts. The secondary cast is decent enough but they fail to get noticed whenever one of the two main actresses are present.
While there is some drama, don't expect anything but a feel-good film. Iwai keeps the drama light and never allows his film to become too depressive. Together with the setting and its characters it gives the film a warm, naive and familiar atmosphere, reminiscent of a time when one's responsibilities reached as far as getting your homework done on time. Capturing this slightly melancholic yet upbeat feeling is definitely one of Iwai's main perks and none of his films get closer than Hana and Alice.
Hana and Alice is a film for fans of Japanese drama. It may seem a bit slow and uneventful to some, others might be annoyed by some slightly exaggerated moments, but all in all it's a very sweet, very natural and naive little film that has charm aplenty and feels particularly short for a film that runs well past the 120 minute barrier. Here's to hoping Iwai can manage a successful come-back to the world of feature-length films.