Hana and Alice (2004)
Memory is something that can be very hard to verify. It’s exactly that fact that Hana takes advantage of in Iwai Shunji’s Hana and Alice (花とアリス, hana to arisu 2004).
Hana and Alice is the odd girl-meets-boy story where Hana (Anne Suzuki) convinces Miyamoto Masashi (Kaku Tomohiro) that he is an amnesiac who is her boyfriend after he hits his head. It doesn’t take long before Hana’s frienship with Arisugawa “Alice” Tetsuko (Aoi Yu) gets tested when Miyamoto starts to fall for the latter.
Hana and Alice has a trait that I find common to many of my favorite Japanese movies in that it is ultimately very light on plot. I was generally too busy admiring the beauty of the “here and now” to really keep track of where the story was actually going, which shouldn’t be a surprise since Hana and Alice came from the same brains behind 1995’s Love Letter. That stemmed from the fact that the movie had a very “slice-of-life” way of storytelling. Hana pursued Miyamoto, but there was still an entire world going on around them, such as Alice getting scouted by a talent agency to be a model or the upcoming high school festival.
Like in Love Letter, Iwai treats us to some gorgeously composed scenes. I’m biased toward movies that make snow beautiful, as Love Letter did, but I felt Hana and Alice actually succeeded in making rain appealing in the scene where Hana was out buying food for Miyamoto. Part of me almost believes that Iwai initially wanted to make a movie about ballet students as Hana and Alice came with some absolutely awe-inspiring dance sequences, particularly toward the end when Alice demonstrated her ability in front of a fashion shoot coordinator (Hirosue Ryoko at a time when Wasabi was still fresh in everyone’s minds).
I was fooled by the fact that she was put under an unfortunate amount of makeup and shared half her scenes with Takei Emi in Rurouni Kenshin, but Aoi Yu was without a doubt a phenomenally beautiful girl in a way that reminded me of Ozu regular Hara Setsuko (who appeared in movies like 1961’s The End of Summer). I felt that both she and Suzuki acted naturally, and that was in no small part due to the script. I liked that Iwai simply let the movie go in a way that reminds me of Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love. That is to say, it didn’t even feel like Aoi or Suzuki or any of the other actors or actresses were acting or constrained to a plot in any way because the movie just flowed. Nothing felt forced.
That said, Hana and Alice also succeeded where Piano (once again, what I call Real Life of a Middle School Girl: The Anime) failed, in that the title characters were perfectly capable of holding the movie up without a real story to fall back on. I will admit the movie has the potential of boring your typical American audience member to sleep, but it was like Love Letter to me, only better. That is to say, it was a minimalist romantic comedy that succeeded in the areas that mattered to me and thus takes its place among my favorite Japanese movies.