Most of the anime films you are going to see are either based on a manga or the extension of an anime TV series. Many anime are based on myths and historical events. Even most of the Ghibli films are based on popular books. On rare occasion you will even see an original story not based on anything. But interestingly enough one of the rarest origins of animated movies has to be taking a live action series and making it an anime. If anything the opposite is almost always the way things go especially with popular josei manga and anime. It is common enough that we have a section for anime that are being turned into live action series in the monthly Line-Up post. Overall it is not that odd when you think about it. You would be thrown off if someone told you the Sex and the City or Breaking Bad prequel was going to be made as a cartoon.
But despite its relative rarity The Case of Hana & Alice is an instance where the anime is actually a prequel to a live action movie. Actually it is a prequel to a live action movie that is based on a series of short films that were made to be Kit Kat commercials. The unusual path to this anime ripples through all of its production from its combination of CG and rotoscoped animation to its idiosyncratic pacing. Yet in the end it uses all of this to explore a quirky character study of friendship and acceptance.
If anything this seems like a lot of time, effort, and technology to tell a story in animation that might otherwise be far more easily told with far simpler live action techniques. Was all of this worth it?
Since The Case of Hana & Alice is a film that acts as a prequel to an already existing live action movie, a live action movie that neither of us have seen, the true test of this story would be whether it could stand on its own.
Tetsuko “Alice” Arisugawa is doing her best to adjust to her new middle school but the deck seems stacked against her. Her whole class has taken to tormenting her when she was assigned the seat of a student who was poisoned last year. She is determined to know how the Judas of the class was killed by his four wives but her biggest clue in the reclusive Hana Arai who stopped going to school after the incident. It is up to Hana and Alice to discover what really happened in their class a year ago. The only problem is that Hana and Alice would have to try very hard to be any less compatible so working together might actually be harder than the case itself.
The first and biggest hurdle with the movie is the fact that we don’t actually really meet Hana until about a solid third into the movie. We see a glimpse of her peeking through a window a few times but she is only formally introduced after Alice has been running around for quite a while. The story really takes off at that point as the plot becomes far more focused when the two lead characters meet and the mystery fully reveals where it is going. Before this point it is not as if Alice’s adventures are boring or grating but they do have a lack of a concentrated through line which could turn some people off. When Hana and Alice finally team up to learn the truth of what happened to Judas everything falls into place.
It is not as if the first third with Alice as a solo act moves like molasses. Alice’s antics are bright and charming as she deals with her childish mother, strange classmates and their false prophet ringleader, and her low energy friend from ballet school. She bounces off them well with a good mixture of comedy and character building. But until the main story kicks in it does seem like a random string of events that tangentially tie into mystery around the former occupant of her desk. But while this time is not wasted as it gives us a good picture of who Alice is so she finally confronts Hana it is clear how different they are. If Alice was a tabula rasa then it would not mean as much when she starts to work with Hana. At that point the wandering story really begins to pay off.
Don’t think that it is all serious business the second that Hana and Alice start working together. The long side story with the old man from the office is hardly mission critical. It is just that everything past that point are all steps to the end even if it is clearly a path along the scenic route.
School legends are like a game of telephone that spirals out of control until very few actually know the truth. In Hana & Alice, curses, death, the four mysterious wives of Judas, it all mixes in the middle school imagination with “horrific” (actually hilarious) results. And best of all, the answer to what actually happened is much more satisfying than the superstitious rumors.
Alice’s morbid curiosity is what leads her to finding out who used to live in her house and why the girl across the way simply stares out from her window. Alice mostly blunders her way into just about everything in this movie, including her meeting with Hana, but she does so in a very charming way.
I think that Alice utterly won me over when she just starts kicking the snot out of a kid who decides to throw a chicken wing at her. It is a simple scene. One of the kids in the class takes their bullying a little to far and Alice shows him that she has been playing nice with their antics so far but she can handle herself when pushed. In many ways her retaliation is as unfocused as anything else she does but in the end her energy makes it effective if inefficient. It also makes her amazingly likable as you can’t help but smile as she reprimands her tormentor while she interrogates him.
Hana on the other hand is clearly the smarter of duo. Where Alice marches forward and stumbles into discoveries when she musters the interest to investigate the mystery Hana is methodical and obsessive but refuses to throw herself into what she does. Hana is always putting up some sort of barrier between her and anything she interacts with. As Hana get to know Alice she slowly is forced to remove the walls she has put up to protect herself from the truth.
The central focus is really the kind of friendship that “just happens,” would be the best way I could describe it. So it is no surprise that the best part of this movie is watching Hana and Alice connect. Or more specifically the long day and night they spend looking for “Judas.”
Their relationship is perfectly summed up in the fateful encounter on a bridge they have after staying out all night. Hana is suddenly shy, willing to walk away without acknowledging the goal right before them. Alice is having none of it and brashly yells out before Hana can make a move. The whole night has been both of them acting selfishly and selflessly in turns.
It wasn’t a particularly crazy night, but is had its moments, and it is exactly the type of night that creates life-long friendships. You’ve had this night; I’ve had this night.
The animation is both striking and a bit jarring at the same time. It is a mixture of rotoscoping and CG that brings together both the strengths and weaknesses of both forms of animation. At times the blending lets everything feel very fluid and vivid. Other times it has that strange feeling of awkward marionettes being swung across the screen. Most of the time it is neither of those things and you don’t even notice it. The main problem comes about because the highs are very high and the lows are pretty low and they loom in your mind much more than anything else. It never really took me out of the movie but it will stick out in your head during the movie.
It seems that this form of animation was picked partially because of the unusual history that has led to this production. Since the original movie was produced over a decade ago the lead actress have aged so they no longer look like teenagers. This means you only have a few options if you want to do a prequel. The first is to recast the main leads. The problem with that is the original actresses are fairly iconic in their roles at this point. It would be really rolling the dice that audiences would accept a new set of women to play the parts. So instead they kept the same duo but used animation to get around this problem with time. It was an unexpected answer but one that gets the job done.
The Case of Hana & Alice was a film that got better as it went along. It ends with a strong friendship that made me desperate to see the live action movie and find out where Hana and Alice will go together. But even if that live action movie didn’t exist, The Case of Hana & Alice is satisfying all on its own, prequel or no.
The more I looked into movie the more I realized how unusual it was. Shunji Iwai is mostly a traditional director. While he also did Baton and some work on Hana wa Saku he is far more famous for Swallowtail Butterfly, All About Lily Chou-Chou, and opening South Korea to Japanese films with Love Letter. He is much more Steven Spielberg directing The Adventures of Tintin than Brad Bird. Also the series origin springing from a series of commercials add another strange layer to the story. Its animation style is the final star on this peculiar tree.
Despite all of those offbeat details the film feels very normal. It tells a remarkably simple story told in a lighthearted and amusing manner. Despite all the drama, curses, and sleuthing it is about two girls who have lost their place in their lives who find direction with their friendship. It is very telling that the movie becomes 100% more fun (and it was already pretty fun) when Hana and Alice finally come together. It does not matter if they are coordinating a stake out over the phone, sleeping under a truck, or hurriedly slurping down ramen there is a delightful charm when they are together. That could very easily be a serious business story but instead it is a whimsical comedy that uplifts your spirit. The delivery method is largely unimportant. A great story will make itself know no mater what the medium.