Fourteen year old Tetsuko Arisugawa (voiced by Yu Aoi) acquires the nickname of 'Alice' when she and her newly-divorced mother move to a sleepy little town. As the new kid in school Alice is initially shunned and bullied by classmates yet holds her own. She grows intrigued by a strange legend pervading the classroom about a murdered boy named Yuda, or 'Judas', with four wives. At first bemused and even a little freaked out when other kids in class enact 'occult rituals' to expel Yuda's 'evil spirit', Alice feels compelled to investigate. She grows especially curious about the girl at the heart of the story: an elusive recluse who happens to live in the house next door. Her name is Hana (Anne Suzuki).
While it is rare for a live-action filmmaker in Hollywood to cross over to animation several notable auteurs have done so in Japan. The likes of Seijun Suzuki, Kihachi Okamoto, Kazuki Omori and Nobuhiko Obayashi, to list just a few, have dabbled in anime. Here acclaimed director Shunji Iwai joins their ranks, uniquely with an animated prequel to his widely-admired high school comedy Hana & Alice (2004). More than a decade on stars Yu Aoi and Anne Suzuki reprise their roles as the titular lovable teen oddballs as we learn how their friendship came to be while the switch to the animated medium handily obscures that they have aged. Iwai - whose eclectic output includes the romantic comedy FILM]Love Letter (1995), acclaimed genre-bending sci-fi cult epic Swallowtail Butterfly (1996) and darkly lyrical teen drama All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001) - remains a highly divisive figure among Japanese cinema buffs. Some celebrate him as a visionary with his finger on the pulse of modern youth culture. Others deride his work as the epitome of hipster nonsense: both vapid and pretentious. Interestingly in crossing over to animation with The Case of Hana & Alice, Iwai crafts a film that reflects strengths and dilutes his weaknesses. While not overtly fantastical Iwai's film slots into the recent spate of allegorical high school fantasies that captured the attention of mainstream critics: e.g. A Silent Voice (2016) and Makoto Shinkai's surprise blockbuster hit Your Name (2016). Indeed in an interview included on the region two DVD/Blu-ray release Shinkai ranks Iwai as a personal influence.
As with a great many Iwai films the first third of The Case of Hana & Alice is meandering and self-indulgent but layered with lyrical moments and a keen grasp of adolescent psychology. The first act revolves around Alice's efforts to adjust to her new environment, dealing with embarrassing parents and bullying classmates. In All About Lily Chou-Chou Iwai's uncomfortable but very Japanese perspective on bullying drew considerable criticism. Here he tackles that theme in a quirkier, more humorous manner yet arguably with a significant advance in maturity. While the story establishes Alice as an outsider, she is far from a pushover. In fact when a boy tries to bully her she kicks his ass. Iwai extends the gag into an amusing allusion to the pulp convention of hardboiled private eyes intimidating informants. Similarly Alice's initial antagonist: a girl named Mutsu (Ranran Suzuki) claims to be possessed by the evil spirit of Yuda. Iwai cleverly spins this side-plot into an allegory for how teenagers sometimes weave complex fictions around themselves as a way to fit in or even intimidate their peers.
Once fate finally brings Hana and Alice together to solve the mystery of Yuda the film truly comes alive. By far its strongest asset is the central relationship which is well-crafted, nuanced and compelling enough to transcend a lackadaisical plot. While in part down to the personable performances of lead actresses Yu Aoi and Anne Suzuki (who both became major teen idols in the aftermath of the original live-action film), a great deal comes down to Iwai's uncanny ability to craft such likable and funny characters. Enacting their silly detective fantasies brings two lonely, awkward, disaffected teenage girls together as they discover that underneath a fanciful urban myth lies a down-to-earth and all-too-relatable story of adolescent confusion, embarrassment and hurt feelings. Their antics also yield a lot of laugh out loud, even outright slapstick episodes. In particular an extended sequence wherein Alice botches a stakeout then lands in one embarrassing mishap after another before events take an unexpectedly charming turn. It leads Hana and Alice to discover there is kindness among strangers in the world beyond high school.
The animation, with its mixture of rotoscoped images and 3D computer graphics, has been criticized in some quarters. It is perhaps less jarring for casual film fans than hardcore anime lovers. In fact the offbeat imagery lends a grace and beauty to certain sequences, such as Alice's ballet dance movements, along with a naturalism to the character interaction including striking and unusual use of slow-motion. As well as writing, directing, producing and editing, Shunji Iwai also composed the lovely score that is very much in the tranquil mode of Studio Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi.