Shunji Iwai, Japan’s chronicler of subtle youthful emotions, comes up with his most delicate movie to date in “Hana & Alice.” Story of two teenage girl friends who fall for the same guy sits somewhere between the epic emotional drama of his “All About Lily Chou-Chou” and his lusciously wrought cinematic haiku, “April Story,” though pic’s extended running time may test auds not attuned to Iwai’s slow-burning, incremental style. Some fest play seems likely on strength of helmer’s name, with sales to specialized webs also indicated.
Theatrically launched in Japan in March, pic is actually an extension of three short films made as 30th anniversary promos for Nestle’s KitKat chocolate bars. Released on the Internet in stages last year, the shorts received so many hits that Iwai spun a feature off of them. (A complete Web site — http://www.breaktown.com — is devoted to the phenom, and even includes a “Hana & Alice Museum.”)
Like the shorts, the feature was made using the high-grade digital CineAlta 24P process; transfer to film is good, with only minimal blurring, and the slightly hazy imagery and colors fit the metaphysical subject matter.
Hana Arai (Anne Suzuki) and Tetsuko Arisugawa (Yu Aoi) — nicknamed “Arisu” (“Alice”) — are 15-year-olds who’ve been friends since childhood. Alice, whose parents (Hiroshi Abe, Shoko Aida) are separated, is the go-getter of the two, and when she falls for a young man on the train to school, she recommends his friend, Masa Miyamato (Tomohiro Kaku), dubbed “Mark,” as a boyfriend for Hana.
By springtime, Hana still hasn’t made much progress in dating Mark, despite joining a club he belongs to. Pic then springs its main twist which lifts the charming but conventional teen movie to another level. After accidentally knocking himself out on a wall, Mark wakes to find Hana bending over him. She invents a story, telling him that he’s lost part of his memory and was in love with her.
There’s a strain of low-key, slightly spacey comedy throughout the movie that gives the subsequent complicated goings-on a nice edge. The viewer is left in doubt as to how much Mark actually buys Hana’s lie. As Hana tells Alice, Mark only thinks he has amnesia, as someone told him so (“It’s like a hysterical pregnancy”). And then Mark starts to fall for Alice instead.
In its theme of teenagers needing to believe passionately in something, even if it’s a lie or a dream, pic treads some of the same territory as “Lily Chou-Chou,” though on a more intimate scale. And in a magical later scene — so typical of Iwai — where wannabe performer Alice dances for her own pleasure at an audition, the movie also taps into the same self-centered, illusory world of young adults.
Though it never drags, film could still do with some tightening, and the story arc, especially during the early reels, is not especially clear. Both Suzuki (from sci-fi adventure “Returner”) and Aoi (from “Chou-Chou”) convincingly bring over a friendship that’s put under strain by adult concerns, and veteran Abe is especially good in a sequence where Alice’s father tries to reach out to his independent daughter.
Chamber score, by Iwai himself, gives a light touch to the whole proceedings. For the record, co-d.p. Noboru Shinoda, who shot the original promos, died of liver failure on June 22, at age 52. He lensed most of Iwai’s movies.