An unusual, not-yet-perfected style of rotoscope animation allows two Japanese actresses to play younger, line-drawn versions of the live-action characters that made them both stars in “The Case of Hana and Alice,” a gently comedic and all-around upbeat prequel to indie helmer Shunji Iwai’s 2004 hit, “Hana and Alice.” Whereas the teenage title characters competed for the same guy’s affections in the earlier film, here we discover how they first met, once again united over a boy — only this time, it’s the spirit of a classmate who went missing a year earlier, believed to be haunting the middle school they both attend. Mixing elements of mystery and ghost story into its charmingly detailed account of the two girls’ blossoming friendship, the unconventional film won’t have an easy path outside Japan (limited to toon and genre fests so far), but should find some traction by virtue of being animated.
Though it can be assumed that local audiences remember the original (which earned more than $20 million in Japan), foreigners and first-timers should have no trouble connecting with the characters in this standalone story, which opens with the arrival of 14-year-old Tetsuko Arisugawa (voiced by Yu Aoi) — or “Alice” for short — to a small town where everything seems a little eccentric at first, starting with the weird neighbor who watches her move in. Though it will take nearly half the film until Alice works up the nerve to introduce herself, the weird girl next door is none other than Hana (Anne Suzuki), a shut-in who hasn’t been back to school since the so-called “Judas murder.”
While some mysteries can leave audiences impatient for clues that advance the plot, in this case, Iwai puts such a compelling (and delicately amusing) emphasis on his characters that we’re perfectly content just to hang out with them, whatever they happen to be doing. For Alice, that means getting acquainted with her new environment, whether that’s being manipulated by “Moo,” a long-haired classmate who orchestrates a spontaneous seance/exorcism, or attending ballet lessons with childhood friend Fuko — the latter laying the groundwork for a solo dance scene fans adore from the earlier film.
Doing her own snooping, Alice manages to learn that Judas — who was really a boy named Yuda — disappeared after it was discovered that he had secretly married four girls in his class, one of whom is rumored to have poisoned him. Poor Alice has the misfortune of being assigned to sit in Yuda’s old desk (doubly creepy, when you consider she’s also living in his old house), potentially disrupting whatever supernatural force Moo’s incantations had managed to put to rest. Strong enough to stand her own against school bullies, Alice is right to be skeptical, and even more justified in her curiosity, which leads her back to Hana, the girl she noticed spying from the window of the weird “Flower Folly” house next door.
Things really pick up the moment Hana and Alice connect, especially after the two of them pact to figure out what really happened to Yuda. But being mere teenagers (even if both actresses sound adult), their snooping skills leave much to be desired, sparking all sorts of hilarious detours and spontaneous improvisations as their plans go awry — such as the time Alice tails an old man she thinks is Yuda’s father, only to end up across town with a lot of explaining to do.
From the look of the animation, the film was designed to resemble a traditional Japanese anime, but shot using real actors and sets, then put through a digital rotoscope process (a form of retracing live-action footage used in everything from Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life” to the dance sequence in Walt Disney’s 1937 “Snow White”). Though characters sport the same thin outlines associated with hand-drawn toons, the effect is finer and more realistic, and the ability to capture movement more true-to-life. Meanwhile, the backgrounds have either been painted using a similar overlay technique or passed directly through some sort of digital watercolor filter that transforms relatively mundane locations — suburban streets, school classrooms and so on — into tableaux infused with vivid light and pastel colors. Every hour is magic hour in Hana and Alice’s world.
It’s all a bit disorienting for fans of traditional animation to process, given the way imperfect, scratchy-looking line drawings paradoxically appear to move smoothly, owing to the way the computer interpolates the edges (versus requiring them to be redrawn with every frame in the old-fashioned way). On the positive side, however, the technique allows the animators to mirror incredibly subtle body language and gestures, while the camera can pull off complicated movements. In the opening-credits dance scene, for example, it swirls around Alice, and later, it chases her upstairs in a technically daunting swirl that suggests what John Lasseter was trying to accomplish with his digital tests for “Where the Wild Things Are” back in his early Disney days.
Oddly enough, we forget that we’re watching animation swiftly enough, owing to the naturalism in both the technique and writing, but especially the latter: Little details, like the way Alice’s newly single mom flirts with one of her daughter’s teachers or the terrific bonding scene between Hana and Alice as they huddle for warmth beneath a parked SUV, bring the film to life. A classical strings-and-piano score not only breathes further energy into the experience, but reinforces the connection to the original film, making the case for “Hana and Alice” to international audiences for the first time.