Shunji Iwai‘s last film, the excellent "All About Lily Chou-Chou," was the bleakest, most emotionally devastating view of high school life we’ve ever witnessed. His latest endeavor, "Hana & Alice," is a fitting counterpoint to the earlier film — taking place at the same stage of life (the end of middle school and first year of high school) with many of the same actors (notably Yu Aoi, who played a girl bullied into prostitution in "Lily," here enchanting as Alice, one of the two leads), "Hana & Alice" is a sweet and weightless as spun sugar.
Hana (Anne Suzuki) and Alice are best friends who go to school and take ballet together. The quirky, wide-eyed Hana develops a crush on a boy she’s seen (and in a cute, if slightly bunny-boiling way, secretly photographing) on the train in the morning. The boy, Masashi Miyamoto (Tomohiro Kaku), turns out to be an upperclassman at the girls’ high school, a dreamy, slightly dazed member of the rakugo club who’s constantly reading. This habit proves to be his downfall: one day, on his way home, he smacks his head against a low overhang and is knocked out. Hana, who’s been following him, seizes this opportunity to inveigle herself into his life by informing him that they’re dating, and that he must have amnesia from the blow to the head if he doesn’t remember this. A muddled Masashi at first accepts this, but eventually asks increasingly difficult questions that force Hana to enlist Alice as her co-conspirator. Alice, against her will, begins to have feelings for Masashi herself.
No, come back! It’s actually a great film. Iwai, despite his immense popularity in Japan, has inexplicably never made much headway here. His films, unlike those of his more internationally known countrymen Takashi Miike and Kiyoshi Kurosawa, are unabashedly populist, dealing with themes of love, friendship and youth. This is not to say they’re simplistic — "Lily" was a dead-on portrait of the failure of technology to assuage modern isolation, and 1995’s "Love Letter" was an epic, bittersweet alternative to the "eternal love" dramas so popular in Japan at the moment. The sitcomish hi-jinks of "Hana & Alice" unfold against a backdrop of less idyllic realities that only become clear as the film progresses. We learn that the ebullient Alice lives with her petulant, immature mother in a magnificently messy house, essentially being the parent in the relationship as her mother pursues sleazy men and lies about not having any children, and that Hana, before meeting Alice, had essentially dropped out of school, spending her days at home and refusing to interact with people. Alice gets scouted by a talent agent and begins going to auditions, and we glimpse a dispiriting, seedy world of low-budget photo shoots and script readings, and though she remains unjaded (and, in a joyous scene, impresses a cynical photographer and his crew by taping paper cups to her feet and dancing en pointe across the studio floor), it’s clear that the hazards of the industry will lurk in her future.
Iwai has a great ear for dialog, scripting funny, realistic, meandering conversations that nevertheless carry a great emotional weight. And the free-form pacing leads to lovely digressions — a friend arranges to photograph the ballet class, and shoots the girls outside at night. Dressed in "Swan Lake"-style white tutus, they glow under the flash, luminous, blurry, a Degas brought to life.