I found out about Hana and Alice when Janice uploaded a screencap of the 2004 live action movie as her Facebook header and got curious, after which I tried to find for a download link for it so I can watch it on the 2-hour train ride to London the next day but only found one for its 2015 animated version, which is a prequel to the live action movie.
I’m not going to lie, I was rather taken aback at first by the animation style of the movie – it wasn’t at all like that of anime or even Ghibli movies. In fact, the first word that came to mind was “crude”, although that probably wasn’t an accurate portrayal of what I felt. Indeed, the details of the animation aren’t as clearly defined or “pretty”, but what stands out the most is the fluidity of the animated characters’ movements, making each motion feel more realistic than any cartoon I’ve ever seen. Despite this difference in animation style from what I usually watch, I quickly got used to it. More than that, I warmed up to it, and it worked perfectly in the context of this beautiful movie.
The story follows our main character Alice (real name Arisugawa Tetsuko), a headstrong, opinionated and cynical girl, moving to a new town, a new house and a new school. The story sequence starts out rather slice-of-life, showing Alice adapting to a new school environment, dealing with bullies, and trying to get her mum off her back about school everyday. We are shown small bits of mysterious elements sporadically: Alice’s new neighbour who appears to be spying on her all the time, her classmates screaming at her not to move the two desks in the middle of the classroom, the inexplicable white writing on the floor surrounding the aforementioned two desks. I mean, the English translation of the movie title is The Murder Case of Hana and Alice and if I hadn’t preemptively read the brief summary, I’d have thought this was a movie of a sinister genre. You never know with Japan.
As it turns out, the mystery surrounding these peculiar abnormalities is pretty sinister indeed, one which involves an alleged murder of a former classmate who used to sit in Alice’s seat in class. No one ever saw him again, clueless as to whether he is alive or dead but because teenagers can never resist hyped rumours, a colourful tale of occult elements and gruesome murder-y tropes was concocted and passed down from generation to generation within the school.
Curious yet skeptical about the story she was told, Alice starts to snoop further, and finds herself down a path that might potentially bring her answers – visiting her mysteriously elusive neighbour.
Her neighbour turns out to be one of the titular characters, Hana, who has been absent from school ever since the alleged murder a year ago. Alice’s curiosity to find out who the victim really is and whether he is actually alive or dead sparks something within Hana – she, too, wants to find out the answer. Together, the two motley girls form a plan that involves disguising as a boy and following someone back home, despite having only met each other mere minutes ago by way of Alice trespassing Hana’s house.
But because this isn’t an RL Stine horror mystery story with child detectives and battles with spirits summoned with an ouija board, the girls’ plans go awry, and amusingly so. Alice’s absent-mindedness gets her tailing the wrong person and she ends up going on a trip of sorts all the way across town and making a friend out of a kind elderly man instead. Hana keeps on trying to catch up with Alice but is faced with all sorts of disturbances in the form of dead phone batteries and bumping into the actual person they were attempting to stalk. This disarrayed sequence of events eventually leads to the blossoming of an endearing albeit eccentric friendship between the two girls, warming up to each other the way I did to this film. After missing the last train home, Hana and Alice find themselves spending the night under an SUV (a source of warmth as autumn approaches) as Hana climactically reveals the true context behind the murder, which, [spoiler] unsurprisingly, wasn’t a murder after all.
Hana and Alice’s bizarre adventures, up until the next morning when Alice, after mistakenly assuming Hana was stuck to the bottom of the SUV that had driven off and started conducting a chase together with a couple of other cyclists when in actual fact Hana had just wandered off before Alice woke up, are the epitome of reckless youth but also, my personal favourite, the beginning of a compelling friendship between two contrasting personalities, the kind that only arise when both parties have been through some remarkably strange shit together, reminiscent of Kamikaze Girls. I live for female friendships like this.
Perhaps one of my favourite scenes was Alice getting lost with the confused old man, puzzled that this 14-year-old girl was tailing him for reasons unbeknownst to him and apparently, to Alice too. When watching that part, one couldn’t help but think something was going to happen at the end of it, or at least that the old man was going to play some major role in the progression of the movie plot – that’s how we’re usually trained to think in movies or TV shows, that something must happen for a reason. A character was introduced for a reason. But no, it was merely a standalone subplot that didn’t move the main plot any further besides perhaps contributing a humour element to the movie, but that was it. And in spite of that, it didn’t feel out of place at all. That’s what I love about films like this, because it challenges the predictability of continuity in movies that we’ve been groomed to expect. It’s refreshing.
And if reading all of that has yet to successfully convince you to watch this film, at least watch it for the breathtakingly stunning background sceneries of vivid light and pastel colours. Where Ghibli excels at producing vibrant and extremely detailed surroundings, this movie provides more of a calm, soothing realistic setting that complements the smooth animation excellently and makes every minute spent in Hana and Alice’s world exquisitely magical.