“Shunji Iwai has a shojo manga (girls’ comic) sensibility,” producer Takenori Sento once explained to me.
That’s not quite fair: Iwai’s core audience — young, hip urban women — has probably long since outgrown “Ribbon.” But, shojo mangalike, Iwai’s films often deal with young love, with the female leads in “Love Letter” (1997) and “Shigatsu Monogatari” (1998) the focus of attention; the males, the passive objects of it. In “All About Lilly Chou Chou” (2002) the protagonist is a teenage boy obsessed with a mysterious female pop singer, but pathetically weak in protecting the girls he likes from sadistic classmates. In other words, a shojo-manga horror story, but one true to a lot of adolescent lives, inner or otherwise — a factor that made the film a long-running hit.
Iwai’s latest is “Hana to Alice (Hana & Alice),” which began life early last year as four short films on the Nestle company Web site as promos for Kit Kat candy bars. By the end of 2003 the films had attracted nearly 3 million hits and Iwai and his backers had decided to turn them into a feature film. No stats on how many hits were from shojo-manga readers.
The story is almost daringly cliched: two girls who are inseparable friends become involved with the same boy, one as the pursuer, the other as the pursued. One way to film it is the old-fashioned Japanese seishun eiga (youth film) way, with plenty of earnest speeches, yearning looks and agonized tears. Another is to take the Hollywood approach — i.e., teenagers as horny, bumbling idiots.
Iwai opts for a third way, with plenty of light comic touches, but a heavy overlay of romanticism that borders on the portentous. He also ladles on pseudo-classical music, which he composed himself, over too many scenes and so loudly that the dialogue is nearly lost in the sonic soup.
The film’s saving graces are its two lead actresses, who charm their way past Iwai’s pretensions, and Iwai himself, who creates, in the climax, a visual tribute to youthful beauty, grace and courage that redeems much of what went before, including that tinkling score.
The two friends are Hana (Anne Suzuki) and Alice (Yu Aoi), junior-high-schoolers who may look the picture of carefree innocence, but are covertly boy-mad, especially for Miyamoto (Tomohiro Kaku), a moody, hot-looking senpai who rides their train. Hana falls harder, even taking surreptitious photos of the guy and signing up for a school rakugo (comic monologue) club of which he is one of two members.
Miyamoto, however, is oblivious to her existence until one day, on the way home after school, he accidentally cracks his head, loses consciousness and wakes to find Hana anxiously hovering over him. “Who are you?” he asks. “You lost your memory, senpai,” she replies. “Don’t you remember what you told me?” She then invents an entire relationship between them on the spot — and he swallows her lies, almost.
Meanwhile, after being scouted in Harajuku by a talent agent, Alice is having adventures of her own. She schleps around to auditions for acting and modeling jobs, but can’t break out of her shell and keeps losing to the competition. Hana, though, has one acting assignment she can handle — as an accomplice in her plot to win the still-skeptical Miyamoto. Alice goes along, but finds that — horror of horrors — Miyamoto likes her better. Even worse, she kind of likes him. A wonderful friendship is about to hit a rough patch.
As Hana and Alice, Anne Suzuki and Yu Aoi begin the film bubbly, natural and completely in sync, as though they were not on a film shoot but a romp with a best bud. Working with cameraman Noboru Shinoda, Iwai doesn’t shape their performances so much as capture them on the fly, in sequences that combine the candidness of a home video with the visual sophistication of a sleekly edited music clip.
As the story progresses, their characters emerge as distinct personalities. Suzuki’s Hana is more comically needy and inept, but with a vibrancy and quickly ripening looks that recall the young Kate Winslett. Aoi’s Alice is harder to read. Burdened by divorced parents who are wildly different types — neglectful bohemian Mom (Shoko Aida) and straight-arrow, mostly absent salaryman Dad (Hiroshi Abe), she has withdrawn into the little world she and Hana have created. But when that world is threatened, we see that she is more than Hana’s match at hatching stratagems — and getting what she wants.
By contrast, Kaku’s Miyamoto is little more than a drab, sullen Ken doll — not worthy of all the turbulent emotions the girls invest in him. But then guys in this sort of movie seldom are.
A less mannered and self-involved director than Iwai would have given more of the movie to his two stars, instead of forever drawing attention to his own stylistics. To his credit, Iwai knows how to showcase their individual talents — Suzuki’s for comedy, Aoi’s for dance — at precisely the right moments. But please, next time, a lighter hand on the volume control.