Time again for one my after-the-fact, buy it in the sale, gets stuck in the ever lengthening "to-watch" pile but finally gotten around to watching moments. This time The Case of Hana and Alice, or as it calls itself at times, The Murder Case of Hana and Alice.
After the separation of her parents, Alice and her novelist mother move house to the boonies. Starting at a new school, she finds herself in the middle of a curious story of the dead Judas with four wives, and a class that at first shuns her as she sits at one of two desks thus breaking the protection from the spirit of the Judas. Is this story true or sheer nonsense? Only Hana, Alice’s lock-in neighbour who spies on her through the window might actually know the answer. Hana then embroils Alice into a plan to see if this Judas is really dead or alive.
This film, by director Shunji Iwai, is animated using rotoscoping, in part you suspect to hide the fact that this is a prequel to a live action film made ten years earlier by the same director, and with the cast reprising their roles as Hana and Alice. Honestly, I didn’t entirely realise this until reading it afterwards because the rotoscoping has moments where it works brilliantly, tracing the ballet Alice performs, but it can also be problematic, coming off like nascent CGI characters transposed over more beautifully realised backgrounds. At first the choppy nature of the character motion I found distracting, almost off-putting even, though there was a great deal to admire in much of the background designs, including and especially the appropriately named flower house that Hana lives in. Admittedly, the rotoscoping soon becomes something you adjust to and accept. I suspect part of accepting this is because the beginning of the story is a little unfocussed - charming no doubt, but unfocussed - with Alice coming up against her deeply paranoid classmates who won’t tell her what has happened but who are apparently happy to persecute her for breaking some taboo she has no knowledge of, then going into ritualistic absurdity (intentionally so) to reestablish the charms and wards in the classrooms to protect them from the history of the Judas with four wives. It’s interesting but meandering until Alice breaks into Hana’s home and from there the two become unlikely companions, conspirators and almost without noticing it, friends.
Key to the film’s success is that Alice and Hana are both surprisingly engaging characters. Whether together or separated and lost in mistaken hijinks (as Alice believes she is following the Judas’ father but is actually stalking his co-worker) their warmth shines through even aspects of the plot that are reasonably by-the-numbers. Then, as the two teenagers end up out of town, past the last train and having to survive till morning in the cold night, the film really is lifted up to the point of being wonderfully entertaining and Alice and Hana complement each other perfectly. It helps too that there is a rich vein of warm humanity, often in passing, without ever becoming saccharine. Tonally, then the second half of the film soars and it feels almost impossible not to feel enormous affection for our two leads. A shame perhaps that the film takes some time to really get going – perhaps it doesn’t help that it throws quite a lot of information at us to start with, not that it is heavy-handed exposition but exposition nevertheless, whereas the latter stages is where the film really allows our characters to drive the film, making it the more engaging experience.
Perhaps not a classic, The Case of Hana and Alice is still a surprisingly entertaining film. Visually, once you’re beyond the rotoscoping of our characters that can look a little like shonky CGI, you recognise the loveliness of the movement during moments of ballet and enjoy the richness of much of the design and overall aesthetics. I wish I’d pulled it out from the to-watch pile earlier as The Case of Hana and Alice deserves considerable flattery even if it is imperfect at times.