Hana & Alice – Shunji Iwai (2004)


In the normal run of things, there are very few love triangle films you would ever find me enjoying on the sly, let alone openly praising and defending, but Shunji Iwai’s Hana & Alice is one of them.

A beautiful, deceptively complex film, one that is as touching as it is funny, and one that works just fine on its surface but that gets better and better as you peel back the layers, Hana & Aliceconcerns the lives of two teenage girls living in the suburbs of Tokyo as they are about the graduate junior high and move on to high school.

Hana (Anne Suzuki) and Alice (Yu Aoi) have been joined at the hip for years, best friends that are so similar and used to each other that they move in unison, something helped along by their ballet classes. When we first meet them, Alice has fallen deeply in love with a boy she sees on the train platform every day, a Japanese-American mix who Hana isn’t interested in. As an aside, mostly joking, Alice says she can have his little brother, Miya (Tomohiro Kaku). Hana’s nose immediately crinkles at the idea, but its posturing to hide the embarrassment from Alice. Her eyes tell the real story: something in her brain makes her want him.

What exactly that is is hard to say. Thinking back on some of my high school crushes, I can’t explain the attraction either. It was just a fact. Like the sun rising every morning and setting every evening, there was a crushing weight on my shoulders.

I’m somewhat hesitant to provide a synopsis because the film defies explanation, really. It is the sort of silly-serious material that needs the right hands to works, and in Iwai, it does have the right hands. Iwai is a master filmmaker, and material that would be weak and frivolous in anothers hands are spun into lace by his. We are meant to laugh a little at the girls, at the lengths they go to for such a fleeting end, but we are meant to empathize with them as well, to see the silliness through their eyes, to see that it’s not silly at all, it’s just one of those things that slowly gathers an unstoppable momentum.

The film actually began life as a series of internet shorts commissioned by Kit Kat Japan for their 50th anniversary. Its popularity quickly sent it into a feature production, but the film still has a vignette feeling to it, weaving together several concurrent stories rather than relying on a heavy plot. At it’s core, the film is essentially a gentle stalker comedy, but it is so intensely self-aware of what its comedy is, where it is and how to mine it, that it somehow manages to escape creepiness. Any hint of creepiness is immediately defused by subtle absurdities, well timed self-deprecating jokes and ultimately by the lively charm of characters themselves, even though the spin out of control into a jealous rage over Miya by the end.

Love triangles are one of the worst inventions of life, never mind the movies. Guys fight over girls, girls fight over guys. It’s usually for shallow, petty reasons, where the girl or guy in question has been stripped of their flesh and humanity, transformed into a golden statute, a trophy to win. Positive traits are hyper-focused on and the openly visible negative traits are handily ignored. In the end, they are hardly ever worth all of the anguish and bickering they cause. Most love triangles, though, are a natural outcropping of competitive relationships, where you want to possess the things your friend wants or already has because of our stupid lizard brain remnants. It comes in quite a different flavor in Hana & Alice. There is no machismo or cattiness to contend with here. In fact Alice is only spending time with Miya as a favor to Hana to deepen the “truth” of the game she is playing with him. In Alice’s desire to please her friend, she builds an even more elaborate game with Miya, one that they both have trouble easily dismissing.

Whenever I show this film to someone, or make them watch it against their will, they always turn it into a contest of which girl they like better. The answer is always – always – Alice. Even the girls pick Alice. It’s not hard to see why people would immediately pick her. She is adorable, sweet, intelligent and quick witted. Her ballet makes her graceful, and we see all of that right out in front.

I’ve never personally made a decision between the two. I like Hana as much as I like Alice, though for conversation’s sake I usually side with Hana because no one else does. You have to work for her, take time to consider what makes her tick. On the surface she appears to be the more mature one, more eager to be an adult and quickly grow up than Alice. But inside she still retains the romantic notions and emotions of childhood, though they manifest in decidedly mature ways. Whatever her deceits, they are very adult in nature, even if the intent behind them is juvenile. Much of the material added to make it feature length focused on Alice’s family, so Hana lacks a certain depth of story development, but there is enough visible to make small leaps of faith about her character and background. In that way, she is a little bit more rewarding a character to spend time with.

There is a hazy quality to the cinematography, something like a shadowy, overcast day that follows the film around, even in the bright sunshine of the spring scenes. It works like magic to the film, making it feel more like the fairy tale, and even though I know in my head that it’s just a problem inherent in old digital cameras (Iwai has shot much of his work on video instead of film), and I know how much I hated digital cinema until very recently, I can’t help but give it a pass in this film for the magic airy feeling it inspires in the film. I say airy, but really it’s more about a heft. These problems in these years of a persons life are heavy stuff. There is a reason why everyone can identify with Charlie Brown and the rain cloud above his head, and that’s exactly the feeling that is evoked here.

The film was shot by Noboru Shinoda, and was one of the last films he worked on before his sadly premature death in 2004. Shinoda, who appears in a cameo role as a commercial director, and Iwai had a working relationship that went back to 1994 when they made the short film Undotogether.

Over 10 years they worked together often, building a truly unique visual style together. He was the cinematographer for  every feature length film Iwai had made up until his recent film,Vampire, Iwai’s first feature length English film, which failed to secure North American distribution after mixed reviews at Sundance. Between 2004 and 2009, Iwai only has a documentary on Kon Ichikawa to his credit, and I don’t believe it an accident, I believe it to be a period of mourning for his friend, who was such an important part of his films, and who might have gone on to direct his own as Iwai moved into more of a mogul role, giving directing opportunities to others he’s worked with over the years on films like Rainbow SongHalfway and Bandage.

All About Lily Chou-Chou – Shunji Iwai (2001)



Everything about the Japanese earthquake outside of Sendai is terrifying. The casualty numbers are so high, or at least expected to eventually be so high, that it’s numbing. So what do I do? I think of it in terms of film.

I’m not alone. Bill Nye, for instance, referenced The China Syndrome during his time on CNN explaining the nuclear meltdown process.

WB immediately pulled Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter from theaters in Japan because the film opens with a tsunami wiping out a resort town. But from the outside, the cell phone camera shots of the actual tsunami are much more frightening. You can see the hand shaking with terror in those, while everything in Hereafter is clearly CGI. Not to say this is the wrong decision — it’s not — but they have no power to screen the film anyway, so it could have been done quietly.

But I don’t know anything about nuclear meltdown, and I don’t know anything about tsunamis.

I just know about film.

And I know that one of my favorite directors, Iwai Shunji, comes from Sendai.

“My country has suffered a terrible disaster,” Iwai said on his website over the weekend. “Many are dead, many are missing, and many more suffer in the loss of homes and loved ones. Even my hometown was not spared and so I too share in their pain. I cannot put into words my feelings for what has happened. Please everyone, help in whatever way you can.”

Aside from donating money there isn’t a lot most of us can do except stare slack jawed at the video footage as it comes in. One thing we can do is take a look at the work of the man from Sendai and get a little bit of a better understanding of the general area.

Filmed in 2001 a few miles south of Sendai among the lush rice paddies of Ashikaga, All About Lily Chou-Chou is the story of the descent of youth, seen through the eyes of a high school class that is splitting apart at the seams. It is a painfully honest exploration of bullying, the beauty of the photography and Kuno’s (Ayumi Ito) Debussy solos belying the helpless feeling that the film leaves you with. But the film’s main interest is not how to stop bullying, or even defining what bullying is. The film’s main interest is what causes someone to become a bully in the first place, and how it turns the world upside down.

The film finds Japan at a cultural crossroads, as the new generation of youth is starting to come into their own, but on very unsteady footing. The film’s main characters, Yuichi (Hayato Ichihara) and Hoshino (Shugo Oshinari), are fairly typical junior high school students having a rough time adapting to the new conditions of a larger school environment. They are still fledglings in that sense, but the pressures they face cause them to try their hardest to soar with still maturing wings.

Yuichi is a reserved, quiet boy from a broken home. What personal voice and confidence he has at the beginning of the story is quickly washed away by little fish syndrome as he comes into contact with the more alpha male (and female) classmates. He often hangs in the background with his head down, and along the way can only find comfort in the ethereal pop music of Lily Chou Chou (voiced by J-pop singer Salyu).

Hoshino, on the other hand, is smart and wealthy, a class leader asked to give a speech on behalf of the incoming students. He shrugs off the fact that everyone but Yuichi secretly, or openly in some cases, hates him. Yuichi is the only one he opens up to about this, but Yuichi seems somewhat bewildered by this opening of emotion from Hoshino and himself shrugs it off.

Life changes drastically for Hoshino in the summer of 1999, first starting with a trip Yuichi, Hoshino and their friends take to Okinawa. This trip is a key moment in life for Hoshino, as he has two near-death experiences. If the first one shook something loose in his head, the second seems to contain the incident that changes his character the most visibly and unalterably. He is simply different in the next few moments. Problems with his family when he gets back home open the fissure up even more.

It also turns out to be a key moment in life for Yuichi, whose life is irrevocably altered when he is sucked in by Hoshino’s strong-arm gravitational pull against his will.

Despicable doesn’t accurately describe the awful things that Hoshino – or others because he demands it – has done, or will continue to do. He is an über-bully. Like Daniel Plainview, he’d rather own you to the point of complete destruction than to get his hands immediately dirty. He is not deserving of any sympathy after returning from Okinawa, nor does he find any. I do believe he is deserving of empathy, though, or there is no point in watching the film. Though initially blessed with wealth and gifted with brains, fate has seemingly conspired against him that summer and he did not have the strength to continue shrugging it off. His life has spun out of control and instead of helplessly watching it circle the drain, he picked up his rage and went the other way, recreating his misery for everyone he comes into contact with.

As such, the parents and teachers in this film are just as culpable as any of the kids. At no point do any of them have any semblance of control, nor do they look willing to try. The kids are left to themselves to run amok, or to run away.

“Kids these days are scary,” Yuichi’s mother says during a news story about a high school student who takes a city bus hostage, completely unaware of what Yuichi has become because of Hoshino. It’s not something Yuichi can confide in her, or anyone, and not something she could guess. So to avoid confronting the horror that his life has become, Yuichi buries himself in a message board dedicated to Lily Chou-Chou where he finds that he is not as alone as he would seem, spending countless hours in conversation about Lily and the ubiquitous ether that, to them, her music is culled from.

Iwai does something completely innovative here, allowing the text of the message board to appear on screen as typed, instead of on a monitor in the screen. These anonymous names – like Bear, Pascal and Blue Cat – are just as important to the film as any other. More and more, this is how kids connect to one another. Not face to face, but avatar to avatar, like a shunt to relieve the overwhelming pressure of life at that age. It creates a delicate mood, one that contrasts and balances the film at the same time. But this running textual motif makes it a difficult film to grasp at first. The film offers a constant stream of information, making heavy demands of your attention otherwise you will suddenly find yourself completely lost in the maze of these overlapping lives as they make their descent.

All About Lily Chou-Chou could almost be classified as a horror film as Hoshino drags his class down with him. The depth of Yuichi’s suffering, because of the things he does and are done to him, is more palpably scary than any BOO! films can muster. But through Iwai’s lens, the film is loaded with tenderness for these characters, these lost, broken kids, willing someone to notice what is happening, screaming “please, look!” into the void, hoping someone shouts back “okay”.