The Case of Hana & Alice

The unorthodox Japanese anime "The Case of Hana & Alice" is now out on Blu-ray. 

Ever wanted to live inside a Japanese anime movie? Shunji Iwai’s unorthodox “The Case of Hana & Alice” offers the next best thing.

Most anime films present a lush, hand-painted 2D style reminiscent of comic books (“Akira”) or children’s storybooks (“My Neighbor Totoro”). But “Hana & Alice,” now out on Blu-ray this week from Shout! Factory, uses a very different, immersive style of animation.

Director Shunji Iwai uses “rotoscoping,” in which the movements of live-action performers are captured on film and then drawn over by animators. (Rotoscoping is used to wonderful effect in the new Amazon Video series “Undone”).

While the resulting animated characters aren’t as smooth or detailed as the typical anime figures, the technique makes the viewer feel like we’re in the room with them. Iwai also opted to record the dialogue not in a studio, but in restaurants, classrooms and other real-world locations. While the audio quality suffers a little, it enhances the you-are-there immediacy of the experience. You could easily imagine “Hana & Alice” being turned into a VR experience.

Iwai’s reasons for adopting this approach are a little offbeat. “The Case of Hana & Alice” is actually a prequel to the 2004 live-action film “Hana & Alice,” a comedy in which two teenage friends compete for the attention of the same boy. Iwai wanted to make a prequel showing how the friends met in middle school using the same actresses. But it would have looked ridiculous to cast the actresses, now in their 20s, to play tweens. Animation was the only answer.

The film itself is an odd but ingratiating mix of preteen comedy and ghost story. Alice (Yu Woi) is an outgoing new student at school who becomes fascinated with a fellow student Hana (Ann Suzuki), who has shut herself up inside her bedroom and refuses to go to school.

Alice learns that a recently deceased student, Judas, may be haunting the classroom. Or maybe a mean girl in class is just tricking Hana into thinking that. Alice manages to coax Hana out of her shell, and the two new friends try to solve the mystery together.

The mystery plot moves at an unhurried pace, and takes some bizarre turns (at one point we learn that middle-school student Judas married four girls in his class, a fact that I initially assumed was an error in the Japanese-to-English subtitle translations.) But the budding friendship between the two girls, one an extrovert and one an introvert, is so charming that I didn’t mind being confused from time to time.

The Blu-ray includes interviews with Woi and Suzuki about reprising their roles in such an unusual way, as well as Iwai. Director Makoto Shinkai, whose acclaimed 2017 film “Your Name” also combined teenage relationships and the supernatural, recorded an introduction to the film that’s also on the disc.

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Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.