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Review: The Case of Hana & Alice

[The following review contains MAJOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]

There’s an old Japanese proverb that goes, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered.” Unfortunately for Tetsuka “Alice” Arisugawa—the teenage protagonist of Shunji Iwai’s delightfully offbeat The Case of Hana & Alice—she’s pretty much the quintessential misfit: following her parents’ recent divorce, the poor girl is relocated to “the boonies” and enrolled in a new school so abruptly that she doesn’t even have time to purchase the proper uniform. When her classmates immediately ostracize her, she reasonably assumes that they're merely hazing her due to her status as an outsider (a problem that she intends to solve via the most direct method: by pummeling the crap out of the biggest, toughest bully). Gradually, however, she finds herself entangled in a bizarre local legend: not only has she been assigned to sit at a desk that once belonged to a (supposedly) dead student, but she’s also currently living in the same house that his family formerly inhabited! Was the boy truly murdered, as the rumors claim? Does his damned, tormented spirit haunt her home? And what secret is the reclusive, antisocial truant next door hiding?

Despite its familiar premise, this "mystery" story defies precise classification. The eponymous amateur sleuths, for example, are utterly incompetent, fumbling about without a clue. The film’s “supernatural” elements are likewise quickly and unceremoniously revealed to be a hoax—though the mundane, traumatic incident that inspired them is both very real and integral to the central conflict. Far from being anticlimactic, these subversive twists serve to enhance the movie’s inherent charm: the superficial aspects of the plot (tropes, conventions, genre signifiers) are secondary to the wonderfully vibrant and vivid characters. Alice is particularly complex and nuanced: in the company of her peers, she behaves like a typical child (energetic, emotional, occasionally mischievous); when she briefly visits her estranged father, on the other hand, she comes off as comparatively reserved and mature—an illuminating glimpse into their complicated relationship.

While I must confess that I was not initially fond of Hana & Alice’s “unique” visual style (a disharmonious combination of rotoscope animation and somewhat clunky CGI), its quirky narrative and rich themes ultimately won me over. Functioning as a lighter, more optimistic antithesis to Iwai’s relentlessly bleak All About Lily Chou-Chou, it is a thoroughly engaging cinematic experience.

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