Working with several hundred Japanese high school and junior high girls for two and a half years, I couldn't help but wonder what their lives were like outside of school, or at least outside of my classroom. Because my Japanese was never very good, because I was a foreigner and they naturally they acted differently around me, because I am male and not a compatriot in estrogen, for all these reasons my window into their lives was thickly fogged over and miniscule at best. Nevertheless, perhaps inevitably being the huge sap I am, I came to care about them a great deal, and developed a peculiar weakness for movies about Japanese high school life. Hence the main reason I enjoyed such movies as Swing Girls (2004), Linda Linda Linda, Whisper of the Heart (1995), and Gambatte Ikimasshoi so much. They let me glimpse, at least a little, of what it is like to be a Japanese schoolgirl, or allowed me an indulgence in nostalgia for a time I continue to cherish now that I am back in America.
Thus, thanks to my brother's compulsively large collection of Japanese films, I excitedly partook recently in a viewing of the gently comedic schoolgirl drama Hana & Alice. The movie focuses fairly tightly in on the lives of two best friends during their formative high school careers—impulsive, manipulative Hana (Anne Suzuki, Returner, Steamboy), and beautiful, self-doubting Alice (Yu Aoi, Tekkonkinkreet, Hula Girls). At the beginning of the film, neither girl is involved in a romantic entanglement, but both are very curious about the possibilities, following a particular pair of boys on a train in a girlish game of hormonally-charged clandestine photography. When Hana later witnesses one of the now-idealized boys suffer a painful hit to his cranium, she convinces him that he suffered memory loss and that she is actually his girlfriend. Naturally this lie leads to a continuing series of deception to keep up the ruse, and Alice is conscripted to help, taking on the role of the boy's ex-girlfriend while also grappling with the real-world pressures of being "discovered" by a modeling firm. As lies lead to all-too-real attraction in all three parties, the bonds of friendship are tried and the girls have to decide just how far they are willing to go to maintain their emotionally destructive game.
From the above synopsis, it may sound as if Hana & Alice is a dopey chick flick full of goofy romance and an over-the-top plot, but such is strangely far from the case. Funny events do take place, but dramatic elements take precedence over the funny, with slow build-up and many character-building sequences. While the film is not strictly realistic, a strong sense of verisimilitude is incorporated via the use of almost documentary style cinematography and ample naturalistic lighting. Characters take center stage over plot machinations, and the end result is far superior in my opinion to most sappy, slight chick flicks.
Anne Suzuki's portrayal of Hana is nuanced and at times emotionally intense as she pulls on her significant acting skills to reproduce the selfish personality of her character. At first it is Hana who seems less confident next to Alice's enthusiasm and physical beauty, but then she pursues her crush with more wherewithal than Alice can even muster when auditioning for commercials and photo shoots. And when Suzuki is called upon to engage the waterworks, the emotions she exhibits seem strikingly real, a tribute to her very real talent.
Yu Aoi's Alice is a much more sympathetic role, and Aoi's performance is, overall, subtler than Suzuki's, with her character's more understated personality. Alice is in the center of a broken family, forced to take care of a slovenly divorced mother who actively chases after men and shows little affection for her daughter. Alice doesn't see her father often, but in the one sequence in which they are together her confusion and obvious affection for her dad is obvious. Her participation in Hana's deception of the boy is never malicious, but she sustains it as a help to her friend and as an excuse to relieve some of her loneliness in the acquaintance of a kind male friend. Her name, "Alice," is actually a nickname derived from her surname, Arisugawa, and is rendered in katakana in the film's Japanese title; katakana is often used for foreign loan words and other, less formal usages, almost as if Alice is using her nickname to separate herself from her painful family situation.
Tomohiro Kaku as the boy is less impressive, but he has less to work with. Frankly, his character is rather dull—though part of a comedy club at school, he is completely terrible at telling jokes, rendering them in a monotone, and he doesn't seem to have any significant friends. He appears to be something of a bookworm, but it isn't clear what he is interested in outside of comedy, and his family life is never explored. The intent of the film seems to have been to make him as boring as possible, underscoring that Hana and Alice's attraction towards him is based more on the early idealization of him and his friend, as well as the fact that he is a convenient male to fill the roles missing in the girls' lives. The boy's name, Masashi Miyamoto, is a slight corruption of the name of a famous samurai from Japan's history, highlighting again that his stature in their eyes is fantasy. Amusingly, his comedian name given to him by the leader of the comedy club is "Bakuhatsu," which means "explosion"—completely inappropriate for the ultimately unexciting boy.
Music throughout the film is gorgeous instrumental with strong piano and string motifs. It was easy for me to get caught up in the melodious strains, and what's even more impressive is that all original music was composed by Shunji Iwai, the director of the film.
The weakest link in the experience, however, is far and away the subtitles. There are a number of points in which significant portions of dialogue are not translated, such as when the boy Miyamoto is reciting his comedy sketch to himself, or towards the end when the head of the comedy club is performing on-stage and parts of his ludicrous act are skimmed over. It's frustrating because it feels as if the translators just decided that certain sections of the dialogue were unimportant, rather than leaving that discretion up to the viewers to decide. Furthermore, of slight annoyance is the placement of the subs, which sometimes alternate from the bottom up to the top of the screen and then back down again—not because too many people are talking at once, but perhaps because of contrast issues. Whatever the reason, it was distracting.
I also want to take a little time to note some issues of translation in general because some common issues have been preying on my mind lately. Increasingly my friends have been complaining about the way in which film dialogue is translated, especially cusswords, because they know just enough of Japanese to know that these words and some other phrases are not being rendered literally, and they have an aversion for foul language. Actually, complaints about translations are common, with fanboys all across the Internet picking apart and complaining about various movies without understanding even an inkling of what the task is like when translating a text. Really, the topic deserves an entire article unto itself. The fact of the matter is, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of words in Japanese that don't have direct English translations, and if those words are literally rendered in our language, they would sound extremely strange and therefore lose their original, culturally-specific punch. In the case of Hana and Alice, the translators decided to render many of the girls' exclamations as "Jesus" or "Christ," and it is very obvious that in the original Japanese these particular words (or even their equivalents) aren't used because in general the Japanese don't swear using Christian themes. Frankly, I don't like the use of profanity (as opposed to vulgarity or obscenity) in translating Japanese because it is putting our religion-derived swear words in the mouths of foreigners, which makes them sound very out-of-place due to the characters' background, and as a Christian myself, profanity in particular is offensive to me. Profanity isn't just disagreeable words labeled unrespectable by social mores; profanity is disrespectful and worse towards a belief set which I and many others hold to be absolutely true. Nevertheless, I do understand why they did it—a direct translation would have sounded odd at best, which may have distracted from the intended impact of the moment in the context of the story. Be that as it may, I would prefer translators rely on expressions that are not so culturally-centered, such as religious swear words, and attempt to translate via more universal expression. For example, when translating the cry of dismay sayaku (which I have heard translated as "worst"), it seems to make more sense (in the context of Japanese culture) to say "No way!" or "Oh no!" rather than "Christ!"
Despite these issues, however, I believe Hana & Alice is a strong film, with a beautiful score, well-thought-out story, strong characterizations and very solid acting from the main actresses. Hana & Alice easily helped solidify my respect for both Suzuki and Aoi, and I look forward to seeing more of their work elsewhere. As far as chick flicks go, I think this one was even better than Nana (2005), which I also enjoyed quite a bit. While not ground-breaking, Hana & Alice is intelligent entertainment, and a very good reminder that not all Japanese movies have to be about samurai and giant monsters to be fine entertainment.