"Hana & Alice" is another film from a genre I really love - the Eastern coming-of-age/youth film. Some of my favorite films - "Linda Linda Linda", "Take Care of My Cat", "A Gentle Breeze in the Village", "Nobody Knows" etc. belong in this genre. "Hana & Alice" is a consistently enjoyable entry in the genre but never manages to evoke the depth or the tonal complexity of films like "Linda Linda Linda" or "Take Care of My Cat". It is a fun watch, but not a particularly satisfying one. The director, Shunji Iwai (who directed "All About Lily Chou-Chou") tries to pull off some incredibly tricky shifts in tone that never quite work. "Hana & Alice" often tries to switch from out-and-out farce to whimsical romantic fantasy to bittersweet realism in a single scene, but these shifts feel forced and make the film seem choppy.
The acting is a mixed bag. Both of the young leads are pretty good, and are convincing as best friends - Anne Suzuki, as the childish and impulsive Hana, has an expressive face that she uses to her full advantage. She's engaging, but her highly animated performance veers dangerously close to mugging at times. Yu Aoi, as the pretty and kind but not very bright Alice, succeeds thanks to some very simple (but wise) acting decisions that make the Alice arc far more satisfying to watch. Aoi is a smart enough actress to recognize the sadness in Alice's situations (with Hana, Masashi and with her mother especially) even if the direction and script fail to do so. Her very moving scene with her father is more layered, interesting and emotional than all of Suzuki's scenes combined.
The major problem with the performances comes from Suzuki and Aoi's differing acting styles. Their scenes together work because they are able to conjure up a believable friendly chemistry - but on their own, or with other co-stars, they seem to be acting in different films. Suzuki treats the role of Hana to broad comedy (save for an impressive, if overjuiced, big crying scene) and as a result, seems to be acting in a completely different film to Aoi and her quieter, more intuitive performance. Supporting players are generally okay. Tomohiro Kaku, as the girls' mutual love interest, has one vocal tic that really irritates, and his character doesn't really make any sense (then again, the film's central conceit is bafflingly unrealistic), and the leader of the comedy club is a horribly annoying character that could have been left out entirely.
The cinematography is gorgeous (especially during the first forty minutes), but the over-reliance on blurred, oversaturated backgrounds to represent puppy love really grates after a while. The cutesy musical motif is charming to begin with, but I was weary of it by the end, as well.
Definitely an enjoyable diversion, but the story is too thin to hold up to close scrutiny - it is definitely a film trying to be something it isn't.