It's Shunji Iwai's 2015 anime prequel to his earlier 2004 live-action film, Hana & Alice. He's even reunited all the same actors, in real life now eleven years older but playing younger versions of themselves with the magic of animation. Before, our heroines were fifteen. Here, they're fourteen and haven't yet met. Personally I don't think this film's as good as its predecessor, but it's still endearing and fun.
It was rotoscoped, incidentally, i.e. generated from live-action footage. Shunji Iwai shot the film traditionally, with actors and cameras, then turned it into anime because the alternative would have been to spend a fortune digitally de-aging everyone. The results look quite good and I don't think I'd have guessed it was rotoscoped if I hadn't already known. This isn't even Iwai's first film like this, incidentally, if you count films he didn't direct. He was the writer/producer of Ryuhei Kitamura's three-part anthology 2009 rotoscope animated SF film, Baton.
Anyway, time for the plot! It's divided roughly into two halves. The first half is all Alice (Yu Aoi) as she moves into a new neighbourhood with her divorced novelist weirdo mother (Shoko Aida). We don't meet Hana at all, because she's a hikikomori who never leaves her house and is never seen. (Sometimes her bedroom curtain twitches.) This first half is an entertaining but fairly unremarkable slice-of-life, just following Alice's daily life as she transfers into a new school, learns about a possible fatality and eventually befriends a nutter. No, not Hana. This nutter's called Mutsu Mutsumi (which sounds less funny in English name order) and she appears to be a card-carrying lunatic who dances around the classroom doing exorcisms. She was hilarious. Alice also knocks down boys who were asking for it (which is cool) and becomes part of a light but thoughtful minor theme of bullying.
I'm a fan of Yu Aoi, but it has to be said that the film improves when Alice eventually gets together with Hana (Anne Suzuki). Firstly, this isn't the full Aoi. The voice is there and the quirky body language is sometimes there too, delightfully, but it's still just anime. In practice it's mostly just a vocal performance, since these anime faces can't convey nearly as much as a good actress can in live-action... and Aoi is an excellent actress, as well as being beautiful. Theoretically an animator can draw anything, of course, but this isn't Studio Ghibli.
The other reason, though, is that Aoi and Suzuki have still got it. They're still great together. I'm probably prejudiced because I only watched the 2004 film yesterday, but for me it lifted the film to have the two of them sharing dialogue scenes. They're funny. They've got instant chemistry. Hana and Alice together are always more entertaining than either one of them on their own. Hana's still liable to drive the plot towards daft lies and deceptions, while Alice's still too easily led into playing along. They investigate the "murder". They're idiots. They conduct the worst investigation ever. This is refreshing, since we don't see many realistic fictional treatments of what would happen if fourteen-year-olds tried to solve a crime. In the end, what they'd been investigating turns out to have been a combination of total bollocks and some details that were unexpectedly, weirdly true.
The film's second half is where things take off. The girls do daft things and keep surprising you. They've given themselves a mission. The film's grown a purpose. We return to our 2004 roots of boggling as the girls keep saying things that aren't true and look liable to push the plot off a cliff.
I'd been wondering which order to watch these two films in, incidentally, but I think I got it right. If you've seen the girls in live-action, you're more likely to remember that and get the same vibe from this too. Oh, and this film is telling the story that Fuu-chan was talking about in 2004 in her hikikomori monologue.
This film feels a bit different from most anime. Its first half especially has the rhythm and sensibility of its parent film, which was a delicate, lightly meandering piece of live-action. Japanese cinema does that a lot. It can seem to drift, but in a serene way that at its best feels like a calmer, more civilised way of telling stories. Would I recommend this film? Yes, sure, but for the best experience I'd suggest doing it as a two-header with the 2004 one. It's very likeable, with lead characters I'd love to see again in something else. (Its supporting cast are cool too, though, especially Alice's mum.) Is there anywhere I can vote for Iwai to make another Hana & Alice film in 2025?