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"Songs of Innocence and of Experience" was a collection of poems by William Blake (1757-1827). The Songs of Innocence portray the world of idyll and childhood (nursery rhymes, a little lamb, fairy-tale characters) while the Songs of Experience revisit many of the characters and themes but twisted by the harsh realities of adulthood (sorrow, injustice, tragedy, mortality).
Like many, I became acquainted with Shunji Iwai through his apocalyptic magnum opus, All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001), arguably the greatest Japanese film of the new millennium. Lily's a big, important film, and a tough act to follow. The first time I watched Hana & Alice (2004), Iwai's followup, I was baffled and disappointed. Was this really the same writer and director? It seemed too simple, contrived, lacking at almost every turn in the fractal complexity of Lily. I thought that Iwai had run out of things to say.
But now, watching Hana & Alice again the better part of a decade later, I see that while Lily was Iwai's masterpiece, his grand and terrible Songs of Experience, Hana & Alice, while quieter, humbler, and in every way less "writ large", is nearly as rewarding. It is a companion piece of sorts to Lily -- Iwai's Songs of Innocence, so to speak -- and viewing it through this lens is what finally let me fully appreciate the film.
The film has three narratives: Hana's story, Alice's story, and stories of the two of them together. Hana's story and the stories of the two characters are, without question, pure Songs of Innocence. These sections consist of friends hanging out, chatting and goofing around, ballet lessons, cherry blossom trees, a museum, a visit to the zoo, theatre rehearsals... In short, innocent scenes, imagery and characters, as well as innocent plot devices (especially the main one, which I won't spoil here) and even an innocent soundtrack (Hana's theme, composed by Iwai himself). Iwai even explores the storytelling vocabulary of innocent stories: when characters feel bad, it rains; the male protagonist emits cartoon-like exclamations of surprise; the most at stake is whether the main characters will, in fact, become boyfriend and girlfriend.
But just as Blake's Songs of Innocence hinted at the darker aspects of adulthood, as so does Alice's story here. Alice's experiences -- her relationship with her mother, interacting with her wise but distant father, her introduction to the fickle and demeaning world of small time acting and modeling -- portray the first cracks of innocence, the messy, complicated world of adults.
Iwai is a heavy experimentalist in film, but here, he reigns in his more extreme creative tendencies in his best attempt to tell a straightforward, perhaps mainstream story. Characters are still filmed upside-down, through windowpanes, and talking into mirrors, but these gentle bits of experimentalism are woven subtly into the fabric of the film.
The final scene of Hana & Alice is a minor film classic, and the movie as a whole stands as a quiet but rewarding work from one of Japan's greatest filmmakers.