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Review: Honey and Clover (Live Action Film) (59%)

You look all grown up now, Hagu-chan
You look all grown up now, Hagu-chan

What have they done with my second favorite anime of all time? Even Yoko Kanno and a whole passel of great insert songs can’t save this muddled, half-baked mess of a film that strips away so much of what made Honey and Clover one of the greatest evocations of the end of adolescence.

L to R: Mayama, Hagu, Yamada, Takemoto

The producers of the film clearly based the casting on the actors’ physical similarities to their manga/anime counterparts rather than their acting abilities. The resemblances are admittedly uncanny. Yamada looks almost exactly how I thought she might look in real life, as does Hagu, who actually seems like a plausible 18-year-old without losing her loli youthful charm. Even then, it doesn’t always work though. Takemoto seemed too indistinct and looked too much the part of the pop star that the actor actually is. Mayama is a bit too skinny and looks more nerdy than cool, which is what he’s supposed to be. And then there’s Morita, who’s virtually unrecognizable in this incarnation if one is familiar with the manga or anime.

Yamada and Mayama being awkward, again

And a big part of the unrecognizability is that aside from some superficial traits and situations, these characters feel either far shallower or entirely different from the people Umino Chika created. I understand, of course, that in a two hour movie you can’t fit the lengthy, intricate story that played out in the manga and anime. But so little of the personalities of the original characters come through; they seem dull and flat, and as a result few of the interactions between characters had any spark of life, any chemistry. Morita has lost almost all of his whimsy and outrageous humor, not to mention his greed and sloth. Yamada, whose emotional transparency in the anime meant that we saw lots of her tears and pain, seems more stuck up and emotionally constipated in this incarnation. Hagu is reduced from a fascinating artistic genius with real identity struggles to a merely shy, short girl who gets into a “slump” merely from a kiss. And given the length I suppose the complicated relationship between Hanamoto, Rika, Mayama, and Rika’s late husband couldn’t be played out. The richness of each character is almost totally gone, leaving their actions frequently inexplicable.

Umm…where have I heard that before?

There were severe pacing and plot problems, too. Now I have no problem in principle with the screenwriters coming up with a different story to fit the length of a film, though I think I would have preferred it if they had simply stuck to one character’s central story–Takemoto’s, for instance, and his search for himself. (It was that story which convinced me of H&C’s greatness.) But they seem to have wanted to shoehorn not only the Hagu-Takemoto-Morita triangle in but also the complicated Mayama-Yamada-Rika one, too. Seemingly random scenes that often ended abruptly were stuck in, especially in the first half; it only gained some focus later on by spending more time on the Hagu storyline. Worst of all, the resolutions to the various subplots–which are very different from the originals–feel completely unearned because the movie never really gives enough time for either of them to breathe. We are given very few hints as to why Morita and Takemoto are in love in Hagu, aside from one of the few great monologue lines that made it through (“I wonder what it is like to see through Hagu’s eyes”). Yamada’s eternal flame for Mayama is even more inexplicable in this version because Mayama has been officially made a creepy stalker, something which is played for implausible laughs rather than the real turn-off it would be in real life. (In the anime, Mayama’s “intense feelings” for Rika were edgy enough to be funny but not truly disturbing.) And Morita’s constant departures are never explained at all. The upshot is when the characters make their confessions of love and decisions, they seem to come out of almost nowhere.

And I can’t find any merit in the this scene, but it’s fun to pick it apart

Even when they tried to replicate famous scenes from the original, they were often done out of context and robbed of what made them emotionally powerful. The search for the four-leaf-clover was utterly trivialized, losing most of its meaning as it wasn’t done by the five friends but with a class of children Yamada teaches. Takemoto’s long bike ride of self-discovery is given short shrift. The trip to the beach not only happens (most of its poignancy in the original is because it didn’t), but is supremely cheesy to boot. The ferris wheel is gone as a motif, as is, well, the significance of the title Honey and Clover. The ending of the anime surely qualifies as one of the very best uses of a title to wrap up a series, ever. This is just wasted.

This situation raises questions about this movie’s target audience: is it for people who are familiar with the story already, or newcomers? If it is aimed at current fans, that might explain why there was so little meaningful character development; we’re expected to know who these people are just by looking at them, and fill in the gaps. Yet, the story is so markedly different from the original and clearly made to fit in a movie timeline (however poorly), it seems that they were also trying to reach a broader audience not familiar with the original works.

Once again, the soundtrack is better than the show

Only one aesthetic feature from the anime carried through–good uses of insert songs, partly because most of the songs were written by Yoko Kanno, partly because the ED song by Spitz (“Mahou no Kotoba”) is excellent too, and would have fit in very well in the anime.

Finally–aside from a few lines, the insightful, eloquent monologues were missing in action. That almost rips out entirely what made H&C feel so true to life.

I have much higher hopes for the J-drama version of H&C that is coming out this week. This movie more or less convinces me that a story like H&C’s generally just can’t work in feature film form; there are too many characters whose lives are worth telling and need time to develop to intersect in believable ways. Perhaps they’ve learned some lessons from this failure of a film, much the way Joss Whedon learned from the failure of the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie. He went on to create an outstanding television series, and there’s no reason why a production with such resonant, well-written source material as H&C can’t have the same fate.

As for this one, though: let’s just say it’s “non-canon.” And move on.

(PS: what was up with that CGI cat?)

Anime Diet Daily Recommended Allowances (Special Live Action Edition)

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