Judge Adam Arseneau prefers crimson and clover, over and over.
I witnessed the moment you fell in love.
Live-action adaptations of manga are all the rage in Japan these days, and as long as they keep putting out films like Honey & Clover, this court will not complain. Based on the award-winning shojo manga by Chika Umino, fans will find this to be an entirely satisfactory, if incredibly truncated adaptation, full of introspection, heartache, growing pains, and youthful exuberance.
Facts of the Case
Four talented students at a Tokyo art college regularly meet up during the Hanamoto Study Group, an ironic gathering of fellow students to eat and drink beer. But with the arrival of talented painting prodigy Hagu (Yû Aoi, Hula Girls), the dynamic is thrown into disarray: meek Takemoto (J-pop star Sho Sakurai) and perpetual slacker Morita (Yusuke Iseya, Casshern) both fall madly in love with her, but neither is able to properly express his feelings. Meanwhile, Ayumi (Megumi Seki) tries her best to gain the attention of the evasive Mayama (Ryo Kase, Bright Future), but he is far too smitten with his own desire to even notice her, spending all his time stalking an older co-worker at his part-time job.
As the five make their way through the challenges of expressing their art, real life is slowly creeps into the idyllic picture, forcing them to make some complicated decisions about their future, about their friendships, and about love.
Honey & Clover is a film about the precipice that separates youth from the rest of your life. Oh, sure, there are details, centering about kids at art school, but it really is secondary compared to this larger thematic orchestra, which makes everything in the film dance to its bittersweet tune. In fact, calling it a "theme" is underwhelming in its description; it is more like a fundamental truth. Every single frame of the film is devoted to exploring this subject, of the tipping point between a youth's boundless dreams, hopes and ambitions, and the point when the real world suddenly reveals itself and all its unhappiness. The first half of the film is all about carefree youthful indiscretions and romance and falling in and out of love. There is a tipping point when things slide the other way, and the rest of Honey & Clover deals with the consequences.
With such an overwhelming thematic narrative driving the film forward, and with plot and character development taking a back seat, Honey & Clover makes for a strange and organic experience. It is a difficult film to encapsulate in words, since so much of its impact relies solely on your emotional reaction to the subject matter. There is so much emotion, angst, hopes, and dreams crammed into a small film that is difficult to separate from the film the art itself and the emotions inspired in the viewer by it. I suppose that says everything great about Honey & Clover that needs to be said, though. It is a film about teenagers creating art, and what is great art if not precisely that?
Fans of the manga or anime need only not apply; were it not for the splashes of magic realism here and there, you would have no idea you were watching a film based off a Japanese comic. Honey & Clover is extremely mature in its exploration of complex emotions, often at the expense of narrative, but there is a frank honesty in such a singular focus that is admirable. The kids of the Hanamoto Study Group are young, ambitious, creative, and daring, full of ambition and youthful energy. The teachers help nurture their creative energies, doing their best to hide their reservations—not so long ago, they were exactly in their position, but now have had to channel their artistic drive and passion into the real world, full of complications, broken hearts, financial realities, and crushed egos. What remains is far removed from the youthful exuberance in front of them, and you can see it on their face how painful it is to go through it a second time, if only vicariously.
Hearts get broken, friendships get tested, art gets created, and dreams get shattered, and it's all crammed into a film with a running time of barely two hours. There is a lot of content in Honey & Clover, and it can be overwhelming to the emotional senses. Methinks the creators of this lovely film have tried their darnedest to cram as much emotional resonance and content from the original manga into the film as possible. The end result is a powerful product, albeit a disorienting one. With endless possibilities laid out before them, Honey & Clover focuses on the decisions they make, right now, that start drastically shearing away the threads of possibility until but a few remain. In front of us, these five teens are laying their whole life path out, and the agonizing part is how they almost realize it, as if catching glances of something furtive in their peripheral vision. They may not realize the impact of the decisions themselves for years to come, but they know in the back recesses of their minds how much is at stake.
Heavy stuff, to say the least! There are comedic elements here and there, but they are mere seasonings, like afterthoughts. The manga delves into the same basic storyline and love triangles, but everything has been compressed and boiled down into a feature film so that it all kind of comes at you at the same time—the love, the rejection, the broken hearts, the success and failures, the career decisions, and on and on. It is a lot to take in at one sitting, but one cannot deny the beautiful elegance in seeing the path of five lives play out in front of us. All told, this is a surprisingly emotional film, but one absolutely worth the price of admission.
Honey & Clover is presented in an anamorphic presentation with solid black levels and surprisingly vibrant and saturated colors, which suits the film well considering its animated roots. As if in memory, everything is far more vivid and brighter than it should be—blue skies are picturesque and endless, green fields are vibrantly green, and the abstract paintings Hagu creates are stunning clashes of color. On the downside, the film suffers from some noticeable compression artifacts that keep the transfer from being top-grade. Audio fares nicely as well, with both a stereo and a full-blown DTS 5.1 track to satisfy audio lovers. While the film has little use for the high-end audio treatment, a vibrant and melodic piano-driven score by acclaimed composer Yoko Kanno (probably best known in North America for scoring the Cowboy Bebop anime series) compliments the film perfectly, shifting effortlessly between high and low emotional resonances. Both tracks sound great, with clear dialogue and low-balanced bass response, but the DTS track sparkles. I wish more effort went into mixing the rear channels, however, as the sound is very front-heavy.
Extras are slim—the only really notable extra is a seven-minute feature, "Hanamoto Study Group Discussion," which features the primary cast passing around a camcorder and interviewing each other about their thoughts and reflections on making the film. A cute little interview all told, but it is the only substantial supplement, save for some trailers, previews, and filmography information from cast and crew.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
A lot of people won't have the patience for such a meandering, introspective film where the actual expression of sentiment occurs in between the dialogue, in whispered voices and furtive glances and the silence that rings out after the characters stop talking. The plot itself is really quite disjointed and random, and the character development is often frustratingly oblique, with characters getting worse, not better—but that's real life for you. The film is nothing if not agonizingly real, and with such realism comes the complete inability of anyone else to figure out what the hell to do with it.
Heck, you try making a film that encapsulates how it feels to suddenly wake up and realize your whole life is spread out in front of you, and you have no idea what the @#$% to do about it. See if it makes sense to anyone else.
Either that or they just tried to cram too much manga plot into a small film. I prefer the first theory, because it sounds better.
A wildly ambitious, but emotionally draining cinematic experience, Honey & Clover will appeal to those looking to trip down Memory Lane and reminiscence about the vibrancy of youth. Admittedly, some people might not want to go tripping down such mixed memories, and if that is you, stay the heck away from this film, lest you drown in its sentimentality. For everyone else, Honey & Clover will be a complex and melancholic experience, but surprisingly moving and elegant.
A bittersweet, sophisticated, and beautiful live-action adaptation of a comic book? Who knew it was possible? Go figure!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Viz Media
• Hanamoto Study Group Discussion
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