It’s a plot line that may just qualify as its own genre. A small group of people, oft times living in an economically depressed area, turn to an unorthodox way of earning money that at first sparks a culture clash but then leads to heart-warming understanding and acceptance by all. It’s become a fairly predictable trope, but if done well, as in the case of Hula Girlsrecently released on DVD, it can still yield enjoyable results.
The economically depressed town in question is 1965 Iwaki, a northern Japanese mining town that is seeing some 2,000 miners laid off following a closure of one of the mines. A plan is in motion to create a Hawaiian-themed resort that some of the laid-off miners can work at. However, one important thing is needed to make the resort authentically Hawaiian- hula dancers. However the conservative town is strongly against some of their daughters, wives and sisters take the jobs.
The film’s culture clash theme is personified by the teenage Kimiko (Yu Aoi) and her mother (Junko Fuji). Kimiko sees dancing at the Hawaiian center as a chance for a different life than that of a housewife that has already been mapped out for her by virtue of where she was born. Her mother, who relies on the more traditional values to define her life, sees the occupation of hula dancer as shameful and on par with stripping.
One doesn’t need to see a lot of movies to know how this is going to play out. But the fact that it plays out so well is what keeps the viewer engaged in the film. All the characters are exceedingly well drawn, with even the secondary characters all getting moments that flesh out their characters more so than usually seen in English language versions of the same basic story. The movie also resists the temptation to fall into some of the clichés that present themselves at various storytelling junctures. When Kimiko’s best friend moves away when her family heads to a large city to find work, Hollywood has trained to expect her return by the close of the film. Here, however, there are no heartwarming reunions, leaving the dance troop’s eventual triumph at the end of the film just slightly bittersweet.
The folks at Ziv Pictures have done another fine job in assembling this package. As usual with their releases, there are supplementary materials that help explain the film’s context in Japanese culture. For this title, Viz has included a short documentary interviewing the women from the northern mining town on which the film’s story is based. While Kimiko and the other dancers are fictional constructs, their instructor, Madoka Hirayama, played in the film by Yasuko Matsuyuki, is not and she is also on hand to discuss the challenges she faced in overcoming the town’s preconceived notations about the art of hula dancing.
But one doesn’t need to know that Hula Girls has its roots in actual events to enjoy the film. The strength of the film’s story, themes and acting are enough to ensure that.