Saturday, April 28, 2007

Hula Girls

I've seen Brassed Off and The Full Monty and I'm sure there's another in there somewhere that covers similar territory, but Hula Girls is far and away the most emotionally satisfying, even if it does have the most insane premise. Apparently there has been a string of similar movies made in Japan as well as a "hula boom": this movie combines the two trends. It is a very good thing I was alone when I saw it, as I spent most of it either on the verge of or in tears.

The setting is a coal-mining town in northern Japan in 1965: industry is moving away from coal fired production so the entire town is under threat. Most townsfolk have been involved in the coal mine for generations, so they have no idea how to face, let alone accept, this challenge. They cling fiercely to what they know so that, when a potential solution presents itself, they almost unanimously reject it. Mind you, the solution does seem so far out of left field you're kind of wondering of the word field has been re-defined. Imagine a town comprised of a mountain of coal, a mine and the sort of functional buildings used to house mineworkers. Plus, it is cold. Not exactly the sort of location to site a Hawaiian Centre, complete with palm trees, a troupe of hula dancing girls and a traditional Hawaiian steel guitar band. But it is going to employ 500 people and is a better idea than anyone else has.

Only four girls are willing to train as hula dancers. A teacher is produced from Tokyo: we never learn a whole lot about who she is, why she's here except that wherever she goes, people soon want her to move on. So the movie is not just about the journey of the 4 girls (and the others who join them) or the town, but also that of the teacher,
Ms Hirayama. Of course, none of the girls know anything about hula dancing, so they (and the audience) get a crash course in its symbolism and techniques:
They all struggle against their own incompetence and the hostility of the town to change, a particularly difficult transition for the town because these girls, through their dance, are being empowered and the old folks (men and women) don't like that.

I'll mention two particular difficulties. One is when there is a mine accident, and the father of one of the girls, Sayuri, is killed. Ms Hirayama is a traditionalist in her own way, and by her professional standards, the show must go on. But she has been changed by immersion in this town: "That was before. Now, we go home." It is the ungainly and tearful Sayuri who insists that she wants to dance - the town is furious, and sends Ms Hirayama away.

The second is concerned with Kimiko, the star dancer. Her mother has been against this from the start, thinking it is immoral, plus it is impossible for work to be fun, according to her value system. So, a lot of the movie is about her entrenchment, then gradual shift in attitude. Towards the end, the Hawaiian Centre is under threat because its palm trees are dying. Surprise surprise, it is too cold for them - but if they could borrow stoves from the townsfolk, they will be saved (including Christina - one fellow got a little too close to one particular tree!). The old guys are against it but Kimiko's mum finally makes a stand, and the show goes on, to a flamboyant finish:
I picked these two photos deliberately, because they brilliantly illustrate the change in mood in the town.

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