In the 1960s, as Japan’s economy shifted from being coal-powered to oil-powered, coal mines came under increasing financial pressure. In the city of Iwaki, the Joban coalfield was one such enterprise whose owners realized their time was running out. Determined to extend the life of the mine and to protect the employment of the town’s residents by any means possible, the management came up with the idea of opening a resort, taking advantage of the numerous hot springs in the area; the same spring water which used to seep into the mines and had ironically been a hazard and nuisance to the miners all these years! They selected a Hawaiian theme for the resort and in spite of the initial resistance of the miners, trained the young girls of the town to dance the Hawaiian hula. The resort went on to become one of the most popular in the country, famous as much for its dance troupe as for its spring water and at its peak in the early 70s, it hosted 1.5 million visitors a year.
This is the inspiring and extraordinary story which forms the basis for the film Hula Girls (Hura gâru), which won the Best Film Award of the Japanese Academy in 2007. It was also chosen as Japan’s entry to the Foreign Film category of the Oscars that year.
In this big-screen retelling of the story, the mining company recruits a dance instructor from Tokyo named Madoka Hirayama (played by strikingly beautiful actress/ singer Yasuko Matsuyuki), who agrees to come to this place in the boondocks because she is trying to escape her past in Tokyo. Nevertheless, she still retains her pride and a haughty demeanour.
She is asked to train a small group of girls, mostly daughters of the resident miners. In particular, the story focuses on a trio of girls Sanae, Kimiko and Sayuri, who defy local and parental opposition to volunteer for the dance classes. The plot goes through the predictable roller-coaster ride that one sees in these feel-good movies involving group effort in the face of adversity. The young girls overcome their own fears and the doubts of their instructor, plus other minor plot hiccups to triumph in a grand finale. The instructor battles her own internal demons and redeems herself through the success of the girls. The parents are won over by the efforts and self-belief of the girls and are there in the end to celebrate their success. We have seen this play through in films ranging from Bend It Like Beckham to Japanese films like Sumo Do Sumo Don’t and Shall We Dansu?. But it’s precisely because stories like this work (when well executed) that we are drawn to them time and again. I certainly enjoyed this good-natured film with its laughter, tears and comedic melodrama.
The film was directed by Sang-il Lee, a Japanese of Korean descent who was 33 years old at the time he filmed it. Four years later, his crime drama Villain (Akunin) was nominated for multiple awards including Best Film, Director and Screenplay. In 2013, he directed a Japanese remake of Clint Eastwood’s award winning revisionist Western Unforgiven, with Ken Watanabe playing the lead role and getting nominated for Best Actor by the Japanese Academy. Certainly, it’s an impressive body of work in the past 7 years and hopefully more to come.