Thursday, March 31, 2011

Hula Girls for Japanese Tsunami and Earthquake Disaster Relief

On Saturday, March 26, I went to the Viz for the first time since December. Not by design, I had missed all the Asian American Film Festival screenings at the Viz. Their programming had been sparse prior to that. When I saw they were screening Hula Girls as a benefit to help the tsunami and earthquake victims in Japan, my sense of charity coincided with my love film.

Hula Girls starring Yasuko Matsuyuki & Yû Aoi; directed by Sang-il Lee; Japanese with subtitles; (2006) - Official Website

Hula Girls stars Yasuko Matsuyuki (Detroit Metal City) and Yû Aoi (the Bong Joon-ho segment of Tokyo!). I don't recall when I first heard of Hula Girls but it has been on my list of movies to see for quite sometime. The Viz chose Hula Girls because it was set in Fukushima Prefecture where the nuclear power plant which has been in the news for the past several weeks is located.

Set in the 1960s, Hula Girls is based on true events. The mining town of Iwaki is dying a slow death as the Japanese economy shifts away from coal (ironically to nuclear power for its electricity needs). The town latches on to the idea of using the local hot springs to open a Hawaiian center with indoor heated pools and amusement park. In support of this plan, the town hires a Madoka Hirayama (Yasuko Matsuyuki), professional dancer from Tokyo to teach the local girls hula dancing with the goal of creating a dance troupe for the Hawaiian center.

Hirayama comes with her own luggage. She in debt to some mobsters, she drinks too much and doesn't want to be in a small mining town teaching unsophisticated girls how to dance. She agrees to the deal for the money and to hide out from the gangsters.

The town does not embrace the Hawaiian center, the hula dancers or Hirayama. Many in the town view supporting the hula girls as not supporting the mines. The film focuses on two girls who join the dance class - Sanae (Eri Tokunaga) and her best friend, the slightly reluctant Kimiko (Yū Aoi). Sanae's father is a widower and she has three younger siblings. Kimiko's mother is a widow and bother her mother and older brother work at the mines. Kimiko ditches private school to go hula dancing and when she is caught she runs away from home. The pair are joined by Hatsuko (Yoko Ikezu), a slightly older woman who is the organizer's secretary and Sayuri (Shizuyo Yamazaki), a large, clumsy girl whose father encourages her dancing. After a rough start, Hirayama agrees to train the four of them. All the other women in town won't participate due to not wanting to go against the miners or because they think hula dancing is synonymous with stripping.

At this point the film becomes somewhat formulaic. The towns starts to support the dancers - check. Hirayama proves herself - check. Someone dies but it strengthens the troupe - check. There weren't that many surprises in the film. The film is carried by the performances of the two lead actresses - Matsuyuki plays the tough & gruff instructor with a heart of gold and Aoi plays the young dancer with real talent who comes into her own under her teacher's tutelage. Like many enjoyable films, the supporting roles are extremely well acted - Ikezu, Yamazaki, Etsushi Toyokawa as Kimiko's older brother and Sumiko Fuji as Kimiko's mother stood out. Sumiko Fuji, under the stage name Junko Fuji, attained screen immortality in the late 1960's and early 1970's in the Red Peony Gambler film series.

Despite blatant emotional manipulation by the filmmakers, I thoroughly enjoyed Hula Girls and my eyes even teared up a few times. As long as they are making films, they'll make "feel good" stories where the underdog overcomes and as long as they are well made, the films will be compelling and enjoyable.

The Hawaiian center which is such a major part of the film is still in existence. I'm not sure if it closed in the wake of the tsunami and radiation leak. It's now known as the Spa Resort Hawaiians. If you still want to donate to the relief efforts, you can try the New People link which is affiliated with the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California. I've also donated to the American Red Cross.

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