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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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12/15/2007 Archived Entry: "Film review: Hula Girls"

Hula Girls
Directed by Sang-il Lee
Screenplay by Sang-il Lee and Daisuke Habara

Review by Ginger Mayerson

Okay, I'm going to explain the plot of "Hula Girls." You will think I've gone even further over the edge, but please bear with me. This story sounds insane, but it's a true story and that's why, in the best tradition of true stories, it sounds completely nuts. In 1965 or thereabouts the huge Joban coal mine in Iwaki-shi in Fukushima Prefecture and Kitaibaraki-shi in Ibaraki Prefecture began to close. The surprisingly foresighted management decided to save a percentage of jobs, (out of thousands) take advantage of the area's other natural resource, hot springs, and build a Hawaiian Center in Iwaki-shi, complete with hula girls. And this incredibly gutsy project it saves the town of Iwaki-shi, at least. I am not making this up, this really happened. In the film the project succeeds because 18 coal miners' daughters learn to hula dance and smile through their tears. Also, some of the miners get over their coal miner rage and pitch in to help get the Hawaiian Center up an running. The interview with Mr. Yukio Sakamoto, director and general manager of the Joban Kosan Co., Ltd. Planning Division. Mr. Sakamoto, whose family has worked for the Joban Mine for three generations and he makes it sound like, after a little initial confusion, everyone pulled together. For dramatic purposes, there is a lot of conflict in "Hula Girls": labor vs. management conflict, mother vs. daughter conflict, teacher vs. student conflict, good looking city woman vs. hunky coal miner man conflict. Und zo on.

What is it about coal miners? The ones you see in movies and read about in books, that is. I mean, when I think of Japan, I think of Kabuki, yaoi, cheery blossoms, Zen Buddism, Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, but I have never ever thought about coal miners. Now, I know nothing about real coal mining, but I have read "Sons and Lovers," and by God, the Japanese coal miners in "Hula Girls" are like D.H. Lawrence's coal miners: dour, drunken, change-resistant, child-abusing, bastards. Why? Why is that? This film has women who "dress coal," which is something women do with coal and I have no idea what it means. I tried to look it up, but didn't get anywhere. I don't recall any women in "Sons and Lovers" working at all; they just stay home and suffer. The main hula girl has the coolest, hunkiest, dour, change-resistant coal mining elder brother, who is supportive of what she's trying to do with her life, and his character gives me hope for the entire genre. He's a great guy, he just has tremendous difficulty imagining that there can ever be another way to live that is not coal mining. Of course he's young, but he still has a heart and you get the feeling he always will have a heart. Hard to know what he'd be like ten years later when the Joban mine finally and completely closes, but that's not part of the film. The elder brother and his mom have epiphanies near the end of "Hula Girls" that made me love them very much. As you might imagine, there are a lot of tropes in this film, too: mine closure, mine cave in, angry miners, miner beating up his daughter and cutting off her hair. What is it about cutting off your Japanese daughter's hair? This also happens in "Seven Samurai," but for different reasons. What is this Japanese daughter hair obsession?

Anyway, there were a lot of moments in this film that made me cry a lot. Watching it again, I think I was crying because everyone in the film was crying. There's a lot of crying on both sides of the screen at Casa Mayerson. So, I'm not sure if this is really a box of tissues film or not. I think I cried less when I realized I was crying along instead of for some other reason. Okay, I cry at weird things (see my "Ping Pong" review), sue me. However, I have to tell you that the ending is triumphant and touching, but there's crying in it as well. So, it's a tear-jerker, but it's a relief after all the grim coal mining tropes.

The music annoyed me, but I'm so hard to please musically, I don't even know why I mention it anymore. The last Japanese film score I liked was for "Ran," by Tōru Takemitsu, so I really shouldn't go on too much about it. I will say that as much as I admire Jake Shimabukuro's ukulele playing, the pop song in the train station make me want to bite and scratch (more than usual). /grrrrr

I feel this is a very touching film about female solidarity, but I don't know that I'd call this a feminist film. The women and girls in the film overcome all obstacles to save their town. Considering the historical and cultural circumstances, I suppose this was the bravest thing they could do. In a perfect world there would be more options for economic success than entertaining tourists, but we do not live in a perfect world. Sometimes I think we live in a Vegas world: free drinks and the casino sucking the hard-earned money out of your pocket, but that's another subject entirely.

I will have to admit that I've never thought much about hula dancing or liked it much when it did enter my consciousness, which was almost never. However, after watching "Hula Girls" I like Polynesian dance, because it's not all hula in "Hula Girls," more because I understand it a little better. The scenes where Ms. Hirayama is teaching her dancers the basics of hula dancing were some of the best in the film. To see her take a rag-tag bunch of girls living in grinding poverty and teaching them to hula dance with grace and beauty is one of the cheer-worthy parts of this film Of course to see her take a rag-tag bunch of girls living in grinding poverty and teaching them to hula dance with grace and beauty, as opposed to a world and culture that would support giving them some real education and marketable skills so they had more to survive on than the whims of the tourist industry is NOT part of this film, but it is something I am NOT able to overlook. /sermon

Eh, it's a nice film, a good film for the whole family, but I'd rather be stranded on a desert island with "Ping Pong." Or, even better, with "Seven Samurai."

And, as is usual when I wig-out in a review, I will be finding another reviewer for this film because it deserves a more normal type of review. So you might want to check back here in a few weeks for another "Hula Girls" review. You should be recovered from this one by then. Really.

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