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Around our house there are two streams of movie selections: dark, meaningful films, preferably by “auteurs,” about people overcoming terrible odds immersed in worldly cruelty, or those that are light and witty, with not too much meanness, about people solving small problems in the family or neighborhood –maybe in a little house on the prairie– and all the better if there is singing and dancing.  Once in a while the two streams dash up against each another and produce, as in the case of  Hula Girls, a 2006 Japanese production, something light with moments of  low-brow silliness, some over acted fear and anger but about overcoming the odds, stepping into a fearful challenge and winning —  with dancing.  It’s sort of a Rocky for girls.

In north eastern Japan, not too far from where the tsunami and nuclear calamity recently happened, one hundred years of a coal mine is methodically moving towards an end.  Yep, coal mines in Japan, with the workers coming out of the mines looking every bit like our Appalachian coal miners, covered in coal dust and militant union men to the bone.  Meetings about the layoffs lead to very un-Japanese behavior — at least as we’ve gotten to know it in movie and story.  The owner makes a low bow of apology and then the fists fly.  It is autumn.  The cold winds of winter are blowing the dust and trash through the housing tract.  Things look bleak.

One town father sees the writing on the wall.  The mine is going to close and the town is going to die unless income and jobs are found.  His brain-child is to erect a huge covered pavilion with palm trees and a swimming pool — remember, this is north eastern Japan.  It gets cold there; damned cold, especially when warmth is provided by coats and kerosene heaters.  How will the palm trees take to this?  Never mind.  He presses on.

Onto the scene arrives the hula dance teacher.  When the daughters of the town get a look at the outfits — which actually show the belly button– all but three flee in horror.  The “sensi” [teacher] (Yasuko Matsuyuki) is down on her luck and not too happy about being in this god-forsaken place, especially with a few silly girls who won’t shake their booties.  Nevertheless, she takes the few in hand, plays the tough no-nonsense trainer [and the ending is perfectly predictable from here. ;-)]

Two of the girls are especially inspired and throw themselves into it, even in the face of opposition from a tough “coal-dresser” mother and conservative ire from the fathers.  More girls overcome their shyness and gradually the classes fill up.  The lumbering 6 foot daughter of one of the few supportive fathers eventually finds her way to a very watchable shimmy.  Fabulous costumes materialize.  The language of the hula hands begins to be spoken with near fluency.

The initial road trip to drum up excitement in the region is the predictable embarrassment.  A few drunks hurl cushions after they realize there is not going to be any “taking it off.”   The girls get better and better,  making their way through trials and troubles, screaming matches, sensei walking out and one of the top girls being taken away to a far away village.  Eventually the big day is upon them and, lo!, they have become a wonderful, professional, colorful dance troupe.  The  audience is a sell out.  The girls get  standing ovations.  The tough mother sneaks in to watch her daughter and admits that maybe working while smiling is an OK thing.  Her once shy girl Kimiko [played by Yû Aoi]  has become a ravishing hula queen leading the town out of certain ghost-town status. I’m crying and gee, these kids can do anything!  Hawaii in Japan — like London Bridge in  Lake Havasu City, Arizona.  If you build it, they will pay to see it.

Aw shucks,  I enjoyed it. As there were coal miners and people bravely taking a  stand, my sense of it all being too silly got outvoted.  To add more justification Hula Girls won several Japanese “Oscar” awards: Best Director, best Actress, best supporting Actress…


We’re playing lots of Israel  Kamakawiwo’ole this week to keep the sweet sound going.