That was lovely. I'd been expecting something light like Waterboys
or Swing Girls
, but what I got was more earnest and emotional.
In outline, mind you, it sounds exactly like a Shinobu Yaguchi film. Coal miners' daughters in a northern mining town in 1965 turn themselves into hula dancers. (Yes, Japan has a north too, but for them that simply means "colder".) None of these ladies had ever danced before in their lives, of course. They're rubbish, but they work hard and become... um, still rubbish. More work is required.
Meanwhile the teacher (Yasuko Matsuyuki) is a hard-nosed bitch from Tokyo who wears movie star sunglasses, even though the temperature's below zero.
Theoretically there are no surprises here. You know what's going to happen. You know the plot beats. You know that it'll all end with a big triumphant hula show in which everyone at last looks great. You won't be surprised when the dancers' first performance is a catastrophe, although you might be surprised by a few of the details. Even the characters fall into recognised categories: (a) the Reluctant Star, (b) the Middle-Aged Enthusiastic One, (c) the One Who's Forced To Quit And Says Her Goodbyes, etc.
What's different here though is the emotional weight. You see, this is based on the true story of a dying community in 1965. Japan was moving from coal to oil, which was bad news for mining towns like this one in the Tohoku region. It was a one-industry economy. All jobs came from coal. The men worked in the mine and that was the way it had always been. However now the writing's on the wall, so it's proposed that they move into the leisure industry and build Japan's first Hawaiian Village. One look at the thermometer suggests that this is a silly idea, but the town's screwed and no one's got a better idea. Ittoku Kishibe thus hires a hula dancing teacher and starts running classes.
All this really happened. The Hawaiian Village is still in business today.
This gives everything more force. The comedy has a hard edge underneath. It's a community without hope and most of the people there think this is a stupid idea and wouldn't lift a finger to help. Desperation is never far away from the slightly silly scenes of mismatched women grappling with something they can't do. The lumpish man-like Shizuyo Yamasaki, for instance, isn't merely a figure of fun. Furthermore this is a world where fatal accidents can and do happen.
This might have been a train wreck. "Underdogs training to do something to which they're unsuited" comedy isn't a natural bedfellow for scenes of industrial hardship, bereavement and people being fired after thirty years of manual labour. However Sang-il Lee makes it work tonally and the results will probably make you cry. I came close more than once. The people behind us in the cinema definitely did.
If you're thinking this sounds like Billy Elliot
and The Full Monty... well, yes, it does, except that I'd say it's a bit better than either. Those two films were both big hits in Japan, by the way.
I was impressed by the setting. Japanese films don't always work too hard at realising their period setting, if there is one, but here they know that's all-important and so they've spent the money to do it properly. You feel the cold. You'll believe that you're in 1965, in this deprived mining town where the walls might sometimes be papered with newspaper. You'll also struggle with the accents (da-be) and boggle at women saying "ore" and "temee". Everything on screen looks perfect, with a grimy colour palette and occasional touches like a near-beehive hairdo or an old-fashioned upside-down camera.
The film also makes strong use of the historical era. There's a strong undertone of "change in the air". The future isn't going to be like the past, both for the town and for women's opportunities.
I should mention the talent involved. The director, Sang-il Lee, is ethnically Korean and Japanese by birth. His graduation thesis film was Chong
(which I thought was good without knowing it was a student film) and he's on my list of directors to watch. He won Best Director and Best Screenplay at the Japanese Academy Awards for this film. Yu Aoi is the faintly hostile teenage girl who in a couple of scenes made me wonder if she had a lesbian crush on Yasuko Matsuyuki and she's excellent. She got me going with her "the mine's closing" speech, for instance. The Japanese Academy Awards recognised her work here too, giving her the Best Supporting Actress prize.
You might be noticing a common factor. This film was nominated for twelve Japanese Academy Awards and won five, with the ones I haven't yet mentioned being Most Popular Film and Best Film.
The face I recognised immediately was Ittoku Kishibe (Zatoichi
, Happy Flight
, 13 Assassins
), but my favourite anecdote here is about big Shizuyo Yamasaki. She's normally a Japanese comedian, but recently she's been taking time off for boxing and she nearly represented Japan at the 2012 London Olympics.
You could show this movie to anyone. My parents adored it and my father was trying to buy the DVD so he could play it to his film group. It's amusing, but it has an emotional punch. It'll get you, despite the fact that you'll have seen this story done before in different ways. It was Japan's official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2007 Oscars, which seems like a good choice to me. It's heartwarming and it'll make you smile.
The mine closed in 1976.