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Hula Girls
Japanese: フラガール


DVD (Japan)
Region 2 NTSC
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Japanese Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1/DTS 5.1
Removable English and Japanese subtitles
Commentary, trailers

*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc

Year: 2006
Director: Sang-Il Lee
Writer: Sang-Il Lee, Daisuke Habara
Cast: Yasuko Matsuyuki, Yu Aoi, Etsushi Toyokawa, Eri Tokunaga, Ittoku Kishibe, Shizuyo Yamazaki, Junko Fuji, Shoko Ikezu, Kojo Miyake, Masaru Shiga, Katsumi Takahashi, Susumu Terajima
The Skinny: This crowd-pleasing true story about another group of misfits tackling another seemingly impossible sport carries surprising dramatic weight thanks to director Sang-Il Lee's decision to keep the reality of the situation in the foreground. It may not look like it, but Hula Girls was a deserving winner at the Japan Academy Awards.

Kevin Ma:

From Sumo Do, Sumo Don't to Swing Girls, Japanese filmmakers are great at making crowd-pleasing comedies about ragtag groups of amateurs beating the odds. However, even though they've mastered a certain brand of silliness, the genre has always lacked in dramatic storytelling. After helming teen dramas and films about ethnic Koreans in Japan, Korean-Japanese filmmaker Sang-Il Lee decides to tackle this popular commercial formula with Hula Girls, a true story about a town trying to save itself in a rather unorthodox way. Showered with acclaim - the film represented Japan at the Oscars and won Best Picture at the Japan Academy Awards - Hula Girls has quite a reputation to live up to. Good thing it does. Honestly, it's easy to see why Hula Girls was so loved in its home country.

Hula Girls takes place in 1965 Iwaki, a small Northern town whose townspeople rely on nearby coal mines for their livelihood. As Japan's post-war economy blossoms, oil has taken the place of coal, bringing down the coal mines one by one. With lay-offs and the shutdown of the local mine imminent, a company official (Ittoku Kishibe) decides to build a Hawaiian center/hot springs to boost the local economy. The main attraction of this center? Hula dancing. The problem, in addition to Iwaki looking more like a winter wonderland than Hawaii, is that few girls in town are willing to bare any skin to perform Hula dancing. Nevertheless, the plan still attracts Sanae (Eri Tokunaga), a girl who dreams of leaving the mines, as well as her best friend Kimiko (Yu Aoi), housewife Hatsuko, and tomboy Sayuri. The company also hires Hirayama (Yasuko Matsuyuki), a professional Hula dancer who was part of an elite dance troupe in Tokyo. But Hirayama isn't particularly interested in teaching a ragtag group of misfits how to Hula dance in a rural town; she's only doing it for the money to clear her debt with some unsavory characters back in town.

Meanwhile, the miners aren't particularly supportive of the whole idea because it will only create a fraction of the jobs that a mine closure will eliminate. When Kimiko's widowed mother Chiyo, who is also head of the miners' wives association, catches her daughter Hula dancing, she becomes upset at her daughter. But Kimiko is so committed to Hula dancing that she runs away and moves into the dance center. The dancers are in place, but the reluctant Hirayama-sensei realizes that none of her four dancers can dance to save their lives. However, that's nothing a quick montage can't fix. With the mine closure approaching, the women of the town actually begin to embrace the idea of the Hawaiian center, and another montage later, Iwaki's got its own Hula dance troupe. But that's only half the journey - the center still has to be built, and the people still have to show up.

Considering that the real-life Hawaiian center in Iwaki is now a nationally-known hot springs resort, it's safe to say that the journey in Hula Girls is far more important than the destination. Naturally, the film offers a clichéd "never give up" message that preaches what a team of misfits can achieve, but Lee and his team know that there is more at stake than just self-esteem. Behind the comedy of the troupe's less-than-stellar dancing skills lies an entire town's future, and Lee never steers far from the serious issues. A throwaway joke about a landscaper's naïve attempt to keep a palm tree warm in the freezing conditions may be played for laughs, but it becomes an essential point in the development of the plot. Hula Girls works as a comedy, but Lee also succeeds in creating dramatic tension without making the film too downbeat. It's a precarious balance, but Lee amazingly makes the whole thing look easy.

The film also succeeds because unlike most sports films about misfits, Lee doesn't rely on stereotypes to shape the characters. While clichéd characters fill the Hula Girls screenplay, Lee and his co-writer Daisuke Habara place the situation on established characters instead of using the situation to establish the characters. Of course, Hula Girls wouldn't be a crowd-pleaser if the characters didn't change over the course of the film. You know Kimiko's mother will eventually come around, and Hirayama will eventually come to drop her "reluctant teacher" attitude - but these changes don't come from some sudden epiphany during the third act. Rather, the arcs come from within the characters' personalities. As is common in most commercial films, Hula Girls leans towards big emotional moments, but the emotions remain genuine because of the characters. Sure, scenes like the troupe's impromptu performance on a train platform would probably never happen in real life, but Lee foreshadows enough throughout that he actually earns the moment as opposed to calculating it.

On the surface, Hula Girls doesn't have the high-class pedigree of your run-of-the-mill Best Picture winner. But the Japan Academy does have a history of awarding warm, family-friendly crowd-pleasers rather than expensive epic productions, and Hula Girls is no exception. By no means is Hula Girls mind-blowing or even all that original. It relies on age-old formulas and traditional emotion-manipulation strategies to please audiences, but at least it does so with likeable characters, strong performances (especially from Yu Aoi in a spirited award-winning performance), and a script that has its heart in the right place. Who needs expensive production values and originality when you already have all of that? (Kevin Ma 2007)

 Copyright ©2002-2017 Ross Chen