Hula Girls

Reviewed by: sukting

December 21, 2009

Rating: three-point-five

How long
2 hours


It is a heartwarming movie that describes how Japanese women learn to put their emotions and passion behind Hawaiian dance. A group of girls fight away from the conservative tradition to learn the dance to help promote tourism in their old town which is used to depend on mining in the mid-60s. This is based on a true story.

Story/Introduction on characters

In 1965, the mining town is facing the crisis of stopping operation soon. Yutaka Nakamura, president of the Joban Kosan Company wants to protect his employees. A new idea is proposed to increase employment by having a Hawaiian bath resort with hula girls. Employing the coal miners’ daughters as dancers is a tough task as their fathers do not like them to bare too much of their flesh.

Sanae (Tokunaga) is worried that her widowed father will be jobless. She convinces her friend Kimiko (Yu Aoi) to join her at the first meeting with Yutaka. There are rumours that they will be dancing topless. Sanae and Kimiko are the only two believing that this is false and are willing to take up the training. The other two girls who join them are Hatsuko (Ikezu), the organizer's secretary and Sayuri (Shizuyo Yamazaki). Sayuri is a giant girl and it is hardest to train her as a dancer.

Even though Hatsuko is the mother of a boy, Yutaka has no choice but to take her in. Kumiko refuses to give up even though her mother, Chiyo (Sumiko Fuji), is a miner who is against the idea. However, she has a brother (Etsushi Toyokawa) who encourages her to follow her dream. She leaves home to stay in the school and becomes the lead dancer. Her brother has not approved of the idea as well as it affects his livelihood but straightens his thoughts later.

This is a challenging task to a Tokyo dance teacher, Madoka Hirayama (Yasuko Matsuyuki) to promote the dance in this small village. She is trying to pay off her debt in Tokyo. Madoka is very fierce and the training ends in disaster till she nearly wants to give up. The girls are not convinced that she is a good dancer till they see for themselves. As time progresses, she sees the girls’ determination. She decides to help their dream come true. Hirayama soon gets to teach a team when other girls join them as unemployment rate rises.

While taking the group photo, Kimiko thanks Sanae for introducing dancing to her. Sanae's father is kept in the dark. He returns home after being dismissed. He finds her in Hawaiian costume and beats her. He even cuts her costume and hair. Sanae has to go with him to another mining town to take care of her siblings. Hirayama can’t bear to let her leave but gives her her sunglasses as a parting gift after a big hug.

So Kimiko promises that she will make her dream come true. Kimiko finds it impossible to maintain the focus needed in dancing after Sanae leaves. Hirayama tells her that a professional has to ignore personal feelings. Her brother also tells her the same thing. She becomes attentive and practises in order to get ready for a publicity tour. It turns out to be a failure for the first few tries. The girls come together as a team after Hirayama scolds them for blaming each other. The tour is later a great success.

Sayuri's father is trapped in a mine accident. She learns about it just before the last performance. So the group prepares to return home. Knowing that her father wants her to succeed, Sayuri requests to finish the performance. They return but her father is already dead. Sayuri’s family and friends blame her for it. Hirayama claims responsibility for not returning immediately but her students disallow her to leave. They manage to make her stay.

Another problem happens. The imported palm trees are dying in the cold weather before the hot water pipes are connected. As the gardeners plead to borrow stoves to save the plants, the miners reject them as they hate the whole idea of bringing Hawaii to Japan. Even begging them serve no use.

Kimiko gets a box from Sanae. Her mother, Chiyo brings it to the dance studio. She sees how Kimiko dances. Chiyo begins to collect stoves to save the plants. She gives Kimiko the opportunity to make her wish come true. She also arrives for the opening night of the show and is in tears after seeing her on stage. Kimiko wears the flower sent by Sanae to represent her. The opening show is a great success, setting up the Joban Hawaiian Center (now known Spa Resort Hawaiians) as a popular theme park.

Interesting facts

It was nominated for a total of 12 awards at the 2007 Japan Academy Awards, It won five major awards, including that of best film, best director, best screenplay, best supporting actress (Yū Aoi), and most popular film. It also wins best actress (Yasuko Matsuyuki), best supporting actress (Sumiko Fuji) and best new talent (for Yū Aoi) at 19th Nikkan Sports Awards . It was also nominated for best foreign film for Oscar Awards.

The dancers spent 3 months learning hula. Their efforts paid off as we see how fascinating they dance. The character Madoka Hirayama is loosely based on Kaleinani Hayakawa. She also becomes the founder of the first hula school in Japan. Her work developed the hula craze in Japan. Hula Girls are still available today and that she is still working at that resort now although she is in her 70s.


I have thought of Japanese women wearing straw skirts with to dance like Hawaii girls in the 60s is a daring attempt. The Japanese has foresight to bring in the theme as mining is a declining trade everywhere. It is entertaining to show how persistent the Japanese women are to be successful.

Yasuko Matsuyuki is terrific in dancing as in acting. I have known her to be a credible drama actress but I have never known her to be able to do a split well! Yu Aoi is equally talented in dancing and she is so graceful. Her last performing can take your breath away as she is stunningly beautiful as well. She is also convincing as the determined Kimiko. There is a good balance of joy and tears so I believe you will enjoy the movie as much as I do.

Sukting’s ratings :

On acting : ***1/2 (Scale of 5)

On story : ***1/2 (Scale of 5)

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