by Richard Eisenbeis,

Hula Fulla Dance

Hula Fulla Dance
Unsure of what she wants to do with her life, recent high school graduate Hiwa decides to follow in the footsteps of her late sister and become a professional Hula dancer. Joining a group of four other girls, it quickly becomes apparent that she is the weak link in the group—and that she'll have to grow as both a dancer and person if she wants to make Hula her career.

When it comes to anime coming-of-age stories, most are set in high school, centering around the events that move the characters from childhood to adulthood. Hula Fulla Dance, on the other hand, sets its coming-of-age at what is actually the most pivotal time in a person's life: when they enter the working world for the first time.

Hiwa, our protagonist, goes from being a normal high schooler living with her parents to a professional dancer living and working at a major Hawaiian-themed resort. While she loves Hula, she lacks the talent, experience, and drive that the other dancers have—even the rookies who start at the same time she does. She was hired not for what she is but for what she had the potential to become. However, before that transformation can occur, she has a lot of growing up to do. She has to grow physically and emotionally—and work through the lasting trauma that her sister's untimely death left her with so many years before.

What's interesting about Hula Fulla Dance thematically is that a key part of the story is Hiwa overcoming her self-centeredness. In the first half of the film, Hiwa is constantly comparing herself to the other four members of her group, trying (and often failing) to step up to their level. What she can't see is that, just because they are better dancers, that doesn't mean they don't have equally valid problems and concerns in their own lives.

Kanna, the group's unofficial leader, won the national Hula championship in high school. Despite this, her parents think that pursuing a career in Hula dancing is a mistake and have cut off contact with her. Ohana, an immigrant from Hawaii, didn't have the right build to make it as a pro there so has traveled to Japan to make her dreams come true. Shion is exceptionally talented yet has extreme stage fright while the final member, Ranko, is noticeably overweight.

Trying to tackle these issues alone is hard for each of them, but by supporting each other, the girls have a chance to overcome their individual struggles. It's a solid message for the film. After all, it can be hard to see other people's problems when you're focused on your own, but if you're able to help someone else with theirs, they may be able to help you in return.

The other interesting aspect of the film is that it takes place at a real-world location: the Spa Resort Hawaiians. This massive waterpark resort contains everything from hot springs and spas to waterslides and pools—along with several stages filled with Hula dancers. Having this real-life location, along with our heroines doing the jobs of real people, gives this film a solid grounding in reality. And while the characters' personalities may seem a bit exaggerated at times, the world they are inhabiting feels completely real—except in one noticeable way.

The weakest aspect of the film narratively is that it has a solitary supernatural element that crops up occasionally throughout the film. Sometimes Miwa's doll of Hawaiian's mascot talks to her. While the existence of the talking plushy is explained by the time the final credits roll, the clash between it and the grounded reality portrayed in every other aspect of the film is more than a bit jarring. Worse still, it's not even vital to the plot—it is so unconnected to the rest of the film that it could be removed completely with little issue. The talking doll would have been better incorporated into the story as something in Miwa's dreams rather than something that is actually happening.

On the visual side of things, the film has a problem common in many modern anime about idols, dancers, and singers: a clash of 2D and 3D animation. For the most part, the characters are animated in 2D animation. However, once they get up on stage and begin to dance, everything is replaced with 3D models. While I wouldn't call the 3D animation bad in any sense, it is nonetheless obvious whenever the change in animation style occurs. The onstage dances are also clumsily integrated into the narrative—it feels like the plot has been interrupted for a three-minute music video every time it happens.

On the audio side, things fare much better. With dance being such an important part of the plot and setting, we get several classic Hula tunes as well as some current-sounding J-pop inside the movie's world. The film's score is likewise competent with its non-diegetic music, which does its job of bringing the right kind of emotion to the film's biggest moments.

All in all, Hula Fulla Dance is a decent coming-of-age film with a solid message about facing problems as a group instead of trying to bear them alone. However, other than the (admittedly fascinating) look into the world of professional Hula dancing in Japan, there's not much that makes the film stand out. The story, while competent, is largely predictable and the clashing of 2D and 3D visuals unfortunately pulls you out of the film. It's certainly worth a watch to anyone interested in Hula—or how a non-native dance has become a central part of life in a Japanese theme park—but a timeless classic this is not.

Overall : C+
Story : C+
Animation : B-
Art : A-
Music : B

+ A deep dive into the world of professional Hula dancing in Japan and the life surrounding it.
Predictable story, clashing 2D/3D animation, unneeded supernatural element.

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Production Info:
Chief Director: Seiji Mizushima
Director: Shinya Watada
Screenplay: Reiko Yoshida
Music: Michiru Oshima
Character Design: Hiroko Yaguchi
Art Director: Kaori Hino
Sound Director: Eriko Kimura
Director of Photography: Yoichi Ogami

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Hula Fulla Dance (movie)

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