When it comes to animated coming of age stories, most are set in high school and focus on the events that bring characters from childhood to adulthood. Hula Fulla Dance, on the other hand, fixes its transition to adulthood at what is actually the most crucial moment in a person’s life: when he or she first enters the world of work.
Hiwa, our protagonist, goes from a normal high school girl living with her parents to a professional dancer living and working in a large Hawaiian-themed resort. While she loves Hula, she lacks the talent, experience, and drive that other dancers have, even rookies who start at the same time as her. She was hired not for who she is but for what she had the potential to become. However, before this transformation can occur, she has a lot to do to grow. She must grow physically and emotionally and overcome the lasting trauma her sister’s untimely death left her with so many years before.
What is interesting Hula Fulla Dance thematically is that a key part of the story is Hiwa overcoming his self-centeredness. In the first half of the film, Hiwa constantly compares herself to the other four members of her group, trying (and often failing) to come up to their level. What she can’t see is that just because they’re better dancers, that doesn’t mean they don’t have equally valid issues and concerns in their own lives.
Kanna, the unofficial leader of the group, won the National Hula Championship in high school. Despite this, her parents think pursuing a career in Hula dancing is a mistake and have cut off all contact with her. Ohana, an immigrant from Hawaii, didn’t have the right build to turn pro there. So she traveled to Japan to fulfill her dreams. Shion is exceptionally talented but has extreme stage fright while the newest member, Ranko, is visibly overweight.
Trying to solve these problems alone is difficult for each of them, but by supporting each other, the girls have a chance to overcome their individual difficulties. It’s a strong message for the film. After all, it can be hard to see other people’s problems when you’re focusing on your own, but if you’re able to help someone else solve theirs, they may be able to help you in return.
The other interesting aspect of the film is that it takes place in a real place: the Spa Resort Hawaiians. This massive water park features everything from hot springs and spas to slides and pools, plus several stages filled with Hula dancers. Having this real location, as well as our heroines doing the work of real people, gives this movie a solid grounding in reality. And while the characters’ personalities can sometimes seem a bit exaggerated, the world they inhabit feels completely real, except in one notable way.
The film’s weakest aspect narratively is that it contains a solitary supernatural element that pops up occasionally throughout the film. Sometimes the Hawaiian mascot Miwa’s doll talks to her. While the Talking Plush’s existence is explained by when the final credits roll, the clash between it and the grounded reality depicted in every other aspect of the film is more than a little shocking. Worse, it’s not even vital to the plot – it’s so disconnected from the rest of the film that it could be cut out completely without issue. The talking doll would have been better integrated into the story as something in Miwa’s dreams rather than something that actually happens.
On the visual side of things, the film has a common problem with 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 take the stage and start dancing, everything is replaced by 3D models. While I wouldn’t call 3D animation bad in any way, it is nonetheless evident whenever the change in animation style occurs. The onstage dances are also awkwardly integrated into the narrative – it feels like the plot has been cut short for a three-minute music video each time it happens.
On the audio side, things are doing much better. With dancing being such an important part of the plot and setting, we get several classic Hula tunes as well as some current sounds. j-pop in the movie world. The film’s score is equally competent with its non-diegetic music, which does its job of bringing the right kind of emotion to the film’s greatest moments.
In all, Hula Fulla Dance is a good coming-of-age movie with a strong message about dealing with problems as a group instead of trying to bear them alone. However, other than the (admittedly fascinating) look at 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 clash of 2D and 3D visuals sadly pulls you out of the movie. It’s certainly worth watching for anyone interested in Hula – or how a non-native dance became a central part of Japanese theme park life – but it’s not a timeless classic. .