Dreams on Fire – Film Review
by Hugh Maguire
Director: Philippe McKie
Writer: Philippe McKie
Stars: Ikuyo Kuroda, Akaji Maro, Bambi Naka
Yume sees a touring dance show, a blaze of red coloured costumes, and from then on dreams of becoming a dancer. Frustrated by her father, she runs away from her rural backwater to the bright lights of Tokyo to fulfil her dreams. Ill-prepared, a country innocent, with no social contacts and no financial resources, we follow her trials and tribulations, her dedication and the sheer physical slog of realising her ambition.
Cinderella will go to the Ball! This is a succinct tale, often told, and with many cinematic iterations. We have seen Elizabeth Taylor overcome the odds in National Velvet (1944), the Aussie hit, Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom (1992), and of course the huge success that was Billy Elliot on-screen and later on stage. What also comes across eloquently is the passion and dedication which propels those dedicated to their art. The physical effort involved in dance is always intimidating. So far so straightforward, but where this movie is different is that it propels us into the world of the infamous Tokyo Red-Light District, the Kabukichō in Shinjuku. We are spared extreme physical and sexual violence but it is implied and never far away. Yume juggles impossible schedules as an unwilling hostess, with choreography and dance classes she can ill afford, box-like living arrangements, dance competitions and auditions going nowhere. And all of this is suffused in lurid day-glow colours, improbable emulations of Western fashions and musical trends, drag artists, S&M Clubs, and at one point a full Irish Bar of Japanese musicians playing fiddles and bodhran! The middle-aged men knocking back their expensive whiskies and forcing their attentions on women little older than their daughters come across as tragic and pitiful, while the women remain resourceful and dedicated to their goals. So in some respects, it is a two-tier movie – the narrative of Yume and her trials, but also a critique of sorts of contemporary Japan. Everyone is stuck in a phone, a virtual world. Can this be real?
This is not the high culture Japan of Kyoto temples, raku pottery and the teachings of Sen no Rikyū (1522-91). Instead, it comes across as some day-glow, hip-hop fantasia, a rich kaleidoscope of colours and fashions, all screaming for identity, a fear of the past and an uncertain present, with only a sense of dedication, formal courtesy and tenacity surviving.