In 1965, the cold, northern coal mining town of Iwaki, was facing unemployment due as oil became the predominant energy resource in Japan.
The mining company develops a plan to use hot springs, which seeped into the mines, to provide heat for a Hawaiian Center spa resort. The plan is greeted with hostility by the miners, but the company recruits Madoka Hirayama (Matsuyuki) a down-on-her-luck dance instructor from Tokyo to train local girls in the hula.
At first, only a small core group take the challenge. Sanae (Tokunaga) is worried that her widowed father will lose his job, and the ability to support the four kids. She convinces her lifelong best friend Kimiko (Aoi) to join her at the disastrous first meeting. After the rumor runs through attendees that they will be dancing topless, Sanae and Kimiko seem to be the only two listening to the assurances that the rumor is false, as dozens of their companions flee. The two girls are joined by Hatsuko (Ikezu), the organizer's secretary, and Sayuri (Yamazaki), a large clumsy girl.
Things go poorly as training begins, and a frustrated Hirayama nearly gives up, until the girls' enthusiasm persuades her to give the plan another try.
Kimiko and her mother, Chiyo (Fuji), have an argument, which prompts the girl to leave home to stay at the school, but as training continues and local unemployment looms, some of the other girls come back and join the school.
On the day that Sanae's father is fired, he comes home to find her in Hawaiian costume, and beats her. This outrages Hirayama, who attacks him. When he leaves, Sanae goes with him to take care of her siblings, after getting Kimiko, who has become the leader of the girls, to promise that she will keep going.
Crushed by the departure of her friend, Kimiko finds it impossible to maintain the focus needed in dancing, but is told The show must go on. She does not accept this until her brother (Toyokawa) tells her to see it through. She pulls herself together in time to join the publicity tour.
After a disastrous first performance in the tour, the girls come together as a team and the tour is a great success, until a mine accident in which Sayuri's father is caught. Told of the accident just before the last planned performance, the troupe prepares to leave for home. Knowing that her father wants her to succeed, Sayuri begs for the chance to finish the tour. The bus pulls into town hours after Sayuri's father dies, and as distraught family and friends berate her, Hirayama claims responsibility for not returning immediately, accepting another failure in her career. Her students, however, refuse to let her leave.
However, the imported palm trees are threatened by cold weather. A package from Sanae arrives for Kimiko. Her mother, Chiyo, brings it to the dance studio, where she sees the skills her daughter has gained. Chiyo collects stoves to give her daughter the chance to live her dream. She even attends the opening night of the show, at which Kimiko wears the flower sent by Sanae.
The opening show is a great success, establishing the Joban Hawaiian Center (now Spa Resort Hawaiians) as a tourist destination.
Hula Girls (フラガール Hura Gāru) is an award-winning Japanese film, directed by Sang-il Lee and co-written by Lee and Daisuke Habara, and first released across Japanese theaters on September 23, 2006. Starring Yū Aoi, Yasuko Matsuyuki, Etsushi Toyokawa, Shizuyo Yamazaki, Ittoku Kishibe, Eri Tokunaga, Yoko Ikezu and Sumiko Fuji, it is based on the real-life event of how a group of enthusiastic girls take on hula dancing to save their small mining village, Iwaki, helping the formation of Joban Hawaiian Center (now known as Spa Resort Hawaiians), which was later to become one of Japan's most popular theme parks. It received its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Hula Girls was critically acclaimed upon release in Japanand nominated for a total of 12 awards at the 2007 Japan Academy Awards, going on to win five major awards, including that of best film, best director, best screenplay, best supporting actress (for Yū Aoi), and most popular film. It also won two major awards at the 80th Kinema Junpo awards, including that of best film and best supporting actress (for Yū Aoi).Since its release in Japan, the film has been shown across theaters and film festivals worldwide.