“A dancer must always be careful” the heroine of Philippe McKie’s Tokyo odyssey Dreams on Fire (ドリームズ・オン・ファイア) is warned, though her passage may prove smoother than that of many small town girls coming to the big city in search of fame and fortune. Nevertheless, her progress will take her through the unseemly underbelly of the entertainment industry rife with exploitation and duplicity to the relatively comforting world of fringe subcultures where mutual support is a way of life and failure merely another kind of opportunity. 

As a young girl, Yume (dancer and model Bambi Naka in her first leading role), whose name literally means “dream”, is captivated by an avant-garde dance performance and determines to become a dancer herself though her authoritarian father (legendary butoh dancer Akaji Maro) does not approve of her artistic ambitions and attempts to forbid her from leaving for Tokyo but she defies him and leaves anyway. Once there, however, she finds herself struggling to survive living in tiny cubical rooms and able to support herself only by working on the fringes of the sex trade in a cosplay hostess bar dressed as a schoolgirl. She pursues her dancing dream by visiting underground hip hop clubs but receives the first of many setbacks when she’s voted out of a dance off in the first round in favour of a talented child in an improbably snazzy outfit. 

Nevertheless, as the first of her teachers, who happened to see and admire her performance, tells her the humiliation of losing only smarts so much because you care which is the kind of pain you can easily repurpose for motivation. This is a motif which will be repeated in Yume’s life which proves nowhere near as dark or depressing as one might assume though it’s true she continues to experience setbacks and disappointments while occasionally doubting her vocation as a dancer in the face of seemingly constant failure but always rescued by another hopeful who saw and liked her performance even if the judges might have preferred someone else. 

Yet as she finds out, dance talent isn’t all it takes in the contemporary arts scene. An audition she might otherwise have booked is lost at the last moment when she confesses she’s not got many followers on social media, the interviewer patiently explaining that she might be a better dancer than anyone in their current troupe but their business is built on “image” and dependent on their online reach so someone with no profile is of not much use to them though they’d love to see her again once she’s successfully built her “brand”. Conversely, a client at another job working the floor show at an S&M-themed bar gets her a job coaching an aspiring underground idol who apparently can’t dance for toffee, but once she gets there Yume quickly realises the young woman’s lack of aptitude is a result of her exploitative treatment at the hands of the idol industry. Apparently not allowed to change her outfit even if it smells she’s been instructed not to eat to keep her weight down which of course leaves her lightheaded and low in energy, an unhelpful combination for learning complicated dance routines. On the way out, Yume hears the other members of the band bullying her though there’s nothing she can do to help. 

Meanwhile, she finds it increasingly difficult to weigh up the degrees of exploitation she’s willing to accept from her increasingly manipulative boss at the hostess bar (Masahiro Takashima). Her first friend, Sakura (AV actress Okuda Saki), had taught her the ropes cautioning her never to let anyone touch her in ways that make her uncomfortable but herself quits abruptly in embarrassment after a customer brings up her past as an AV star thereafter disappearing without trace. Sakura had explained in an ironic paradox that she wasn’t in hostessing for the money but was essentially lonely, introducing Yume to the first of her experiences of the more unusual aspects of the Tokyo subculture scene in a metal bar where she fondles a lizard over drinks but is herself perhaps slightly lost in an internalised and unwarranted shame because of her past in the porn industry. This seems to be a fate Yume is keen to avoid, eventually telling her exploitative manager where to go rather than consent to his control after narrowly escaping a dangerous encounter with “important” yakuza clients. 

Going by “Asuka” at the club and eventually assuming the dancer name of “Karasu” (crow), Yume searches for an identity while continuing to pursue her dream but perhaps unrealistically meets only good and supportive people outside of the exploitative Kabukicho bar world discovering in her various subcultures from fetish clubs to the dance studio only dreamers like herself eager to see others succeed. Capturing the neon night life of the contemporary city, McKie’s camera perhaps leans too far towards the ethnographic in its slight exoticisation of the underground Tokyo scene even if admittedly seen through the eyes of country girl Yume but also allows her to find within it freedom and self-actualisation while her talent takes her in new, sometimes unexpected directions, as she continues to pursue her dream in an atmosphere of positivity and mutual support.

Dreams on Fire streams from 6th March as part of the Glasgow Film Festival.

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