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Dreams on Fire Review: Fascinating Slice of Japanese Subculture

Dreams on Fire explores a side of Japan we don’t often get to see, shining a spotlight on its talented cast of dancers and sending across a meaningful message.

Japan-based Canadian director Philippe McKie’s feature-length debut is an intriguing piece of cinematic art. On one hand, Dreams on Fire is the story of a young girl who runs away from home and moves to Tokyo to pursue her dreams of becoming a professional dancer. There, she realises that it’s not easy to achieve success, and, in the best Coyote Ugly/Rock of Ages tradition, she starts working as a hostess in the city’s red-light district to sustain herself, while trying to get closer to her dream career by getting dance lessons and exploring the local dance scene. But Dreams on Fire is also a different film entirely, which serves as a showcase for a series of Japanese dancers, choreographers, and performers all making their on-screen debuts in the film, starting from the film’s lead.

Our likable protagonist, Yume, is played by Bambi Naka, a Japanese pop-icon and model who became famous as one half of AyaBambi, a popular dancing duo that gained international success touring with Madonna. But Bambi Naka is not the only professional artist who makes an appearance in Dreams on Fire: all the dance teachers, students, performers and influencers featured in the movie – including a series of go-go dancers, fetish event organisers, cyberdancers, bondage artists, fashion designers, DJs and even more unusual entertainers – are accomplished artists in their respective fields, performing on screen what they usually do in real life. Which is what makes Dreams on Fire the most unique, mesmerizing take on Step Up you’ll ever see.

Technically speaking, Dreams on Fire is an excellent movie. Thanks to the many artists who took part in the movie and to the catchy tunes featured in the film, every performance is a captivating work of art that keeps your eyes glued to the screen. James Latimer’s (Two) cinematography imbues every dance number with personality and style, emphasizing the performers’ swift movements and giving the film a dreamlike atmosphere, effectively transporting us to a mystical place that comes alive in warm shades of red, pastel-coloured hues, and soft lighting. The performers themselves are impressive: each artist portrays their respective character in an authentic, believable way, making the journey all the more intriguing and opening a window into their world. Trust me: you’ll be needing a notepad to jot down their names at the end, as you’ll absolutely want to look them up and follow them on their social media accounts.

loud and clear reviews dreams on fire glasgow bambi naka
Dreams on Fire (Audio Z / Outpost, Courtesy of the Glasgow Film Festival)

If Dreams on Fire excels at giving talented artists from different fields a well-deserved opportunity to show their work to an international audience, it doesn’t always succeed at integrating their presences in its narrative. The film’s first half is a great introduction to our heroine, showing us a resilient girl who has been acquainted with failure, and the feelings of guilt and shame that are associated with it in her culture, for a very long time, but who finds her identity through her dancing, becoming more confident and self-assured every time she performs. We root for her as she leaves her unsupportive family and learns to stand on her own. We feel for her when she ends up working for a slimy hostess club owner who smiles a little too often, hugs for a little too long, and has a habit of letting employees go the moment they refuse to be felt up by the club’s drunk, entitled customers. We cheer when she finds a way to make ends meet and begins taking dance lessons, and we smile as she starts making friends, at last.

But the film soon takes a different direction. Yume’s manager begins to verge onto stereotype, uttering lines such as “either come tonight or don’t bother coming back”, and, though Yume’s own storyline hardly ever falls into predictable patterns and tropes, it also partly disappears as the film goes on. Our young dancer soon starts discovering Tokyo’s underground dance community, and that takes her on a very long detour where she learns routines, takes many auditions, becomes acquainted with all sorts of dance moves, ropes, whips, S&M techniques, candle wax fetishes and various kinds of unusual performances.

McKie (who not only directed, but also wrote, edited and art-directed the film) clearly attempted — and succeeded — to include as many representatives as possible from Tokyo’s underground dancing community. Dreams on Fire rightfully gives all these impressive performers a chance to shine, not only taking us on a journey of discovery of different Japanese subcultures, but also painting an accurate picture of the struggles faced by dancers like Yume. Yet, this undoubtedly fascinating detour is also what buries the film’s narrative under the (beautifully crafted) weight of all these eccentricities, partially depriving the film’s leading character of a narrative arc that could have been developed in more depth, and that is a shame.

loud and clear reviews dreams on fire glasgow bambi naka
Dreams on Fire (Audio Z / Outpost, Courtesy of the Glasgow Film Festival)

For instance, Yume’s journey is marked by childhood occurrences and chance encounters that often serve to make her path to stardom a little smoother, removing potential conflicts and making everything happen a little too quickly and easily. In fact, though her opportunistic manager and her disrespectful customers often sidetrack her attempts to stay afloat, resulting in her being overworked, hangover and burdened by her perceived failures, Yume never really faces any real struggle in the film, and that is a missed opportunity. That said, the good still outweighs the bad in Dreams on Fire, as, no matter how many detours it takes, the film ultimately has a timely, meaningful message to convey.

Dreams on Fire is not just a stunning and genuinely fascinating look at a side of Japan we don’t often get to see, but it’s also an effective analysis of a system that sets up its citizens to base their own happiness on success, and to dread the very idea of failure. From a young age, Japanese women experience feelings of shame, helplessness, and fear. They live in a country where putting on provocative costumes to please exploitative men with schoolgirl fantasies is not only acceptable, but the norm, and where even the most tough-looking among them are afraid “to be alone with [their] thoughts at night”. It’s a culture that makes it too easy for young girls to earn money by taking on a profession that requires them to get drunk against their will, to be felt up by arrogant customers, and to be disrespected and exploited by men on a daily basis.

In all of that, what’s left for women is a sense of shared understanding and compassion that goes beyond words, but that exists in small gestures of solidarity, and in the kind of communities that can spontaneously emerge even in the most exploitative, degrading of places. Throughout the film, Yume experiences that kind of kinship every day, when the many strangers she encounters make her day a little better just by sharing her pain, and helping her out. Dreams on Fire may sometimes favour its performances over its narrative, but it ultimately succeeds in sending across a powerful message of solidarity and mutual empathy, showing a community whose strength goes beyond a shared passion for dancing, and a system that women can only survive by enduring it together, and by supporting one another. Whether you watch the film for its enthralling performances, to learn about Japanese subcultures, or for an authentic analysis of modern Japanese culture and society, you won’t be disappointed.

… And if you haven’t been able to jot down the names of all the artists featured in the film, here’s a list with links to their social media accounts:

  • Bambi Naka (Yume): back-up dancer, model and actress;
  • Haruka Kurebayashi (Pop-star): international icon of Harajuku Fashion;
  • Rinomaru (Yume’s student): Akishibu Project dancer;
  • Mika, Mirin, and Yuriya: CyberJapan Dancers;
  • Yumeri Chikada (Yume’s first dance teacher): one of the top choreographers in Japan;
  • Genta Yamaguchi (Yume’s second dance teacher): a sought after choreographer who worked with top Japanese pop artists;
  • Kazane: 2019 winner of the biggest dance competition in Japan;
  • MIWA: one of the top choreographers in Japan;
  • AVECOO: Japanese choreographer and performer;
  • Maiko Masai: children choreographer;
  • Okuda Saki (Sakura): actress in the Japanese Adult Video industry;
  • Yusura: fetish event and Cirque du Soleil performer;
  • Medusa Lee: fashion designer and model from Japan;
  • Suzuyaka: choreographer;
  • Hajime Kinoko: shibari (rope art / bondage) artist;
  • KURAGE: latex/rubber fashion designer;
  • DJ AKI: Drum and Bass DJ.

Dreams on Fire had UK Premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival on 6th March, 2021: visit the Dreams on Fire’s official Twitter page.

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