It would not be incorrect to state that Dreams on Fire, Philippe McKie’s first feature film, was something of a passion project for him. Yet, it was his tremendous love for dance that terrified him to make a film about the art of dance. Luckily, Mckie’s dive into Tokyo’s underground dance scene strengthened his desire so much that he broke through his anxiety and craft the first Japanese urban dance film (General-note 1).
One day, Yume (Bambi Naka), runs away from home, driven by a desire to make her dream to become a professional dancer a reality. In Tokyo, she takes her chance in a freestyle battle. Yet, due to her shyness, she fails to truly show how much skill she has and is eliminated in the first round. Devastated by this loss, she soon pulls herself together and decides to take lessons with Yumer1 (Yumeri). Though, to pay for the lessons, she is forced to get a part-time job. Yume decides to become a hostess.
Dreams On Fire is, simply speaking, a narrative about chasing one’s dream and not giving up on one’s desire. That the theme of chasing one’s dream is the main theme is not only implied via the title of the narrative but also subtly echoed via the main character’s name – Yume is a name that, depending on which kanji is used, can be read as dream. The basic structure of the narrative might be rather simple – we follow Yume as she chases her desire and tries to make her dream come true – McKie does not fail to give Yume’s trajectory of chance-encounters a subtle but pleasing psychological depth.
This first psychological element is already evoked in the intergenerational conflict that opens the narrative. The signifier ‘respect’ her grandfather (Akaji Maro) employs within his angry attempt to keep Yume at home is solely utilized to subject her, as ‘child’, to his convictions about how her life should be. The constant referring to respect and disrespect does not only reveal how her grandfather remains deaf to her desire, but also how he, by hiding behind the patriarchal fantasy of filial piety, radically effaces her subjectivity and her desire. To put it somewhat provocatively, the patriarchal signifier of ‘respect’ is revealed in Dreams on Fire as being inherently violent, endangering not only familial bonds but also the act of assuming a blossoming subjective desire.
The second psychological element concerns Yume’s initial shyness on the dancefloor, a shyness caused by her subjective encounter with the (eye of the) Other. While one could say that what inhibits her is her consciousness of the presence of the Other, i.e. the audience that is staring at her, it is not merely the eyes of the others that hinder her. The eyes of the others have this powerful effect because in these eyes she meets the reflection of her father’s refusal to believe she can make it as a dancer. In other words, the Other made present by the eyes of the audience is, in essence, no one other than her father and his persecutory signifiers. To be able to travers her shyness, to shine as dancer on the dancefloor, and make her dream come true, she needs to escape the hold the fatherly Other has on her. Yet, any kind of failure gives the signifiers of her father predicting her failure an oppressive sense of ‘truth’. Can Yume avoid succumbing to the weight of ‘truth’ the Other gains by her failures or will she succeed in utilizing the pain of failure to unshackle herself from the inhibiting impact of the fatherly Other, chase her dream, and prove him wrong (Narra-note 1 (minor spoilers))?
As Yume chases her dream in the streets of Tokyo, Dreams On Fire gives the spectator a delicious taste of the diversity of subcultures that enrich Tokyo’s nightlife. Yet, while Tokyo’s nightlife allows for many chance-encounters, it is, sadly, also riddled with obstacles and bad intentions. McKie’s narrative – and this plays in instrumental role in making his film so engaging – does not shy away from revealing in a fleeting but impactful way the darker societal realities of living in Tokyo and its nightlife scene, i.e. the side of nightlife intoxicated by sexuality, alcohol, and the thirst for (phallic) pleasure (Psycho-note 1). Mckie does not only show how people living in manga cafés, drunken people lying passed-out in the middle of the street, young men approaching cute girls for a “drink”, but also reveals the addictive and a-social nature of smartphone use, the seductive nature of the hostess work for (run-away) girls in desperate need for money, how hostess-work is all about masturbating the male other’s ego and pleasing his phallic fantasy with signifiers, the subtle exploitation that often marks the relation between hostess and the boss (Masahiro Takashima), and the pressure Jimusho put on their idols, e.g. to be slim (Narra-note 2).
The often documentary-like composition of Dreams On Fire offers a visual feast, an enthralling visual experience devoted to the energetic art of dance and the never-sleeping ever-dancing but also, at times, dangerous nightlife of Tokyo (Cine-note 1). Mckie, mainly, uses his composition to craft compelling visuals to emphasize the entrancing beauty of dancing and the elegant artfulness of the dancing body. With his fine compositional sense, he does not only exploit the geometry of a single moving body or a group dancing bodies, but also reveals the fleeting beauty of the expressive dancing movement and the fabulous choreographies – choreographies by Yumeri Chikada, Kazane, Genta Yamaguchi, MIWA, AVECOO, Maiko Masai, and Suzuyaka. The compelling nature of McKie’s visuals is also an effect of the exquisite but realistic lightning design that gives the rich variety of colours their vibrance. It is, in truth, the thoughtful lightning that allows the poetry of dancing and the interplay of dancing bodies truly stand out in all its artistry and spellbinding elegance.
Yet, revealing the mesmerizing beauty of the moving body and the venomous dangers that linger in Tokyo’s nightlife is not only function of the composition or the variety of colour-schemes as such, but also of the musical accompaniment – of the auditory feast that Mckie treats us to. As a matter of fact, the rhythm of the composition and the flow of music work hand in hand to celebrate the art of dance but also to satisfy the spectator’s senses.
Yet, it is not only the dazzling exploration of Tokyo’s ‘underground’ subcultures or the exquisite framing of the varied choreographies that makes Dreams On Fire such an engaging narrative. What enables McKie’s narrative to become such a thrilling and satisfying experience is Bambi Naka’s performance. In our view, Naka’s performance is fabulous because she succeeds in infusing her own desire to dance into her character, giving Yume not only a pleasing believability but allowing her to exude a charm that entices the spectator to root for her.
Dreams On Fire does not only offer an extremely well-crafted ode to the art of dance and a moving celebration of the energetic emotionality and the artful poetry of the moving body, but also a powerful reminder of the importance of chasing one’s dream and not giving up on one’s desire – dancing is not only living but surviving. Yet, Mckie does not deliver a mere idealization with Dreams On Fire. With his keen insight, his exploration of sub-cultures does not only evoke how making-it is function of chance-encounters, but also how the path of chasing one’s dream is littered with obstacles. McKie’s film is not only the best dance-film of recent years but might very well be one of the best Japanese films to be released this year.
General-note 1: Attentive spectator and readers will notice how McKie’s trajectory of going through anxiety to chase his desire mirrors Yume’s trajectory. It would thus not be incorrect to state that Yume, in a certain way, represents McKie.
Narra-note 1: It should not surprise anyone that the first time she overcomes the eyes of the others is when she has drunk some strong alcohol. Alcohol, in some cases, diminishes the presence of the Other and thus take away the inhibiting factor.
The second time she overcomes the eyes of the Other is when she does auditions as go-go dancer. Yet, in this case, the bombastic lighting and music cuts the dancer off from the true presence of the Other’s gaze. The third time, the power of the gaze is diminished by the lighting and the fact that she performs with other dancers.
Yet, one cannot deny that the influence of the Other’s gaze gradually loses it strength. There are three interrelated reasons for this: the positive signifiers of the others about her dancing, the strengthening of her desire by these positive signifiers, and the fact that dance turns into a necessity to survive – be absorbed by dancing or succumb to the exploitative intentions that mark Tokyo’s nightlife and the fatherly prediction of failure. Yet, the weakness of the gaze of the Other does not mean it is destroyed. It can, as the narrative so beautifully evokes via the device of the nightmare, always flare up when the possibility of failure threatens her.
Narra-note 2: Yet men trying to transgress the mere speech-related nature of the ‘masturbation’ is a nightly occurrence. Yume, on her first work-night, is unwantedly touched by a man she has put in a good mood.
Psycho-note 1: While it might be a controversial statement, the art of dancing is inherently ‘sexual’ in nature. It is not only that the act of dancing with one’s body is driven by pleasure, but, at the scopic level, the act of dancing allows the dancer to enjoy being seen dancing by others and enables the spectator to enjoy seeing the dancer dancing with his/her body.
Moreover, the beauty of the dancing body has the inherent power to stir the subject’s unconscious. In this sense, the dancing body can be said to function as a signifier, a signifier unearthing things the subject does not want to remember.
Cine-note 1: The dangers of the nightlife scene are evoked by cinematographically emphasizing the impact of these dangers on Yume’s subjective position. McKenzie makes great use of more creative camera-movement, slow-motion, and depth of field, to emphasize how men who are in prowling for phallic pleasure (i.e. pleasure that makes them feel like desirable men.) can be destructive for the female subject.