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Nostalgia is a hell of a drug. When a rundown strip theater in Hiroshima announced a few years back that it was closing, the public response was such that the owner decided to go on with the show — repeatedly.

It’s still open now, which gave Hiroshima native Hideyuki Tokigawa time to write and direct a loving, feature-length tribute. As the title screen at the start of “Dancing in Her Dreams” makes clear, the film’s story may be fiction, but its inspirations are very real.

In the age of internet porn, why would anyone fork out ¥5,000 to watch someone disrobe? It’s a question that Tokigawa’s script never gets tired of asking, often in none-too-subtle terms. The answers it comes up with often sound like a drunkard philosophizing at the end of an all-night bender, but that’s in keeping with the overall wooziness of the project.

Dancing In Her Dreams (Kanojo Wa Yume De Odoru)
Rating
Run Time 95 min.
Language Japanese
Opens Oct. 23

It’s anchored by a very ripe performance by Masaya Kato as the theater’s owner, Shintaro, sporting a mustache, unflattering glasses and a thick Hiroshima accent. While preparing for the venue’s final show, he gets lost in reveries of his glory days, and the dancer who stole his heart.

Meanwhile, a lovelorn young man (Atsuhiro Inukai) is lured to the same theater after a tequila-fuelled encounter with one of the guest performers, Sara (Izumi Okamura). It gradually transpires that this isn’t a parallel story, but a flashback to Shintaro’s youth (that the two actors bear zero resemblance adds to the confusion), and the film is constantly flitting between the two.

The older Shintaro’s reminiscences become more tangible when he’s visited by an enigmatic blonde calling herself Melody (Okamura), who bears a striking resemblance to his beloved Sara — a touch worthy of Alfred Hitchcock, in a film whose aesthetic inspirations lie elsewhere.

The gauzy visuals, overlapping voiceovers and impressionistic editing bear the influence of Terrence Malick, setting an impossibly high bar that the movie fails to clear. Even allowing for budgetary constraints, Tokigawa keeps breaking his own spell, letting the film’s fitfully sustained raptures give way to more schematic plotting (and did we really need to hear Radiohead’s “Creep” five times?).

He’s better at conjuring the atmosphere of a vanished era, and the dreamers still in its thrall. The colorful supporting cast consists mostly of Hiroshima locals, and the locations — especially the theater itself — are richly evocative.

Originally set for release in April, “Dancing in Her Dreams” feels all the more poignant now that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced widespread closures across the entertainment world, adult or otherwise.

However, Tokigawa is perhaps a little too eager to get seduced. Like Netflix series “The Naked Director,” another paean to the halcyon days of Japan’s sex industry, the film tends to romanticize its subject while glossing over the more problematic aspects.

The dancers are all depicted as knowing participants, happy to lose themselves in creating a mutual illusion. They leave an affectionate collage of lipstick kisses on the theater’s backstage wall. Yet Tokigawa would rather place them on a pedestal — or a rotating podium — than get to know them properly.

As the curtain falls, it’s clear that the fantasy always mattered more than the players. The pronoun in the film’s English title is misleading. The dreamer is definitely male.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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