Shall We Dance? Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1998

Shall We Dance? Poster
In Japan, ballroom dance is regarded with much suspicion. In a country where married couples don't go out arm in arm, much less say "I love you" out loud, intuitive understanding is everything. The idea that a husband and wife should embrace and dance in front of others is beyond embarrassing. However, to go out dancing with someone else would be misunderstood and prove more shameful. Nonetheless, even for Japanese people, there is a secret wonder about the joys that dance can bring.

The crowd-pleasing "Shall We Dance", from writer/director Masayuki Suo, was the most successful Japanese language film to hit Stateside since the memorable "Tampopo" in the late Eighties, and is now available on video. On the surface, this sweet and sentimental film has all the trappings of your average romantic-comedy, but upon closer inspection, it defies the melodramatic conventions of the genre, going off in a completely different, not to mention emotionally gratifying, direction.

A weak first step transmits nothing.

Shohei Sugiyama (Koji Yakusyo) is your prototypical 'salaryman', rising at the crack of dawn to labor away at his accounting job, returning home late at night to retire, and getting up the next morning to repeat the process. With his life centered around his job, the only thing that Sugiyama is proud of is the fact that he has attained his lifelong goals of owning his own home, having a family, and achieving a successful career. But he finds little comfort in his achievements, and the emptiness of his life gnaws away at his psyche, straining his relationship with his loving wife and daughter. One night, returning home late from work, Sugiyama looks out the window of the train and sees a beautiful woman (Tamiyo Kusakari) gazing forlornly out of the window of a ballroom dancing school and is immediately smitten.

This may sound rude, but I hope you don't join the class with me as your goal. I take dancing very seriously. It's a classroom not a disco. Don't dance if that's what you're after.

Koji Yakusyo (right) gets in step

After seeing the mysterious woman stare out the same window over the course of several nights, Sugiyama summons enough courage to break out of his normal routine. He gets off the train and enlists in ballroom dancing classes in an attempt to get close to Mai Kishikawa, the mysterious woman at the window. However, Sugiyama's plan does not come to fruition-- he is saddled with an older dance instructor, and Kishikawa spurns his blatant attempts at flirtation. Despite these setbacks, Sugiyama soon finds a passion for ballroom dancing, and what started as the curiosity-driven pursuit of a comely dance instructor ends up becoming a more profound search for fulfillment and meaning. However, Sugiyama's clandestine ballroom dancing does not go unnoticed, as his wife begins to notice the smell of an unfamiliar perfume in his shirts, and his daughter sees him practicing his dance steps in private. Is Sugiyama having an affair? That's certainly how it looks to his wife.

Can't keep from bumping into others, or being bumped themselves. How you react is most important. Judges naturally notice bumping, but a quick recovery and a calm return to dancing, on the contrary, can be noted and scored pretty highly.

Despite the similarity in subject matter, "Shall We Dance?" is quite a different creature than the other ballroom dancing film that it has often been compared to, "Strictly Ballroom". Whereas "Strictly Ballroom" was an ugly-duckling fairy tale romantic comedy, "Shall We Dance?" is a narrative focusing on the liberation of the human spirit in a repressive society that dictates routine and personal associations. Sugiyama is not the only character that finds a renewed sense of vigor through ballroom dancing-- the object of his affections, Kishikawa, learns to rekindle her love for ballroom dancing, rediscovering the joy that had been displaced by the pressures of competition. Along with the captivating yet low-key performances of Yakusyo and Kusakari, the cast is rounded out by a number of memorable supporting characters. Despite their comic-relief underpinnings, the 'fish out of water' situations in which they find themselves in are effective in creating humorous situations, bittersweet pathos, and ultimately, likeable characters.

Do I really make you sick? Am I really that disgusting? The very first girl I liked said that, and I wasn't even dancing. My doctor recommended dancing as exercise. First I was embarrassed, but soon all my cares were gone... like being drunk. My heart singing, fireworks exploding in my head... all my worries forgotten. And I began to love dance. But I suppose, even when I'm dancing, do I really look that bad?

"Shall We Dance?" is not as visually lush as "Strictly Ballroom", and in fact, the direction is relatively straightforward, without much reliance on gimmicky cinematography. The real strength of this film lies in its ability to make you feel for the characters, sharing their loneliness, embarrassment, and anguish, as well as celebrating their joy and triumphs. You'll be glad you saw this one.

I thought Mr. Macho was pretty good.
Bad attitude. Ungentlemanly behaviour. It's a British sport after all.

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