Shall We Dance? (Japan, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Shall We Dance? proves that Japanese film makers can fashion charming, feel-good movies every bit as effective as their Hollywood counterparts. Unlike the Australian comedy, Strictly Ballroom, which used ballroom dancing competitions as arenas for romance and satire, Shall We Dance? uses them to explore one man's struggle for freedom from the suffocating repression that characterizes Japanese society. This is a film for anyone who prefers to leave the theater smiling.

In Japan, where public displays of affection between a husband and a wife is considered scandalous behavior, the concept of two unmarried people holding each other close in a dance is "beyond embarrassing." For that reason, ballroom dancing is not popular, and anyone caught engaging in it risks being labeled as depraved and lecherous. Nevertheless, for some men and women trapped in such a restrictive culture, dancing offers the seductive, forbidden allure of slipping the confining boundaries of what is socially acceptable and finding a measure of liberty.

Shohei Sugiyama (Koji Yakusyo) is a forty-two year old Japanese businessman who lives in a comfortable house with a loving wife and an adolescent daughter. But all is not right in his world. Now that he has attained his goals (a home, a family, and a successful career), his life feels empty. His wife notices his growing depression, commenting that "he really should get out and enjoy himself more often." One day, while riding the train home from work, Sugiyama spies the figure of a sad, beautiful woman (Tamiyo Kusakari) gazing out a dance school window. Day after day passes, with Sugiyama watching for this mysterious woman on each trip home. Eventually, he summons all his courage, exits the train at the stop nearest to the dance school, and enrolls for lessons. However, what begins as an attempt to get to know a pretty woman turns into the cure for Sugiyama's soul-sickness.

The parts of Shall We Dance? that are done well, are done very well, muting the negative impact of certain less successful elements. One of the most interesting aspects of the film for a Western viewer is that we're offered an opportunity to peer through an open window into Japanese society, especially as it addresses issues of intimacy. For those of us who are used to the idea that dancing is an integral part of the cultural fabric, understanding how the Japanese view this activity can cause a shift in perspective.

Sugiyama is developed as a low-key, likable character who fills the role of the Japanese "everyman." His relationship with Mai proceeds along a natural path, shunning romantic hyperbole in favor of a refreshingly believable tangle of feelings. Watching both Sugiyama and Mai grow as a result of each others' influence is one of Shall We Dance?'s subtle pleasures. Ultimately, the results of all the dance competitions pale in comparison to understanding the unique relationship that develops between these two.

Shall We Dance? is not without its share of flaws, however. Several subplots are largely ineffective, due in part to the director's unfortunate tendency to use caricatures to generate both sentiment and comedy. Several supporting characters (especially an overweight dance student named Tanaka and a wild Latin dancer named Aoki) are poorly-developed types whose primary purpose appears to be to act as foils for some of the film's more elaborate jokes. And, while this humor does generate laughs, it results in ill-defined individuals whose dramatic effectiveness is diluted.

Nevertheless, subplots excepted, Shall We Dance? navigates the tricky waters of the dramatic comedy with surprising ease. Writer/director Masayuki Suo, who has designed the film primarily as a heartfelt tale of one man's solution to a mid-life crisis, keeps Shall We Dance? fresh and free of heavy melodrama by leavening the script with universal humor. And the ending satisfies in part because it doesn't conform to all the expected clich├ęs.

Miramax Films will almost certainly back Shall We Dance? with a sizable advertising campaign -- of all the distributor's late-spring releases, this has the most potential to be a crowd pleaser. The pleasant emotional aftereffects are a testimony to Suo's ability to fashion a story whose appeal reaches far beyond the shores of his native country. Shall We Dance? promises a convivial evening at the movies, and a rare chance to mix culture with pleasure.

Shall We Dance? (Japan, 1996)

Director: Masayuki Suo
Cast: Koji Yakusyo, Tamiyo Kusakari, Naoto Takenaka, Eriko Watanabe, Akira Emoto, Yu Tokui
Screenplay: Masayuki Suo
Cinematography: Naoki Kayano
U.S. Distributor: Miramax Films
Run Time: 2:06
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Mature Themes)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled Japanese
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1