Shall We Dance?
1996, PG, 136 min. Directed by Masayuki Suo. Starring Koji Yakusho, Tamiyo Kusakari, Naoto Takenaka, Eriko Watanabe, Akira, Emoto.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Aug. 8, 1997
Shall We Dance? is, at heart, something like a modern-day Cinderella, a story in which the protagonist is an overworked Japanese accountant with no social life and the glass slipper is a ballroom dancing shoe. Although many have commented on the film's subtle criticism of Japan's social rigidity, Shall We Dance? is best viewed as simply a movie about a guy who finds a little meaning in his life. For Mr. Shohei Sugiyama, life is a monotonous drone: rising early to eat breakfast, crunching numbers all day at the office, riding home at night on the train, barely communicating with his wife and daughter at home. This day-to-day routine takes a turn, however, when one night on the train he sees a beautiful woman in the second-story window of a dance studio. Soon, she becomes the highlight of his day, and eventually he works up the courage to meet her and ends up signing up for dance lessons. Because dancing is considered shameful in Japanese society, Mr. Sugiyama keeps his new pastime a secret from his family and co-workers, though anyone who'd bother to notice would detect something different about him -- he has pep in his step. Some of the funniest and sweetest scenes in Shall We Dance? are those in which Mr. Sugiyama conscientiously practices his dance steps; whether sitting at his desk or waiting on the train platform, it's obvious that, for the first time in a long while, he's actually enjoying himself. While the film has its sentimental moments, it's amazing that it's not bathed in bathos, given its underdog storyline. Indeed, the screenplay by steers clear of the treacly pratfalls that have marked similarly themed movies. Here, unrequited love evolves into mutual respect, scorn doesn't necessarily turn into admiration, and Mr. Sugiyama doesn't go from a clumsy beginner with two left feet to an accomplished Fred Astaire who wins his first ballroom competition. Also, the film's supporting characters are fully fleshed out by the film's end, even those who appear to be nothing more than caricatures in the first instance. (As the seemingly ridiculous Mr. Aoki, the officemate of Mr. Sugiyama who shares his passion for dancing to the extreme -- he fancies himself the Japanese incarnation of smoldering Latin sensuality -- Naoto Takenaka cuts a credible figure, both in his character and on the dance floor.) There's lots to like about this movie, but the best thing is the elated feeling with which it leaves you. Like the breathtaking number from the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical The King and I, from which the film takes both its title and inspiration, Shall We Dance? will sweep you off your feet.