Shall We Dance? (1996)
Nicholas Driscoll
March 2, 2015
Note: review may contain spoilers

In the early 2000s, I bumbled through trepidation into college, and, in the midst of the madness of that transition, somehow I met Kumiko. Kumiko was my first real Japanese friend. Before meeting her, my exposure to Japan was almost exclusively through kaiju films, and perhaps a sprinkling of anime—so lots of flash and smash, but not much that was anchored in reality. Up until Kumiko, I guess Japan was more elaborate fantasy to me, an otherly backdrop into which I could poor images of cartoon mayhem and kinetic light and sound—but nothing real, nothing earthy, nothing tangible. Kumiko, with her big smile and enthusiastic laugh and unending generosity, showed me that Japan is not just a backdrop for often childish sci-fi flicks, but a space where real, dear people exist. She taught me some Japanese words (I believe she taught me “risu” for “squirrel”), and gave me my first Japanese Godzilla toy (Mechagodzilla 3, Kiryu, from Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla [2002]). We even danced together once as part of International Club, bobbing and clapping and stomping to a Bollywood rhythm.

I mention these mundane facts because I can't discuss Shall We Dance? without thinking of Kumiko. Sometime during my college years, she lent Shall We Dance? to me, and I watched it with my family over break. It was one of the first non-fantasy Japanese films I watched, and it made a deep impression on me at the time, and helped inform the movie review I would write for a small-town newspaper about the 2004 remake a few years later. Long before I would move to Japan and join a dance club there, or visit Kumiko's family, I watched this warm little gem. All these memories shimmer and merge as I consider Shall We Dance? now—but even without those memories, the movie is well worth watching.

The plot doesn’t follow Hollywood dance movie convention. Dance doesn’t bring together two lovers—it nearly destroys a marriage. There are no troubled kids who learn manners or discipline through hot moves—in fact, there are few children present, period—and the main protagonists are middle-aged. The theme is more about finding passion and energy in a life that has sunken into the mundane, and accepting diversity of expression so long as that expression is true to oneself (okay, there’s a big cliché there).

The story: Shohei Sugiyama is a bored businessman who has achieved the requisite dreams of modern life—the solid and steady desk job, the loyal wife and daughter, and even the purchase of his own house finally after years of saving. He even seems to care for his family—at least he is always going home directly from work rather than staying out slurping sake and partying with colleagues. But with the achievement of those culturally-elevated dreams, he finds the end goal empty. He goes to work dumbly pumping the pedals on his bike. He comes home and flops in bed instead of talking to his wife.

Everything seems pointless.

But then, on just another hazy ride on the train, he sees Mai Ishikawa gazing distractedly out the window of a local ballroom dance studio. He is enchanted. Each ride in the train, he looks for her, sees her, longs for her. Despite how dance is frowned upon in his culture, he goes to dance class—not because he really wants to dance, but because he is taken by Mai’s beauty and he wants to be with her. He tells his wife nothing, tells his coworkers nothing—he just goes, disappearing every Wednesday night. Mai rejects Shohei’s advances, however—disgusted that he would dance out of infatuation for her beauty rather than for the love of the art itself. Shohei decides to learn to love dance for dance’s sake, and throws himself into learning how to properly cut the proverbial rug in order to show her he is not so shallow, and, in the process, develops a real love for ballroom. But by this time, his wife has hired a private investigator to follow Shohei, and much more is at stake than just a turn on the dance floor. His whole life may come crashing down because of his secrets.

While the above description of the plot may seem very serious, it really only scratches the surface of what is a heartwarming, often delightful little movie. Still, much of the story centers on Shohei and his conflicting desires and their effects on his family. Even with the light tone, there is biting commentary here about the disillusionment of dreams and the brokenness of uncommunicative marriages, as well as the rigidity of the Japanese culture.

Even with those difficult themes, the characters are likely to keep you smiling. While Shohei’s motivations may not be pure, Koji Yakusho (more recently seen as a powerful samurai in 13 Assassins [2013]) brings great sympathy to his performance of a man who has lost his way, and who slowly discovers life again through dance. Anyone familiar with learning ballroom dance will empathize immediately with Yakusho’s stumbling and tripping over and again—and anyone who loves dance (like me) will resonate with Shohei’s eventual excitement that pushes through his timidity. On the opposite end of the scale is Naoto Takenaka (he’s in everything from Swing Girls [2004] to RoboGeisha [2009]—one of the most ubiquitous Japanese actors I know) as Tomio Aoki, Shohei’s coworker and utterly insane Latin dance enthusiast with a wig. Takenaka turns in a ludicrous, over-the-top, teeth-gnashing performance of a man completely overcome with dance madness—his passion gives him great joy, and gives others great confusion. Other minor characters are also quite fun, such as Shohei’s eventual dance partner, Toyoko, played with great vitality and spunk by Eri Watanabe—who would go on to win an award for her performance.

Mai Ishikawa also has a big role to play—that of the (rather clichéd now) proud competitor who has to learn to loosen up. Unfortunately, ballet dancer Tamiyo Kusakari who plays the part of Mai is rather wooden, but still manages to display a great deal of dignity in her role, even if she barely emotes. Interestingly, Kusakari ended up marrying the director (Masayuki Suo) as a result of her role in this film.

While an overriding theme of the film centers on the importance of enjoying art for art’s sake alone, as with most dance films, there is a dance competition—though winning said competition is never of huge importance to the plot. Instead, the competition helps to spur Shohei on to learn dance more, and to work with the often-prickly Toyoko as his partner, and Mai ends up coaching them to do their best. Interestingly—again, unlike most dance films in America—the leads never learn particularly flashy moves, and dancing is not reduced to just the equivalent of a special effect—pizazz included simply to wow audiences. Instead, dance is shown as something warm and beautiful, bringing people joy, not just gymnastics to a beat.

As much as I like Shall We Dance?, however, it has always bothered me that Shohei’s relationship with his wife did not take a more central role. Of course, their marriage is shown as important to the story, and Hideko Hara gives a good performance as the rather spurned wife Masako. However, she seems almost always to be pushed aside for the centrality of dance, or Shohei’s relationship with Mai or Toyoko. At the end of the film, the main tension is not about Shohei reconciling with Masako, but rather whether Shohei will go and see Mai one last time. The impression, then, is to make it seem as if Shohei’s fleeting relationship with Mai is actually more important than the lifelong commitment he has made to his wife. Further, Masako is mostly cut off from Shohei’s dance activities throughout the film, and she is treated more as someone who exists in order to ultimately encourage Shohei to live his life rather than someone whose feelings really matter very much. Shohei never confesses to Masako that his dance passion was initially enflamed by an extramarital lust for Mai, and when he “makes up” with his wife towards the end, the main purpose of the reconciliation seems just as much to be a means to reignite Shohei’s interest in dance (which he gives up for a time) as it is to reconnect with his wife. The blasé way in which Shohei and Masako’s relationship is treated in the film is the biggest flaw in the film, in my opinion.

Still, let us not dwell on the weaknesses in the film. Another bright spot was the music, which has a very European feel, with some themes that (at least to me) really taste Italian—was that an accordion on the soundtrack? At any rate, the music is pleasant and fun, adding an extra, soft layer of feel-goodiness over the proceedings. While there is music for the dance numbers, too, the actual songs are not focused upon—the proceedings are never manipulated into a crass parade of pop hits. The action is zeroed in on the dance, and the interplay of characters.

I find myself revisiting this movie as I prepare to return to Japan in just over a month. The film reminds me that there is so much more to Japan than monsters and ninjas and samurai or shining robots and bright anime action. Japan is made up of beautiful people, good friends like my dear friend Kumiko, and fine art expressed in a wide array of styles. Shall We Dance? proffers a hand to westerners, asking them to experience a different side of Japan with a well-crafted, heartfelt story. I would extend the same invitation.