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Movie Review:

'Shall We Dance' a graceful tale of middle-age yearnings

filmstrip July 19, 1997
Web posted at: 1:41 p.m. EDT (1741 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- "Shall We Dance" is an utterly charming Japanese comedy about the healing powers of spinning a partner around a ballroom. But the film somehow avoids being as precious as I fully expected it to be. It isn't really fair to suggest that the movie's main subject is dance, though. As much as anything else, it's about the healing powers (and poetry) of simple self-expression.

The story eventually grows a tad redundant, but this is an extremely enjoyable, self-assured little film. Or, at the risk of getting cute enough to have a blurb printed on a movie poster, "Shall We Dance" is very light on its feet.

Writer/director Masayuki Suo may be Japanese, but his subtle, withdrawn way of punctuating a joke most often reminds me of Scottish director Bill Forsyth.

Like Forsyth (who directed the delightful "Local Hero" and "Comfort and Joy," among others), Suo likes to have his camera stand to the side and watch seemingly sensible characters look foolish in the eyes of their families and co-workers while pursuing something that only they can manage to fully believe in. In this case, that would be a 42-year-old Japanese businessman's insistence on clandestinely learning to ballroom dance.

View from a train leaves businessman wanting more

The businessman, Mr. Sugiyama, is played with near-heroic restraint by Koji Yakusyo. The film makes it clear in a brief prologue that Japan is not a society that willingly accepts public displays of affection ... or intentionally close proximity of bodies, for that matter.

We're told that it is "beyond embarrassing" for a husband and wife to dance, and to dance with someone else is "even more shameful." In other words, don't be looking for repeats of "Bandstand" the next time you're in Tokyo.

The dancers in the film get together at a local watering hole after their lessons and discuss what they're doing as if they're training for guerrilla warfare. This is dance as an act of nonconformity, and they're exhilarated that they have the guts to take part in it.

'Shall We Dance'
video icon 1.1M/30 sec. Movie clip
3.3M/1 min. 23 sec. Movie trailer

As the film begins, waltzing and fox-trotting are the furthest things from Mr. Sugiyama's mind. He approaches his work (in the Japanese fashion) as if making deals and shuffling papers are acceptable substitutes for oxygen.

He's got a brand new house with a garden, a loving wife and a cute adolescent daughter. Their family life is depicted by Suo with a great deal of understanding and affection. Everyone seems happy enough, but that doesn't necessarily mean that everyone is happy, as Mr. Sugiyama soon discovers.

One night, as he's riding the train home from the office, Sugiyama glances out the window and notices a beautiful, forlorn-looking young woman (Tamiyo Kusakari) gazing from the window of a dance studio.

He's very moved by this luminous vision, and soon starts looking for her every evening during his trip home. He watches her longingly, but we never get the feeling that he's really going to do anything to hurt his family. The woman comes to represent his own melancholy, the yearning for something more, regardless of what that "something more" might turn out to be.

Dance class offers glimpse at another world

Eventually, Sugiyama sneaks up to the dance studio, where he encounters a world that he never even expected existed. Lessons are being given, and a wide variety of people are spinning and stumbling all over each other with total abandon. He signs up for a course without telling anyone about it, at first to get closer to the young woman (who's a dance instructor), but eventually as a way of breaking the chains of his work-oriented social structure.

One of the best dancers in his class is a long-haired wild man who hilariously overstates his every movement, a lecherous sneer plastered on his face. He's a virtual fireball of libidinous energy.

Sugiyama is in awe of this strutting free spirit, and is soon startled to discover (when the man's wig falls off during one of his more frenetic gyrations) that he's actually a timid co-worker, Mr. Aoki. Aoki is played by Naoto Tanakan, who gives one of the best comic performances of the year.

Co-workers talk dance in the men's room

There are a couple of very funny scenes in the men's restroom at their office, where Aoki and Sugiyama stand at the urinals, admiring each other's improving posture and secretively discussing the nuances of proper tango footing as they do their business.

There are several minor plot lines concerning the lonely members of the dance class, and a couple of them probably could have been cut, but the characters are all nicely written, and of the performances are thoroughly enjoyable. Sugiyama's growing relationship with the beautiful instructor is at the heart of the film, and it develops in quite unexpected ways.

This movie has a lot to teach American directors about trusting simple human emotions to tell an affecting story.

Once again, a movie has been imported to the United States from another country that shows Americans how much novelty can be displayed by trusting simple human emotions to tell an affecting story. It's ironic that Japan gives us this, and we're about to give them a $200 million version of "Godzilla."

"Shall We Dance" is a sweet, gently-told tale about a man's defeat of his mid-life crisis. It all goes down smooth, and is wall-to-wall with dancing, both terrible and majestic. Rated PG. 136 minutes, but goes by quickly. Cha-cha-cha.


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