'Shall We Dance' a graceful tale of middle-age yearnings
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
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withdrawn way of punctuating a joke most often reminds me of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.
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
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
"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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