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Here in unfettered America, where the lamest cowboy insists on doing the Texas two-step and a couple of strawberry daiquiris can transform a retiring housewife into a disco queen, it's difficult for us to imagine a culture in which middle-class married couples don't go out in public together and even proper ballroom dancing is considered risque.
That's the world Masayuki Suo reveals in his wry, beautifully observed comedy Shall We Dance?--a world where a somber Japanese accountant suffering through a midlife crisis finds the courage to take dance lessons--and discovers joy in the bargain.
Mr. Sugiyama (Koji Yakusho) is a most unlikely movie hero. He's a middle-aged "salary-man" encased in a blue suit, paying off his suburban house, dutifully riding the commuter train into the city each morning, going through the motions at work and dutifully returning home each evening to his wife and daughter. Resigned and inexpressive, Mr. Sugiyama is slowly dying inside--until he spots a beautiful young woman in the lighted window of a dance studio overlooking a train platform. Drawn like a moth, this shy everyman takes on a second, secret life. Eventually, what he finds there is not lust, but renewal. After getting past his first comic stumblings into fox-trot and rumba (and his early yearning for the beauty, Mai), he's reborn, from the soles of his shoes on up. "Every day I feel so alive," he marvels. "Even being tired feels great."
Mr. Sugiyama's fellow neophytes in the two-left-feet wars are a big, sweaty fat man called Tanaka (Hiromasa Taguchi) and a little, talky skinny one named Hattori (Yu Tokui). They are cliches, but director Suo has a terrific gift for reinvention. Until now, he says, he's been making slick features for hip young audiences, but here, at least, he approaches his characters with such affection and depth of understanding that we come to cherish even their warts. Witness Mr. Aoki (Naoto Takenaka), another office-bound drone who regularly sets himself free by donning tight pants and a hilarious black wig and slipping into his slick alter ego: Tommy Burns, Latin dance champion.
Moviegoers who want to compare Shall We Dance? to the blowsy Australian hit Strictly Ballroom may be doing themselves a disservice. More substantial and much funnier, Suo's film combines the fizz of Hollywood's marital-unrest comedies of the 1950s--movies like The Seven Year Itch--with the dark spirit of something like Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru, the 1952 masterpiece in which a petty bureaucrat dying of cancer sets out to find meaning in his life. Mr. Sugiyama is that seeker's spiritual descendent--in a pair of black dancing shoes.
But he's not the only one who makes progress. By the time we reach the inevitable big dance contest (and its not-so-predictable results), the original object of Mr. Sugiyama's affections, Mai (Tamiyo Kusakari) has been transformed from an embittered perfectionist into a woman who once again grasps the sheer joy of bodily movement, and the aggressive, impatient Toyoko (Eriko Watanabe) has begun to blossom into a true friend. Sugiyama himself is the agent of these conversions, and he exerts no less profound an effect upon his family. As in so many Japanese films of the past, some of this one's most telling dramas unfold at home, and the scene in which the stale husband and the suspicious wife (Hideko Hara) begin, ever so cautiously, to communicate, is one of its most telling moments.
It's telling, too, that a highly personal, independent feature like Shall We Dance? got made at all. Japanese filmmakers have been frustrated for years by bizarre industry rules requiring movie investors to pre-pay the cost of most tickets before the work is even released--in effect guaranteeing box-office success. That has also guaranteed caution. A national cinema once nourished by giants like Kurosawa, Ozu and Naruse has been reduced to cranking out bloody action epics and formula romances for the mass market. If that sounds familiar to Hollywood-watchers, it should. Still, the American independent-film movement has made a recent comeback.
Happily, Shall We Dance? is a surprise hit in Japan, sweeping thirteen of that country's major movie awards, and it's no accident that the canny marketeers at Miramax--overseers of The English Patient and Sling Blade--are distributing it in the United States. If success at home results in anything like the independent revival under way here, Japanese filmmakers and audiences will both have reason to rejoice.
For now, we can exult in the vision--sometimes sentimental, most often not--of a middle-aged man who seizes life by practicing his dance steps beneath his desk at work, on a rain-drenched train platform and in his heart of hearts. For Mr. Sugiyama and for Suo, the question Shall We Dance? (enlivened, in the glorious end, by a full-throated blast of Rodgers and Hammerstein) is not just an invitation to the waltz, but a license to transcend old strictures, to liberate the soul.
Shall We Dance?
Written and directed by Masayuki Suo. With Koji Yakusho, Tamiyo Kusakari, Naoto Takenaka and Eriko Watanabe.
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