Shall We Dance? (1996)

  • Title:  Shall We Dance? (Japan, 1996)
  • Director:  Masayuki Suo
  • Date:  1996
  • Studio:  Miramax
  • Genre:  Drama, Musical
  • Cast:  Kôji Yakusho, Tamiyo Kusakari, Naoto Takenaka, Eri Watanaka, Hiromasa Taguchi
  • Format:  Color, Widescreen (In Japanese, with English Subtitles)
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“…There is a secret wonder…about the joys that dance can bring.” – Spoken introduction

“Dance is more than just the steps.  Feel the music and just dance for sheer joy.” – Sensei Tanaka

Shall We Dance (1996) and Shall We Dance (2004) have the exact same plot, but it is the Richard Gere film that is a re-make and Americanization of this Japanese film.  I actually saw both in the movie theater, and enjoyed them both.

The Japanese film starts with a spoken introduction about the reserved nature of the Japanese people, a nature than sees ballroom dancing with suspicion.  In a land where married couples don’t hold hands, much less kiss in public, and would seldom if ever express love with words even in private, the act of dancing with a stranger is seen, well, as something perverse. However, this film is about ballroom dancing in Japan and the world-wide competitive dance sport.

Sugiyama, is a successful accountant, who has just bought a house for his family.  He works long hours and commutes daily to his job.  He is satisfied, if not exactly happy with his life. But it would never occur to him to change anything.  On the commute, from his train window, he sees a beautiful young woman in a dance studio – who seems filled with melancholy.  It takes a few tries for Sugiyama to work up the courage, but he finally goes to the dance studio to sign up for lessons.

Upon learning that private lessons are very expensive, he signs up for group lessons instead. His tutor is Sensei (teacher) Tanaka, an older, experienced, and patient teacher. The other students in the class include a slightly overweight man who’s taking dance lessons to lose weight and hopefully meet girls, and a know-it-all type who’s taken one dance class before with his wife, and now thinks improving his dance skills will impress her.

Also at the studio is Mr. Aoki, who works with Sugiyama at his office, and is a competitive dance hopeful; and a second teacher (Toyoko) who also hopes to be more successful at competitive dance.  Mia, the young woman Sugiyama saw in the window, also works there, but only gives private lessons.  Unraveling her story is as much of the plot, as are Sugiyama’s growing skills at dance.

Sensei Tanaka works with Sugiyama and his fellow students, teaching them basic steps, and the ten competitive dances as well as a few fun, social dances.

At home, Sugiyama’s wife and daughter notice he now seems happier, but eventually, his wife grows suspicious and hires a private detective.  Upon learning his secret is that he’s taking weekly dance lessons, and he’s not having an affair, his wife accepts it, but is confused. Remember that, culturally, ballroom dance isn’t accepted.

As the students improve, there are montages not only of the dance lessons, but of Sugiyama dancing on the train platform, in a park (including in the rain), and even moving his feet in time under his desk.  Meanwhile, Mr. Aoki, slides through corridors and rows of desks with precise movements – but cannot find a good partner for competitive dance.

The second half of the film involves an amateur ballroom dance competition.  Due to various events, Toyoko will dance two traditional dances (Waltz, and Quick Step) with Sugiyama and the Latin dances (Rumba, and Paso Double) with Mr. Aoki.  The Latin dances are first and Aoki starts off doing what he always does – overacting, using “jazz hands”, and wearing a ridiculous wig and costume.  A competitor turns the wig, so for the second dance he removes it and dances far better than he ever has, because he’s not trying to be someone he’s not. During their dances, Sugiyama and Toyoko are doing brilliantly, until Sugiyama’s distracted by his daughter rooting him on from the stands.  He manages to step on and tear off Toyoko’s skirt.  Needless to say, Toyoko is forced to default.

Sugiyama is appalled by this.  He gives up dancing and goes back to his wife and daughter. He’s invited to a fair-well party for Mia, who’s decided to return to Blackpool (England) and competitive dancing. Finally, though, he shows up at the very end of her party and she dances her last dance with him.  As they dance, other couples join in on the dance floor.

The Japanese, original, film version of Shall We Dance? moves at a slower pace than the re-make with Richard Gere.  But at times, this makes for a better film.  It’s filled with fascinating characters, all of whom have their own stories, and all of whom are looking for something.  That it isn’t until the very end that we find out all of Mia’s story, makes her story that much richer.  The music also, is mostly traditional ballroom dance music.  “Save the Last Dance for Me” is used for montages.  Mia’s theme dance song is “Shall We Dance?” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I  (yes, the Yul Brenner musical).  “Shall We Dance?” fits, but it will stick in your head for days after seeing the film.

Recommended:  See it.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Oz the Great and Powerful