Shall We Dance? (1995)

D: Masayuki Suo
S: Koji Yakusho, Tamiyo Kusakari, Naoto Takenaka

A Japanese accountant facing a life of routine and eternal drudgery to support his new house, wife and daughter finds himself drawn by a momentary view of an enigmatic young woman in a ballroom dancing studio into a world considered taboo by the average person in Japan. In a society so closed and ritualistic that affection between married couples in public is frowned upon, the opening voice over informs us, so demonstrative and exhibitionist a pursuit as dancing cheek to cheek in front of cheering crowds borders on a form of perversion. Nonetheless he finds himself not only enjoying his dance lessons and benefiting from them in terms of his health, but that his whole sense of perspective on himself is about to undergo revolution, even if he feels too ashamed to reveal what he is doing to his concerned and suspicious, if still loving, wife.

Everything you need to appreciate the humour of this film is given to you within a few minutes. Despite the potentially alienating prospect of a Japanese comedy, this warm and restrained film communicates well with anyone with even the faintest sense of social embarrassment and the smallest desire to break free and express themselves in some outrageous fashion. Though less strident than the aussie hit Strictly Ballroom, to which this film has been unduly compared, it uses the complex customs and rituals of the ballroom dancing set as a medium through which otherwise masked emotions are played out, and is not subtle about it. In addition to Koji Yakusho as our hero, thematic mirrors are provided by statuesque Tamiyo Kusakari as the failed dance champion unable to face her disgrace and hilarious Naoto Takenaka as an experienced amateur dancer whose obsession with mimicking a South American champion inhibits him from unleashing his true talents. In the course of the movie, all three (and most of the other cast members) undergo transformations with the help of their dancing which make them better and happier people all round.

It is easy to see why the film became the most successful from its country to be distributed in the United States. It follows the strict formula of feel-good movies and provides plenty of opportunities for visual gags from the slapstick battle between Takenaka and a rival who insists on interfering with his curly wig to the quieter laughs provided by studying the Yakusho's movements and improved posture in the office after weeks of training. Yet it never loses touch with some of the classic visual language of the Japanese cinema, and bears interesting similarities in compositional style with the work of Ozu, with plenty of slow, pregnant pauses painstakingly posed for effective tableaus.

It also boasts an effectively pointed script (by director Masayuki Suo) which neatly addresses several side issues which eventually feed into the main plot and offers lovely, rounded characterisation all the way from the leads to the smaller supporting characters (Akira Emoto grows nicely in the role of a private detective hired by Yakusho's wife). Given writing of this standard, the job of the actors has been made easier. But the cast is uniformly wonderful. Yakusho is a sympathetic lead and a graceful dancer. But in an admittedly showy role, Takenaka makes the longest-lasting impression and has all the funniest moments.

This is a well crafted film by any standards, entertaining of its kind and of particular interest for providing an opportunity to question the role and importance of ritual in our lives through meditations on a highly ritualised society. It also offers additional amusements for audiences from the British Isles given the characters' obsession with Blackpool as a magical mecca where dreams are made or lost on the dance floor. Highly recommended.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.