As additional proof that Hollywood has no imagination, Miramax is producing an American version of their 1996 Japanese property Shall We Dansu (Shall We Dance) . Whether Richard Gere carries off the project successfully is yet to be seen, but wise moviegoers should seek the original immediately before its charms are lost in translation. Although much of the film's power derives from Japan's repressive Victorian society (where husbands never dare hold their wife's hand in public), it speaks to universal themes that plague us all. How do you find the passion for life after settling down to a safe routine job rut that pays the bills?
Like the silent masters, director Masayuki Suo quickly establishes accountant Shohei Sugiyama's (Koji Yakusyo) mid-life plight through a tightly constructed opening montage. Married to an attractive, loyal wife with a teenage daughter, Sugiyama has bought a house in the suburbs by mortgaging his life to his company. His mundane life now consists of an early morning train commute to the inner city where he works late into the evening, only to return home in time to go to bed. One evening he notices a beautiful young woman sadly gazing out the window of a ballroom dancing studio and is intrigued--a kindred spirit perhaps. Sugiyama determines to meet her to find out why she is so melancholy.
That requires Sugiyama to step out of his comfort zone and enroll in ballroom dancing classes, which in traditional Japanese society is akin to visiting a whorehouse (a co-worker is labeled a "lecher" when his dancing secret is revealed). Sneaking up the studio stairs to avoid being recognized, he joins a Wednesday evening beginner's class, taught by kindly middle-aged studio matron (Tamako Tamura) while his inspirational beauty teaches private lessons across the room. The crowd pleasing story unfolds predictably as the protagonist eventually gets past his infatuation and rudimentary waltz and tango steps and learns to feel the joy of dancing with the music. Of course family complications ensue when his wife notices her husband's sudden change in attitude and strange perfume scents on his clothing, but Seo's screenplay remains true to the romantic comedy genre with satisfying poignant touches as the main characters find the missing passion in their lives.
Young world class dancer Mai (Tamiyo Kusakari) remains far more interesting when an enigmatic mystery observed from afar, and her backstory is eventually revealed. However, much more interesting are the opening point of view shots and the wonderfully drawn supporting characters that steal every scene. These are essential when our protagonists are so repressed that their emotional range must remain reserved. Two that stand out from the well-cast ensemble are Naoto Takenaka (as Mr. Aoki) and Eriko Watanabe (as Toyoko)--dancers who personify the root meaning of "amateur" since they truly love the experience. Both supply necessary comic relief that plays off the reserved characters of Mai and Sugiyama wonderfully. Aoki copies a world renowned Latin dancer, down to the moppish black wig he wears to both disguise himself and change his persona while Toyoko continually badgers men to try out as her partner, and tosses out a flurry of insults when they displease her. She admires Sugiyama's grace and elegance, however, and plays a major role in transforming his outlook.
Taking its title from the well-known song from The King and I of Yul Brynner fame, Shall We Dance provides a light-hearted vignette on contemporary Japanese culture while affirming truths about seeking your true passion in life. Despite its manipulative happy Hollywood style ending, what makes this life affirming film work so well is the way Suo respects and draws out his characters, making them real people we can all relate to.
Extremely popular in Japan upon its release and subsequently drawing quite well in American arthouses when word of mouth got out, the entertaining film fast steps through its 118 minutes tightly. If you happen to be among those who haven't experienced Suo's original, be sure to check it out before the American remake hits your local theater. It's difficult to imagine that Miramax has discovered a way to improve the story without the restrictive cultural aspects that add another layer to Suo's film. I suspect that they recognize a sure-fire cash cow in their vaults—thankfully it's available on DVD.