The original Shall We Dance? is a Japanese romantic comedy that was released in U.S. theaters in 1997 to good reviews but is only now being released on DVD. Like most American folks not afraid of subtitles, my viewing habits which involve the Japanese language are typically limited to huge monsters destroying Tokyo, yakuza gangsters shooting up Tokyo, or cartoon characters with really large eyes trying to stop gangsters or monsters from terrorizing Tokyo. Forgive my narrow-mindedness: I never knew there was such thing as a Japanese romantic comedy.
Shohei Sugiyama (Koji Yakusho) is a successful businessman with a wife and daughter who feels something is lacking in his life. He notices a dance studio while riding the train home from work every night, and becomes infatuated with a pretty dancer, Mai (Tamiyo Kusakari), who he sees sadly looking out the studio's windows. He works up the nerve to enter the studio and finds himself roped into beginner’s ballroom dancing lessons. The other students include several goofy men who find grace while they learn to dance. Hanging around and practicing is Toyoko (Eriko Watanabe), an acerbic woman on the prowl for the perfect dance partner. He also discovers a co-worker who tries to disguise himself with a silly wig and can only be described as a dancing fool.
Mai saws Shohei off at the knees one night when he asks her out but he continues with his lessons as he realizes he has come to enjoy the dancing itself. He is eventually partnered with the acidic Toyoko for an amateur dance competition, she thinking him a prospective good dancer if could overcome his shyness. In the meantime, his wife has hired a private detective to find out what her husband could be doing at night and is quite perplexed to discover he's taking dancing lessons.
Movies are a fun (but a potentially misleading) way of looking at other cultures. I ended up being charmed by this movie, not only because it opened a window on Japan with no monsters stomping about, but also because it was about a person in the middle of his life finding joy in something as simple as dancing. The story and characters are Japanese, but who over the age of 35 can’t understand this man’s longing?
The prologue to this movie tells us that the Japanese typically refrain from showing emotion and that ballroom dancing, with such close contact between partners, is viewed with scorn and as something somewhat scandalous. Here we get watch an assortment of odd, likable characters who find passion in their life by moving to the music. Koji Yakusho’s performance is especially compelling as he goes from repressed salaryman to determined but clumsy and oh-so-serious student, to a man who becomes handsome, elegant, and graceful as he finally allows his emotions to move his feet. This story is about movement, and the characters spend most of the time telling us about themselves by what they do instead of what they say.
Shall We Dance is only now coming to DVD to time it with the DVD release of the Richard Gere/Jennifer Lopez remake. This release of the original is sadly bare bones with only a making of featurette, and it focuses on the making of the American version. Boo! Bad Miramax! Here was a chance to reflect more strongly on the themes of this movie, about how Japan views this kind of close, personal dancing. A few other non- Samurai or Monster Japanese movie previews would have been nice, because any one who sees this movie will probably have had his or her movie watching horizons expanded and would wish to see other charming comedies from a country that is wrongfully viewed as humorless (well, they did come up with Karaoke).
The sound and the picture are typically fine. The soundtrack is especially lovely – I was happy to find out the title was taken from a song from The King and I which made this non-dancer feel like waltzing around while it played. That’s saying something because I detest dancing.
One word of warning about the DVD cover – you get little, if any, indication that you are buying the Japanese version of the movie. The blurb on the back only talks about the remake that stars RICHARD GERE and JENNIFER LOPEZ (yes, in big honking capital letters) so if you are looking for the 2004 version you might end up with this DVD instead. Don’t take it back to the store! Give this version a chance.
I will have to compare and contrast the two versions of the movie later, once I have seen the remake. All I know was the original Shall We Dance? is a sweet surprise. It is funny, caring, uplifting, well-acted, and will make you want to dance and/or rent more Japanese movies where people don’t die. The remake has some big shoes to fill. Will it be able to? Stay tuned to find out.
Click here for Sandy Maynard's review of the American remake of Shall We Dance