Video Review: Shall We Dance?
by Karl Bowman and Jonathan Walker

Life, love, and ballroom dancing in Japan.

In Japan, ballroom dance is regarded with much suspicion. In a country where married couples don’t go out arm in arm, much less say, I love you, out loud–intuitive understanding is everything. Nonetheless, even for Japanese people, there is a secret wonder about the joys that dance can bring.

Few would associate ballroom dancing with the stoic culture of Japan. But in this foreign film, these disparate worlds come together in a simple, enthralling story which asks the question, Shall We Dance?

Mr. Sugiyama, a hard-working accountant has everything he ever wanted out of life, loving wife, a beautiful daughter, and a new home. Unfortunately, he still feels empty. His wife is deeply concerned about his lack of social interaction and wishes he would break out of his emotional rut, even urging him to stay out late drinking with his co-workers. One evening on the train ride home, Sugiyama notices a woman staring out the window of a dance school. He is taken by her beauty and intrigued by her melancholy. He soon resolves to meet her by enrolling in dance lessons. Unfortunately, he is the stiffest dancer, prone to miss a beat or crush a toe, but he continues with the instruction and eventually learns much more than he bargained for.

The plot of Shall We Dance? may seem slight, but it never loses interest. We identify strongly with the awkward and unfulfilled Mr. Sugiyama and root for his success in the special world of dance. The conventions of Japanese culture force him to keep his passion secret and his lonely wife soon hires a private investigator to get to the bottom of the “affair.” The situations which result are not only believable, but captivating.

We also empathize with and laugh at the needy souls at the dance studio and wish we could get up and dance with them. They have all turned to dance as a way of recovering their lives. Tanaka has joined to get exercise and gain control over his diabetes, while Hattori wants to feel more comfortable in the social situations his wife imposes upon him. Mr. Sugiyama is trying to find that spark again and the joy of life. And it doesnt stop there. Whether it be the single office worker or the widow, or the beautiful Mai herself, all of them need something in their lives.

After Mr. Sugiyama finds dance, his drab job doesn’t improve, his commute to work is just as monotonous, and his suits are just as dark as they have ever been. But dance wakes his soul, challenging him mentally, socially, physically, and inspiring him to improvement. He begins to find joy everywhere-in a series of dance steps hidden under his desk, a dance move while waiting for the subway, and shared interests. However, because of pride he will not share this new fire in his life with those who mean the most to him-his wife and daughter. He is lighter, happier, less grave, but he hasn’t yet learned the most important lesson dancing can teach him. The true joy of dancing cannot be obtained in solitude. Neither can the true joy of life be obtained alone. When we learn how to dance with those around us, we understand that life is not about finding relaxation and it certainly isn’t about the mortgage. Whether the dance is with friends, family, or spouse, we must learn to trust our partner and let the music guide our steps.

This “simple” film is actually the result of careful planning. It’s technical elements are never intrusive and allow the story to unfold as gracefully as the choreography of the dancers. With carefully selected camera angles and editing techniques, director Masayuki Suo leads us up and down emotionally and through to an honest and satisfying conclusion. Although English-speakers need to read the subtitles to understand the dialogue, the inner state of the characters is always conveyed effectively through body language. Mr. Aoki the diminutive, but wild Latin dancer, provides many memorable comedic moments as when he and Mr. Sugiyama practice their dancing posture in the men’s bathroom at work.

After its release in 1997, Shall We Dance? Has been praised by film critics and festivals around the world, winning 8 awards for Best Foreign Language Film. The power of this film, regardless of language, is found in its ability to enthrall us with lovable characters and genuine emotion. And that is why we go to the movies.


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