At first glance, the new Japanese comedy Shall We Dance? appears to be an Asian remake of the Australian hit Strictly Ballroom. But in fact the similarities are only surface-deep, and just barely that. Part of the difference is rooted in the cultural gap between the two nations, but wider yet is the gap between the sensibilities of filmmaker Masayuki Suo and Ballroom's director Baz Luhrmann.
Shohei Sugiyama (Koji Yakusho) is a diligent white-collar worker in a Tokyo high-rise; he works all day at his computer terminal, then slogs home on the train to his loving wife (Hideko Hara) and daughter (Misa Shimizu). He has succeeded on his own terms: He is respected at the office; working hard, he has managed to buy his own home. Still, his life is in a decided rut.
One night on the train ride home, he is intrigued to see a beautiful young woman gazing sadly from the window of a tacky commercial building. When he finally summons up the nerve to investigate, he discovers that the building is a ballroom dance school and that the woman, Mai (Tamiyo Kusakari), is one of the instructors.
Although Sugiyama wouldn't dream of cheating on his wife, he is clearly smitten with Mai -- enough so that he starts attending the school, even though he is repressed and out of touch with his body. Mai -- by far the youngest, prettiest instructor, and hence the object of nearly every male student's lust -- is understandably cold and standoffish. But while she rejects Sugiyama's gentle, awkward advances, a curious thing happens: His infatuation with the woman gives way to a more genuine love for dance; he becomes part of the school's community of ardent dance fans.
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Still, he is embarrassed by this secret passion. Rather than confide in his wife, he bonds with the other students. When the most flamboyant of these, a bewigged grandstander, loses his hairpiece, he is revealed to be Aoki (Naoto Takenaka), an eccentric co-worker who has been living a similar double life for some time. Of course, Sugiyama's poor wife -- wondering where her husband is all those nights and why he is so tired -- becomes convinced he is having an affair and tearfully consults a detective. There are further plot complications as the now-polished students prepare for the Japan Amateur Dance Association competition.
Like Sumo Do, Sumo Don't, writer-director Suo's previous hit, Shall We Dance? swept the Japanese equivalent of the Academy Awards. It's easy to see why: The film successfully walks the thin line between slick commercialism and "serious" realism. It is sentimental, but it comes by its sentiment honestly, through well-observed performances by the leads and a keen insight into the quirks of Japanese middle-class culture. Where the plot of Strictly Ballroom developed by the numbers, without a single untelegraphed surprise, Shall We Dance? plows somewhat subtler turf. (Certainly it never indulges in the campy wallowing that made the overhyped Ballroom so cloying.)
Both films deal with the spiritually curative powers of dance, but Suo is more circumspect about the limits of those powers. Sugiyama's life may be changed by his exposure to dancing, but, as would likely be the case in the real world, he is neither wholly transformed nor redeemed.
Shall We Dance?
Written and directed by Masayuki Suo; with Koji Yakusho, Tamiyo Kusakari, Naoto Takenaka, Eriko Watanabe, Misa Shimizu, Akira Emoto, Yu Tokui, Hiromasa Taguchi, Reiko Kusamura, and Hideko Hara.