Shall We Dance?

(Shall we dansu?, Masayuki Suo, Japan, 1996)


For a time in the '80s and early '90s, it seemed that ballroom dancing had become the easiest butt of humour ever discovered by opportunistic filmmakers.

The kitsch decor, stiff dance moves, sickly nostalgia and generally suburban ambience: movies pounced on this motherlode with a condescending, sarcastic air. Even Baz Luhrmann's Strictly Ballroom (1992), although essentially sweet and sentimental, did not escape this superior mindset.

Shall We Dance? has plenty of humour, but it is surely the most affectionate and sympathetic portrait of ballroom dancing that we are ever likely to see on screen. (Hollywood did a remake starring Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez in 2004.) Writer-director Masayuki Suo (Sumo Do, Sumo Don't, 1992) gets right inside a fascinating cultural fantasy that may be unfamiliar to many of us.

In this sector of Japanese society where personal and marital relations seem highly codified and repressed, dancing provides a delicate and tender (but not overtly sexual) way of becoming close to others. And the glamorous high-point or Mecca of this fantasy is not (as is usually the case) the Hollywood musical, but a trip to a ballroom dancing contest in Blackpool in the UK – usually portrayed in English language films (such as Funny Bones, 1995 – whose director, Peter Chelsom, went on to direct the Shall We Dance? remake) as a chaotic, low-culture dump.

The script concentrates several story threads within the space of a dance school. Sugiyama (Koji Yakusho) is a middle-aged businessman drawn to classes by the romantic sight (glimpsed every night from his train home) of Mai (Tamiyo Kusakari), an ex-star of the ballroom circuit. Other attendees include Aoki (Naoto Takenaka), a workmate of Sugiyama who inhabits a glitzy, imaginary identity whenever he dances; and Toyoko (Eriko Watanabe), a refreshingly earthy, laconic type.

All the through-lines of the plot are familiar and predictable – facing up to reality, admitting responsibility, feeling compassion, enlivening the everyday. But Shall We Dance? is an effortlessly absorbing and heartwarming spectacle. It invests the small personal journeys made by the characters with enormous significance and emotion.

It is hard to believe that this is Suo's fourth feature. It is amateurishly handled in many spots, and its sluggish, repetitive structure makes it feel about twenty minutes too long. Suo's staging is simple and straightforward, enlivened by only one good trick worthy of Jacques Tati: the hilarious wide shots which show three or four separate actions happening simultaneously.

© Adrian Martin December 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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