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"Shall We Dance?" is a light-footed, sweet crowd-pleaser of a movie that's guaranteed to appeal as much to American audiences as it did to the Japanese. It's easy to see why: as entertainment, it pulls off just the right blend of the comic and the earnest, and dance movies have always had a certain charm, from Fred Astaire to "Strictly Ballroom." But what makes "Shall We Dance?" really interesting is its subtle illustration of the social-cultural fabric of its story, so different in crucial ways from that familiar to most Western viewers.
The very nature of the story reveals these differences. Shohei Sugiyama (Koji Yakusho) is a sober, industrious accountant who's just passed 40 and can rightly be called a successful man. He has a wife and preteen daughter, and has recently bought a house; and to pay the mortgage, he's been working even more diligently than usual. But it seems he's not happy. Night after night he commutes home, and each night, at a certain stop, he sees the embodiment of his vague yearnings--a beautiful woman who comes to the window of a dance studio, looking out with a mysteriously melancholy expression.
Moved by an impulse he scarcely understands, he decides to take dancing lessons from an older instructor, while secretly eyeing the lovely and distant Mai (Tamiyo Kusakari, whose long-lined elegance suggests a Japanese Audrey Hepburn). A former competitive ballroom dancer and less-than-enthusiastic teacher, she rebuffs his shy initial advances, telling him plainly that he'd better not dance if it's her she's after. Piqued, he throws his best efforts into proving that he does want to dance, and ultimately makes the lie true. The dancing gets into his blood, providing him both release and fulfillment and eventually affecting even the unapproachable Mai.
Though it doesn't quite match Ang Lee's wonderful gift for rendering social conventions hilarious, "Shall We Dance?" is bound to tickle the most staid viewer. It makes abundant, admittedly effective use of stock comic devices and characters. Eriko Watanabe cuts a droll figure as the experienced but caustic and somewhat unattractive dancer whom Sugiyama agrees to partner in an amateur competition; Naoto Takenaka hams it up as a painfully self-conscious colleague who dons a wig and hurls himself with fiendish gusto into the rhumba; Sugiyama's two fellow dance-pupils--one short and hyper, one big and docile--offer some great moments of physical comedy. Amusing, too, are the private investigators whom Sugiyama's wife hires to monitor her husband's movements and who end up getting so interested in his new activity that they become experts themselves.
But it's the two central characters, Sugiyama and Mai, who lend the movie its grace, subtlety and essential dignity. Her aloofness and his reticence makes their first real moment of communion surprisingly affecting, despite the too-pat neatness of its timing. There's a tender believability to their relationship that is far more convincing than a conventional romance would have been. It helps smooth over the unavoidable awkwardness of how to treat the wife, who begins by evoking sympathy and ends up offering it--not without a hitch. Sugiyama can't escape his loneliness without transferring some of it to her; one hopes, at the end, that he'll share some of his new passion with his family.
The character of Japanese society--the sheer unthinkableness of any but a purely platonic affair between two such protagonists--is perfectly exemplified in the Japanese attitude towards dancing, still looked at askance and rather suspiciously as a somewhat unseemly public demonstration. Sugiyama's victory is not that he wins Mai (though, in a sense, he does) but that he transcends these barriers and gains something even more precious: the pure joy of dancing and a taste of freedom and exhilaration that has eluded him in all the other aspects of his strictly-conventional life.
It's a curious paradox--and a tribute to the film's canny, delicate craft--that we're left rejoicing the outlet Sugiyama has discovered from the constraints of his society, and yet by those same constraints made to approve the comfortable resolution of the romantic question. It's tricky balancing job, and another film might have transgressed these finely etched boundaries more boldly than "Shall We Dance?" does. But no such film would be half as enjoyable.
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