What They Say:
Shohei Sugiyama has attained all that he has wanted in life. But he is still depressed and unhappy. One day, he gathers up the courage to sign up for dancing lessons. He hopes they will rid his depression and help him get his life back together.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Sometimes a movie can slip by you, one where it’s certainly of interest but you never get around to it, even if you have it sitting in a pile or sitting in your queue. Shall We Dance, released in 1996 in Japan, was written and directed by Masayuki Suou back in his mid thirties as it explores something that’s stated at the beginning of the film as pretty much taboo in Japan. With anime and manga fans certainly familiar with some of the social restraints and issues in Japan when it comes to affection, both public and private, it wouldn’t surprise many to view ballroom dancing as something to be embarassed about or even ashamed in partaking. In a culture that at the time talked about how a couple saying “I love you” in public or spending time together in public in a lot of ways just wasn’t done, the idea of dancing publicly in any way, especially a more intimate way, just isn’t something that would be done.
The film revolves around a forty year oldish salaryman named Sugiyama. He’s achieved the dream he’s had for years in being married, having a teenage daughter now and a home with a small garden. Everything is there that he wanted, but he comes across as depressed as he knows he’s mortgaged his soul to the company for it and something is missing. While he’s found what he knew he wanted, it’s left him empty in a way he can’t quite explain. He’s not a bad man by any stretch and in fact comes across as stereotypically Japanese in a way where he’s minimal in interactions at home but is home more than usual since he doesn’t do the late night drinking thing at work. His wife, Masako, is concerned about this but understands some of it is just the age in a sense.
What changes to Sugiyama though is that his daily train ride home takes him past a station where he sees a building with a dance studio on the top floor. Within that, there’s a young woman looking forlornly there almost every night and he finds himself captivated by her. It’s not that he’s smitten in a lustful way or is head over heels in love, but he’s intrigued by her and there’s a certain attraction. That eventually gets him to make his way into the studio, ensuring nobody sees him, and discovers this whole other world. He ends up agreeing to lessons, thinking he’ll be practicing with the woman from the window named Mai, but instead he ends up with Tamako, a somewhat older woman who teaches there as well. Sugiyama ends up with a pair of other men that are probably a decade or so younger than him with Tokichi and Masahiro and it makes for an amusing foursome, especially as Sugiyama continually gazes over at Mai.
While the film could easily work towards him getting to know her, winning her over and moving on from there with a drama, it instead wants to really work itself as a character study. Sugiyama isn’t doing this to cheat or anything, at least not in the traditional sense, but he finds himself drawn to Mai. Mai, however, makes it clear relatively early on after he takes a few weeks worth of lessons that she doesn’t get involved with students privately and isn’t looking for anything anyway as she’s struggling with her own issues – which sadly aren’t dealt with until towards the end of the film, making her a bit of a cipher for some of it. While this might ordinarily have someone like Sugiyama opt out of dancing or redouble his efforts to win her over, it instead goes in a far better direction.
Sugiyama discovers that these past few weeks have brought him back to life with the dance itself. His work with Tamako and the others has been infectious and he finds himself practicing in small ways elsewhere. He even learns someone else at the office, Aoki, goes there and has for several years, becoming quite the strong dancer even if he does pretty much overact when he does so. This provides him a little sanctuary at work to talk about it, since he doesn’t talk about it at all with his wife because of the shame of even thinking about something like ballroom dancing, never mind taking lessons with her or anything else. With Aoki, he sees the split personality side of it but he also sees that once you have the music and the moves in you, it bleeds into other areas of your life. And he does his best to restrain that, but it crops up from time to time and seeing others catch sight of it is amusing.
The film works through some really great material across the board as Sugiyama and the two others enter this world. He spends a lot of his time with Tamako at first but also another instructor that’s between her and Mai named Toyoko. She’s a more outgoing and playful type but serious about it and has a real passion for dance that comes through beautifully, particularly since she isn’t “traditional” Japanese thin like Mai or Tamako. When Sugiyama realizes his growing passion for dance, he ends up working a lot with Toyoko towards some of the competitions coming up but also just the sheer pleasure of it. And that definitely makes an impact on his life as he becomes happier all around, though at home less because of the increase in practice sessions.
And that certainly causes problem with his wife. While she was initially concerned about his being depressed, she gets concerned about his being happy, something their daughter kind of throws in her face a little bit. But when she starts discovering the smell of perfume on his clothes more frequently, a natural reaction is to be suspicious. She opts for a private investigator instead of asking outright, again owing to cultural issues, but even this works out well because the detective isn’t a scummy type but one that does a whole lot for free, realizing the truth about Sugiyama and feeling a sense of wanting to mend things here because he sees them as good people. It does lead to some trouble as he tries to get involved with it all, but even there it has its positives. It may seem alien to those that don’t watch a lot out of Japan, but you can see the familiar patterns here in adult relationships, and the contrast to how many American films and shows present our own issues. There’s a lot to like with Masako and Sugiyama, though one does wish she got fleshed out just a bit more.
Shall We Dance is a film that is in its own way hugely personal for me as well. About ten years ago I ended up doing a lot of ballroom dancing lessons for several years, initially to help repair a relationship but then realized that I really wanted to do it for myself in the end. It came at a time of severe weight loss for me and a turning the corner to being a more outgoing person. Though I haven’t been able to go for several years now, this brings back all the passions and I was able to identify hugely with Sugiyama as it progressed and he realized the passion, the life that was coming from it.
Koji Yakusho, the actor for Sugiyama, is so naturally restrained in presenting us the character that when he does get to loosen up and enjoy it, it’s a sight to behold in his eyes and his movements. it’s still very much a Japanese performance and it carries it well, but that twinkle is there and it’s so engaging to watch that it truly does inspire, as do the others as it moves into what it wants to become. The supporting men in the show have their own stories, though some like Tokichi and Masahiro’s are small, but they have some strong moments and I found myself incredibly sympathetic to Masahiro as he talked about the way he feels so ugly and disgusting in how others must view him dancing. All of these characters find their paths well here and with such interesting guides to them with Mai, Toyoko and Tamako, it weaves together a wonderful story with Sugiyama as the center.
Though I knew Shall We Dance would appeal to me considering my interest in both ballroom dancing and Japanese culture, it took me until now to finally getting around to watching it. Hell, my mother saw it years ago along with the Hollywood remake. The film is one that delves into some interesting cultural issues and presents a solid look at a man trying to figure out what it is in his life that’s missing. And finding that it’s the joy of living itself. Each of us can find it in different ways, though often I think we mistake really living for other things and never really experience it. The lead here of Sugiyama discovers what brings him to life in a big way here and it’s a struggle for him with what society expects of him, what he expects of himself, and what it is he truly wants to do. You can see this as a parable to so many other things out of Japan that are considered unacceptable in polite company, which is definitely something that’s hard to fathom in many ways from an American culture point of view where seemingly anything goes. But understanding that struggle, watching it play out here, is a thing of beauty. And it damn well got my feet moving again.
Streamed By: Netflix
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