The sweet-natured Japanese drama "Shall We Dance?" opens in a gilded dance hall with a voice-over primer in Japanese social repression. "The idea that a husband and wife should embrace and dance in front of each other is beyond embarrassment," says Shohei Sugiyama, a Tokyo businessman who discovers joy through ballroom dancing.
For an American audience, the explanation provides a national context that transforms "Shall We Dance?" into more than a film about hoofing it in the Far East, a mere Japanese version of "Strictly Ballroom."
Written and directed by Masayuki Suo, "Shall We Dance?" is a melancholy portrayal of a society whose rigidity discourages rapturous self-expression and renders relationships arid and distant.
The Japan that Suo creates is a land where individuals feel compelled to keep their true selves hidden behind walls of reserve and polite artifice, beyond the emotional reach of even those they love.
Shohei (Koji Yakusho) is just such a prisoner. A 40ish accountant on the rise in a Tokyo firm, he has a solicitous wife, Masako (Hideko Hara), a loving daughter and a long-coveted new home. All is ordered and in place in his life, yet Shohei has the weary, lifeless eyes of a man who has all but given up on the idea of happiness. Then one night he casts those eyes up from his commuter train and they alight on the sullen face of a beautiful young woman as she gazes from the second-story window of a ballroom dancing studio.
Shohei finds himself drawn to the woman. He looks for her every night, smiling whenever he spots her. Finally he draws up the courage to enter the studio. But before he does, he glances in all directions, as though he were stealing into a brothel.
Shohei signs up for dance lessons but is far too embarrassed to tell Masako about them, let alone invite her to participate. All the middle-aged men taking lessons are ashamed about this yearning to step outside themselves -- both literally and figuratively.
As Mr. Aoki, one of his co-workers and a furtive dancer himself, admonishes Shohei: "Remember, it's a secret. Imagine the office gossip!" When the two men are caught embracing in the bathroom at work as they practice a dance step Mr. Aoki hilariously acts as though he's fainted to cover for them.
The scenes of the dance lessons are both amusing and touching. At first, Shohei's arms and legs seem like foreign objects only tenuously under his control. They keep doing the wrong thing, like attacking his partners' shins, and he watches his feet like a guard over prisoners who might bolt at any time. Gradually, though, he starts to get the steps. As he does, his struggle with his body ceases.
For Shohei and everyone else in the studio, the dancing gives them the freedom to enjoy themselves, something they assiduously avoid elsewhere. Even at the studio, Mr. Aoki, the most entertaining of the secondary characters, finds it necessary to disguise himself under a foppish black wig and glittery vest as he dances a lusty rumba.
Shohei's motive in taking the lessons is to meet the woman in the window, whose name is Mai (Tamiyo Kusakari). But Mai gives private instruction, and Shohei can only afford group lessons from a middle-aged teacher.
After Mai spurns Shohei, his reason for taking the lessons disappears, but he continues anyway, and that's when he awakens to dancing's truest pleasures. As he does, Mai finds herself moved and changed in unexpected ways.
"Shall We Dance?" is not a conventional love story. Shohei's relationship with Mai is ambiguous and chaste. What he's after is exultation, and he gains it. When his wife uncovers his secret, she finds her fears realized, but in a most surprising form. "Even if it was just dancing," she tells Shohei, "it was an affair." But it's an affair that will redeem their relationship.
Suo gently prods the film toward a climactic dance competition, but, to his credit, "Shall We Dance?" avoids anything resembling Rocky-like schmaltz. It's pleasure that's missing in Japanese life, Suo is saying, not victory. Occasionally Suo does too much thinking for his audience, but his story is heartening and affirming. "Shall We Dance? will leave you feeling lighter on your feet.
"Shall We Dance?"
Starring Koji Yakusho, Tamiyo Kusakari, Naoto Takenaka and Eriko Watanabe
Directed by Masayuki Suo
Released by Miramax Films
Rated PG (mild profanity)
Pub Date: 7/25/97