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Salt Lake City Weekly Shall We Dance?

This Japanese film will leave you light as air as you waltz out of the theater.

By Mary Dickson

AUGUST 18, 1997:  Another excellent foreign film that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, this delightful Japanese comedy is pure charm. Think of Shall We Dance? as Strictly Ballroom, Japanese-style.

Masayuki Suo's delightful confection won all 13 Japanese Academy Awards, a well-deserved honor. Koji Yakusyo plays Shohei Sugiyama, a serious and hardworking 42-year-old businessman who, after buying a house for his wife and daughter, feels that life is passing him by. As he rides the subway home each night, he notices a beautiful woman staring forlornly out of the window of a dance studio. He becomes obsessed by her and signs up for dance lessons in the hope of dancing with her. But Mai (Tamiyo Kusakari) is a serious ballroom dancer who puts him in a group class for beginners instead of taking him as a private student. She tells him bluntly not to dance if he's just there after her.

Not wanting Mai to think that he only signed up for classes in hopes of meeting her, he sticks with the lessons taught by a chatty older woman. Soon, however, he grows to genuinely love dancing. In it he finds the freedom and abandon he's been missing in his highly regimented life.

Suo's dance school characters are wonderfully comic: There's Mr. Aoki, the odd little businessman from Shohei's office, who dons a long-haired wig and flashy costumes to transform himself into a Latino dance fiend named "Donny Aoki;" there's the fat guy with diabetes whose doctor suggested dance as a good form of exercise; and the awkward little duck whose wife wants him to dance. Toyoko, the middle-aged teacher getting a little thick around the middle, is determined to find a partner for competitions. Her students take dance lessons in secret because, as one fellow says, "People think dancing is just for losers."

The cast has a natural gift for physical comedy, which director/writer Suo handles perfectly. The expression on Aoki's face as he hams it up in class is worth the price of admission alone. These middle-aged man and women may look foolish out there, but the dance transports them. Soon, even the staid Shohei is conscious of every footstep, moving his feet at his desk and on the subway, or dancing gracefully in the moonlight under a viaduct. "I never thought I'd be in this deep," he confesses to Aoki. He has learned that dance is more than just the steps — it's feeling the music and dancing for the sheer joy of dancing.

Shall We Dance?
Step to this: Koji Yakusyo in Masauki Suo's Shall We Dance?
Directed by
Masayuki Suo
Koji Yakusyo
Tamiyo Kusakari
As the fat boy says, "All my cares are gone, like being drunk." For all of them, the dance class is a great escape from otherwise mundane lives.

When Shohei agrees to be the demanding Toyoko's partner for an upcoming competition, the lovely Mai becomes their rehearsal coach. Not only does something happen to Shohei — he feels alive again — but something changes in Mai as well. Coaching these two dancers gives her the will to compete again herself. Once one of Japan's finest ballroom dancers, her father has insisted she teach amateurs at his school to rediscover the joy of dancing. Now, thanks to her students, she's ready to again immerse herself in her dance.

Shohei's poignant confession to Mai after one rehearsal is the heart of the film. He shyly admits that he worked too hard and thought he had a happy life. But after he bought his house, he only had to work harder and his comfortable life felt hollow. When he saw Mai, he wanted nothing more than to dance with her, just one time.

He kept dancing to prove to her that her accusations were wrong, but then he really began to like it. Mai admits she was watching him, too. His love of dance inspired her.

In the meantime, Shohei's wife is growing suspicious of her husband's night-time absences and his greatly improved attitude. When she discovers that it's a dance class and not a lover that has brought her husband to life, she feels left out. Mai's line that she had always danced alone, never trusting her partner, has a poignant resonance for Shohei. The same could be said of him and his wife. They danced alone, never trusting each other. Ballroom dancing becomes a metaphor for their marriage.

Suo's film has so many wonderful scenes it's hard to recount them all. When Shohei takes his wife in his arms and tries to teach her a few steps in their front yard, it's truly a transcendent moment. The Japanese may not be big on sentimentality, but Suo's touching film does has an honest sentiment conveyed with great warmth and heart. Shall We Dance? is the kind of film that leaves you feeling light as air when you waltz out of the theater. It's a charmer not to be missed.

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