Shall We Dance? (1996) sweeps self-expression of its feet

June 09, 2016
Shall We Dance movie review
Photo Credit: Shall We Dance / Toho
A middle-aged businessman Shohei Sugiyama is riding the train home one day from work. He's successful and has a loving family, but something is unsettled. He's resigned to spending his life paying off the house he just bought. As a business-person in Japan, life is centered on working and going home long enough to sleep, wake up and go back to work again. Hobbies, especially ones of self-expression in public is rare, if not entirely prohibited and frowned upon.

Looking up from the train window one evening, Sugiyama notices a woman Mai Kishikawa standing at a window of a dance studio. With every passing commute, he slowly gains the courage to go up to that studio with the intention of approaching the mystery lady for a coffee or something more, we're not quite sure. Intuitively aware of his intentions and facing her own issues with dance as a failed ballroom competitor, she adverts his advances but Sugiyama ends up taking dance lessons anyways with her fellow teachers.

At first, it's easy to believe that the movie will enter another Middle Age Man Has An Affair territory. But Sugiyama's attempt to meet or engage with Kishikawa grows into another kind of relationship: one to express himself in a society that doesn't necessarily recognize individuality.

In Japanese culture, it is considered embarrassing to participate in Western ballroom dance. Something as simple as public affection is considered scandalous, but the intimate proximity of the Tango and Waltz is infinitely more taboo. The outside world forces Sugiyama to hide his dance lessons not only from his wife but also friends and colleagues. For a while, his immediate world is not ready to meet up with his hobby, but he also can't forfeit a passion that gives his mind and body a connection to another source of focus besides work.

Dance is more than the steps. Feel the music and dance for sheer joy.
Director Masayuki Suo's Shall We Dance? gives viewers a peek into how intimacy plays a role at large and letting it unravel during Sugiyama's late-night lessons. The studio itself is an underground of meet-ups, yet an exuberant test of wills to release their worries and a certain sense of repression. Aside from Sugiyama, other pupils find a way to nurture self-confidence through dance, and it's hard not to feel swept away by all of them. He offers so much vigor and enthusiasm through the personalities Sugiyama encounters and becomes friends with, you feel like you're in on their little secret which grows more and more complicated.

It's difficult to shine a light on the performances in general because they are all outstanding. However, Kōji Yakusho in particular, as Sugiyama, gives a beautiful performance. Even though his character steps out of bounds of what society expects from him, ultimately his and his family's notions about connection change. He carries the movie with such an enigmatic grace. It's hard not to just fall in love with him by cueing in on his emotions and thoughts, and wanting to see him succeed on the dance floor.

While the story might not seem as different as many others, Suo's film about going against the grain is truly touching. Dance is a universal language and so is the drive or want to tend to parts of ourselves we didn't know needed fulfillment. His film is slow and steady filled with romance and charm. At the Japanese equivalent of 'Academy Awards' it won every award it was eligible to win: fourteen, in fact, including Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director. Shall We Dance? Yes, lets.

Rating: ★★★
Have you seen Shall We Dance? What are your thoughts?

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