Shall We Dance? (1996)

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 that he will spend his days paying off the house he just bought. But life in Japan for Sugiyama is to go to work, go home, and repeat.

Looking up from the train window one evening, he notices a woman Mai Kishikawa standing at a window of a dance studio. With every train ride he takes home, slowly he gets the courage to go up to that dance studio with the intention of approaching the mystery lady. Through misunderstandings, he ends up taking dance lessons, not even by the woman who captured his attention but other teachers.

At first, it's easy to believe that the movie will enter another Middle Age Man Has An Affair territory. Sugiyama's attempt to meet or engage with Kishikawa grows into another kind of affair: an activity 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.

Kōji Yakusho, as Sugiyama, gives a beautiful performance. I didn't really want to single out one actor but since he leads the film, Yakusho is a definite highlight. Even though he steps out of bounds of what society expects from him ultimately his and his family's notions about connection change. Yakusho's behavior and mannerisms are entirely humble and subtle. It's hard not to just fall in love with him but also clue in on his emotions and thoughts. He gives one heck of a lovely performance.

While the story might not seem as different as many other films, 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 needing fulfillment. His film is slow and steady, filled with romance and charm. At the Japanese 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.

P.S. I haven't watched nor really intend to watch the Richard Gere/Jennifer Lopez remake. My opposition is nothing against the cast, but I just don't think it's good to mess with perfection.

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

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