Before I begin talking about this month’s film, I’d like to congratulate the new owners of Crawford Bay Video, Theresa and Lorne, and wish them the best of luck. Knowing how hectic such entrepreneurial transitions can be, it also occurred to me that the former owners might have forgotten to mention C.B. Video’s long-standing, hugely generous policy of fully subsidizing this humble reviewer’s attendance at the annual Toronto and Sundance Film Festivals. I’m sure Lorne and Theresa would eventually discover some record of this munificent philanthropy in the C.B. Video’s financial records, but with this gentle reminder I can perhaps save them the embarrassment of acting too late to book my usual first-class hotel suites and airline seats. I realize that the week-long hospitality room and personal cordon bleu chef could seem a bit of an extravagance, but we all know how important it is to make the right contacts to ensure that Seldom Scene continues to unearth neglected cinematic gems. Without those champagne chats with Francis and Michael and Meryl and Al and Clint and Marlon, this column would surely be but a pale shadow of itself. Don’t let a good tradition die.
On to the business at hand: Director Masayuki Suo’s Shall We Dansu? (1996) isn’t a pale shadow of anything. This is a gentle-hearted film that makes the word “whimsical” a badge of honour. Shall We Dansu? (no typo, just Japanese pronunciation) is another culture’s unique version of the Marilyn Monroe-Tom Ewell comedy, The Seven Year Itch. Like the Tom Ewell character, the star of Shall We Dansu?, Shohei Sugiyama (Koji Yakusho), is a happily-married, successful businessman who has an encounter with an extraordinary woman who turns his life upside down. Unlike Ewell’s character, however, Yakusho’s has a great deal of dignity.
Shohei is a model employee and husband. He actually comes home to his family after work rather than indulging in the almost obligatory after-hours camaraderie of barhopping and karaoke. His wife loves him for it. His teen-aged daughter respects him.
Suddenly he doesn’t see the point of it all. He’s not having a whole lot of fun. Even his wife worries that he’s gotten too serious. So what if he’s the perfect role-model? What do you do after you’ve become everything you should be? If this were a more cynical film, the answer would be the prurient goings-on in Sam Rainey’s recent American Beauty. Although Shohei’s motives aren’t exactly pure, he finds a nobler calling.
Returning home from work one day, half-asleep and leaning against the train window, he sees a slender, melancholy young woman (Mai, played by Tamiyo Kusakari, a famous Japanese ballerina) gazing out the fourth-story window of a nondescript building by the railroad tracks. That combined vision of beauty and sadness touches him and haunts him. Whatever she’s looking for as she stares out into the night has a sudden, desperate echo in his own heart. They’ve both lost or are missing something. The center to their lives seems to have disappeared.
On the part of Shohei, there’s an obvious sexual attraction—middle-aged man infatuated by mysterious young beauty. There’s also a uniquely non-Western titillation: the young woman works as an instructor in a ballroom dancing class. As is made clear at the beginning of the film, the Japanese are scandalized by overly public shows of affection. Ballroom dancing, with its bodies locked together in passionate tangos and rhumbas, has an unseemly reputation. One enters such a dance studio in Japan like one might slink into Floyd’s Sex-0-Rama on the wrong end of Vancouver’s Granville Street. It’s wonderful watching Shohei wrestle with his conscience as he works himself up to actually signing up for dance lessons. All of a sudden, he’s got a shameful, secret life.
The other students in the dance academy represent the typical kind of motley crew that gives any good comedy its flavoring. There’s the overweight, timid, very sweaty young man who reveals himself to be a fine dancer; a slender, much-maligned fellow-employee of Shohei’s who, Zorro-like, masquerades in fake long black hair as Latin dance floor dynamo
”Danny” Aoki; an obnoxious know-it-all; and a slightly overripe, aggressively loud single mom who, naturally, becomes Shohei’s main dance partner. Mai remains aloof and distant, giving private dance lessons to other middle-aged businessmen, with all the warmth of a steel knife.
After a few, awkward lessons (Shohei doesn’t have two left feet, but he’s no Fred Astaire), Shohei works up the nerve to ask Mai out for a cup of coffee. She cuts him dead, telling him curtly that she never has any personal contact with students, and that if she’s the only reason he’s at the studio he should get a life. So much for fantasy. Why bother continuing on with the charade of lessons?
Surprise! Dance is addictive. Shohei is hooked. His whole life he’s tried to do things well. Model employee. Model family man. That was doing things well for other people. Now he has something he wants to do well for himself. A hidden talent. A passion. Not the one that caught him when he saw Mai in the window, but a powerful one nonetheless. He finds himself shuffling his new dancing shoes under his desk at work; he stops off late at night to practice steps under the train station overpass; he starts hanging out at a dance club on weekends. An older teacher at the school takes him under her wing, recognizing his dedication. He doesn’t realize how much he’s been bitten by this new bug until his co-worker, Aoki, tells him that the true devotees are always the last to see how dance has infiltrated their lives. Aoki himself, completely unconsciously, maneuvers his way around the office like Valentino.
Unfortunately, Shohei fails to share his new passion with his family. His failure to communicate is inexcusable. Wife and daughter haven’t a clue what’s going on. Shohei suddenly seems more alive, but he’s now home late at night and he vanishes on weekends. His wife naturally assumes the worst: their marriage has faded and he’s taken a lover. She hires a gruff private eye to confirm her fears (this being a comedy, you know poor sap is going end up with the dance bug himself). When she learns that her husband isn’t cheating on her, she’s hurt even more. An affair might be just sex; the dancing seems to be a whole life that excludes her and their daughter.
Things come to a head when Shohei catches his family watching him at a ballroom dance competition. He realizes how much of a jerk he’s been. Then he does something even more stupid. He stops dancing and tries to go back to his old life. He thinks that’s the way to save his family. As if. It takes him a while to realize that the greatest thing about ballroom dancing is that it’s not about one person. Such passions are made to be shared. For such a gentle film, Shall We Dansu? had an amazing impact in Japan. It won the equivalent of 13 Japanese Oscars. Sometimes it just feels good to wear your heart on your sleeve.
And, ummm, Theresa and Lorne, did I mention the complementary subscriptions to Film Quarterly and Cahiers du Cinema?
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
I don’t have a lot to add about this one. I liked it then, and I like it now. This time around, I was particularly moved by the heart-wrenching mutual confessions of Sugiyama and Kishikawa, by Sugiyama’s wife’s desperation as she feels herself cut off from whatever is bringing her husband joy, and the heart-on-the-sole-of-his-shoes craziness of the (almost) irrepressible Mr. Aoki. The ending of the film is unusually open-ended. We hope things will work out for all the characters we’ve followed, yet there are no guarantees. Perhaps that’s why a touch of sadness lingers. Shall We Dance? won 14 awards at the Japanese Academy Awards, every single award it was eligible to win. How often does that happen?
Watching Shall We Dance? again reminded me of a visit to a tango studio in Montreal, and watching couples come in from the street carrying their dancing shoes in cloth bags. No tangos for me—I have three left feet. I also recalled watching Ballroom Dancing competitions on PBS over several years, totally caught up in the costumes, the sexiness, the panache, the grace & artistry. I suppose there is a world of remarkable ballroom performances on the internet these days. Maybe it’s time to dive back into that gorgeous world for a while. Dance memories take me right back to high school, where we had two sets of gym classes in grade 11 or 12. The cool kids, the athletes, got to do ballroom dancing; the rest of us got to square dance. Not that square dancing wasn’t fun, but it somehow seemed unfair that there should be a kind of caste system in gym class. The scene in Shall We Dance? where a frustrated dancer does a double-barrelled take-down on her hapless partner also hit home a little. I can still recall a scene at one of my junior high dances, where a girl’s caustic remarks about a boy’s dancing almost literally cut him off at the knees.
I confess that I’ve never watched the 2004 remake of the film, starring Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, and Jennifer Lopez. I suppose I should, rather than just assume it’s going to be a let-down. Experience tells me that I have reason to dread seeing yet another botched re-make of a good thing, but there are exceptions to every rule. The casting certainly isn’t weak. And Roger Ebert did give it three stars. I’ll have to see if I can track down a copy…..
The director of Shall We Dance?, Masayuki Suo, has only made a dozen films over the past 36 years. I haven’t seen any of his other work. I’m going to check out Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t (Shiko Funjatta), a college-sumo comedy from 1992. It’s currently available on YouTube. Suo’s latest film came out in 2019. Dance’s lead actor Koji Yakusho, has had a solid career, with almost a hundred acting credits on Imdb. He’s still making films in 2020. Tamiyo Kusakari, whose alluring melancholy would not be out of place in some high Arthurian fable or heroic poem, has made only a handful of feature films, but has starred in several TV series on Japanese television and is also still working in 2020.