Published August 1, 1997
Shall We Dance? by Masayuki Suo is a Japanese film with all the charm and delicacy of the best French movies. It surprises and delights with the subtlety of its observation and the skill of its construction, and it moved me deeply at several points. Koji Yakusyo stars as Mr Sugiyama, a rumpled and tired- looking middle-aged corporation man who notices the face of the lovely Mai (Tamiyo Kusakari) looking mournfully out the window of a dance studio every day on his evening commute. The sight of her becomes so powerful to him that he is drawn off his commuter train, in spite of a loving wife and daughter in the suburbs, and thence out of his boredom and discontent into the world of the dance.
The film explains to us that, in Japan, reticence about public touching between men and woman makes ballroom dancing something of a shameful secret, and Mr Sugiyama is shown nervously approaching the studio as if he were visiting a prostitute. Soon, however, he is caught up in the thrill of dancing, along with two fellow beginners, even more socially gauche than he is and a colleague at work who calls himself “Danny” Aoki (Naoto Takenaka) and sees himself as a dashing sort and specialist in the Latin American dances. Instead of Mai, who is a former Japanese champion and semi-finalist at the world championships of ballroom dancing in Blackpool, England, Mr Sugiyama’s teacher is Tamako Tamura (Reiko Kusamura) an angelic, Beatrice-like figure who seems to know just what everybody needs and arranges everybody’s life for the best.
Fortunately, this does not include an affair between Sugiyama and Mai, but something deeper in a way. She gives him special instruction so that he can take part in a competition — instruction which is as much in the art of living as it is in the art of dancing — and learns as much from him as he does from her. Along the way there are wonderfully constructed comic moments with the other two beginners, with Mr Aoki (who, like Mai and Sugiyama finds himself in the course of the film being educated out of his self-conceit), with the most prominent of their female partners, Toyoko Takahashi (Eriko Watanabe), and with two detectives hired by Mr Sugiyama’s wife to find out where he is going on Wednesday evenings — all of whom are splendidly realized characters.
The little touches that make this film so delightful move in pairs in a sort of cinematic dance of their own. So Mrs Sugiyama’s tentativeness and shame about approaching the private investigator are neatly symmetrical with her husband’s approach to the dance studio — which is the occasion of her investigation. Likewise, as Mai begins to be drawn back into life and real people from the disappointment which has produced her melancholy stare out of the window, she finds herself watching Mr Sugiyama on the station platform, practising his steps with an invisible partner, just as he used to watch her through the same window before he came inside. She must learn not to dance selfishly, to trust her partner to lead, just as he must learn to lead with boldness and purpose without sacrificing tenderness.
They learn these things from each other, but the benefits of what they have learned are destined in each case for somebody else. Thus, part of what makes for the emotional power of Shall We Dance? is that they are given one last dance to sum up the eternal poignancy of the might-have-been. It is a rather obvious device, but it points up the way in which the intersection of their lives has paradoxically enabled Sugiyama to give up the dancing and Mai to go on with it. They are travelling in opposite directions, but the loveliness of their moment together is thoroughly captured in the beauty of that dance, and in the closing images from the world ballroom dancing championships at Blackpool. This is a gorgeous little film, fully deserving of the highest accolade.