There's something about Japanese depression that feels so specific. A 40-something accountant, Shohei Sugiyama (Koji Yakusyo, the intense star of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Cure), has a high-paying job, a house in the suburbs, and a happy middle-class wife and child. But in his attainment of those yuppie dreams, all the joy and mystery has gone out of his life. One fateful night, riding the train home from work, he sees a beautiful woman staring out the window of a ballroom dance studio. Perhaps intrigued by her look, he ventures into the dance studio.
This quiet, buttoned-down man signs up for dancing lessons, which in Japanese culture is highly suspect. It becomes a guilty secret that he keeps from his wife and child, attracted to the rush of feeling that accompanies ballroom dance. Though initially drawn by the woman (Tamiyo Kusakari), who becomes his instructor, Sugiyama and his equally uncoordinated businessmen-by-day/dancers-by-night classmates are quickly swept up in the magic of the fox trot, the cha cha, the rumba, and, of course, classy ballroom.
Told with unpretentious ease, in a highly conventional format of wide shots and revealing close-ups, Shall We Dance? is clearly a mainstream entertainment about an ordinary guy who, by taking his chance, learns a little about himself and helps his embittered, old-before-her-time dance instructor get her groove back. It also offers terribly obvious but endearing subplots about the overweight dancer who finds dignity and grace; and the mild-mannered accountant who turns into a hot Latin lover on the dance floor.
Miramax snatched up the rights and had a pretty successful independent hit on their hands; a movie that easily moves towards its inevitable points of crisis (between husband and wife, most acutely) and happy ending resolution. The entire charm of the movie lies in its study of Japanese repression: Will the hero loosen up, and will he come to accept that he can find the balance between his newfound freedom and his protective home and work life? Shall We Dance? achieves its sentimental effects through Screenwriting 101, yet its theme is so sweet, honest, and distinctive in its foreign character that you submit to its contrivances. When done well, the audience will follow the filmmakers down the path most traveled, as long as it's handled with intelligence, sensitivity, and grace.
Miramax and Harvey Weinstein aren't known for their consistent sensitivity and grace, and their intelligence is clearly thrown into question when they remade Shall We Dance? as a vehicle for Richard Gere (as the accountant), Jennifer Lopez (as his hot teacher), and Susan Sarandon (as his loyal wife). To compare the misguided casting of middle-aged stud Gere with the subtle Koji Yakusho makes a fine starting point: the Japanese actor allows himself to look like a carefully controlled man trying to learn how to free himself through dance, doing the best he can, but showing his humanity through the strenuous effort, physically and emotionally.
Gere has the unfortunate effect of seeming like a playboy, bumping and grinding with Jennifer Lopez as a way of vicarious sexual release in the midst of a humdrum marriage. And there's something about sitcom-friendly Americans giving over to the dance that lacks the necessary added layer of being about the repression of Japanese middle-class life. Miramax didn't care, figuring they'd cash in easy. But we'd already had a solid mainstream effort in the original film, and hopefully DVD audiences with discriminating taste won't trouble themselves with the American leftovers. Harvey, get stuffed!
Aka Shall We Dansu?