Shall We Dance?
Reviewed by Wen Qing
Director: Suo Masayuki
Writing Credits: Suo Masayuki
Cast : Yakusyo Koji, Kusakari Tamiyo, Tanakan Naoto, Watanabe Eriko
Year Released: 1996
Length : 136 minutes
Rating: **½ (out of four stars)
It's a wonder how a deceptively simple premise for a story line can lend to so much indulgence. Although Shall We Dance? has garnered 13 Nippon Academy Awards, I just didn't seem to like it very much. Writer and director Masayuki Suo, who gave us the successful Sumo Do, Sumo Don't tries very much to reproduce what I think he wants to be a fun, comic movie, but runs the film further than its subject matter can bear. At a lengthy 136 minutes, Shall We Dance? could have been far more enjoyable at about 90 minutes.
The film traces the efforts of ordinary businessman Syohei, who longs for something more inspiring than his workaday world. He wakes up at ungodly hours, cycles with a blank expression to the train station, has to work for the mortgage of his new house t o support his stereotypical one-dimensional wife and his daughter (who later grow a story of their own). The only thing that seems to appeal to him, is the routine longing gaze at a beautiful lady staring out of a window which overlooks one of the train s tops on his route home from work. It seems both are searching for something beyond their ordinary lives (so that's another two people with stories of their own).
Syohei goes to this building one day, and we realize the beautiful lady, Mai, is a dance instructor, and the room she looks out of a ballroom dancing class. Syohei decides to enrol based on the escapism Mai represents, but he is disappointed to find Mai w ill not accept his invitation to dinner. Worse, Mai expresses her disgust (aimed at him) of men who join the class to get close to her. Syohei decides that he will not quit, and takes a genuine interest in dancing. He becomes the partner of Toyoko (who al so has a story of her own, which we later have to endure) for the amateur dancing competition.
When Mai coaches them and sees their joy in dancing, she herself is brought to her senses. Mai rediscovers the joy of dancing and jettisons her emotional baggage about her failures at a prestigious Blackpool (in England, where some footage was shot, and where all those extra minutes also go) competition. Mai decides to go to England to relearn her love for dancing, to recapture the joy she lost sight of.
I have to say it again, the promise of the film seems hopeful, but Masayuki executes and delivers under par. Too much time is given to every single detail of the competitions, and the training (we normally expect the Rocky formula of music to snapshot pastiches of various sessions... but Masayuki won't have it), and too much time spent on too many characters flooding the screen with separate stories paralleling the main. In fact so much time is spent at practice that we only get to see an amateur competition by the end of the film, and Blackpool remains a blurry fuzz unrealised even though there is no end to talk about it.
We also only find out about Mai's past in a contrived cinematic device: a letter to Syohei (first time director Mel Gibson used this convenient device in Man Without a Face... but it wasn't a full-blown recollection, and Masayuki isn't a first-timer any more). The letter thanks him for the joy he took in dancing, wherein she explains everything, yes everything, about her initially cold exterior. It shifts between shots of her musing and silently dancing in the dance classroom, and her competition at Blackpool. It's a lot of data for a two-page letter, and it all comes at the tail end - the last 10 minutes! Perhaps it is a Japanese style of storytelling, to linger indulgently on tiny details and suddenly have to rush the bigger, juicier bits not tied up earlier?
Perhaps it is also within the Japanese style to have so many characters that few are developed beyond the peripheral, and so hover as indefinites. The clear sign of this is Syohei's wife, who suspects he may be having an affair while he is secretly at dance class. Although she hires herself a detective, she adds so little to the main plot that we see her a little in the beginning, find her conspicuously absent when Syohei is training, only for her to turn up unexpectedly at the dance competition - still one-dimensional. Why does Masayuki put us through watching every single agonizing round of the competition? Or the details of each visit of the characters to dance halls? Why linger on Mai from beginning to end, when we only find out what she's all about at the end? It makes her so shallow and superficial that even the revelation doesn't endear her to us.
And I have to say this... the comparison to Baz Luhrmann's Strictly Ballroom (1992) is inevitable. But where Strictly Ballroom is deliberately campy, Shall We Dance? topples over its attempts at mooting a similar point about the joy of dance, and all because it can't decide whether to be a comedy or a love story or a docudrama about dance... in trying to be all three, it succeeds in none.
Strictly Ballroom was riveting because of its efficient editing and experimental angles of filming, but I found most appealing the dance sequences to Cyndi Lauper's Time After Time. Shall We Dance? instead borrows stature from The King and I's "Shall We Dance" song and dance sequence as an inspiration, and in indulging in its own strenuous details, loses sight of it, allowing it to pop up in opportune moments only. In the end, if the message is that dance is a joy, one would be wiser to make it seem so - Shall We Dance? has a scattershot of attractive Blackpool sequences versus its own stars under fluorescent lights in a limited space... dancing isn't really fun after all. Neither is Shall We Dance?