This is a sweet, sad, innocent tale with a big message, and it is absolutely charming.
"Shall We Dance?" may spring from a culture alien to Americans, but its theme is engagingly universal. The movie deals with one of those involuntary moments that change our lives, when chemistry unbidden obliterates everything that just a few minutes ago was the stuff of everyday life. Whether or not we respond to the epiphany is up to us, but there is nothing we can do about the way it makes us feel.
Shohei Sugiyama (Koji Yakusho) is a contentedly married suburban commuter who sees, from his seat on the train, a beautiful woman standing in a second-floor window. His heart rises up in his chest; he is in love with the idea of her. He watches her each night until finally he gets off the train and discovers she is a teacher in a ballroom dancing school.
Sugiyama enrolls for lessons, meets Mai (Tamiyo Kusakari), and is shortly engulfed by passion not for Mai but for dancing. In a country where intuitive communication is prized above expressed emotion, ballroom dancing is a physical act between men and women that is somewhere beyond embarrassment. This is a secret to be kept from his family.
Smiling now at passersby from his bike, dancing in the rain under a bridge, Sugiyama begins to dance his way through life. Mai, whose professional career ended with an accident that has mired her in melancholy, sees that Sugiyama has become a serious student and begins to coach him for a dance contest.
As the beautiful Mai, Tamiyo Kusakari lets us know that she is not the goddess in the window but a sad young woman who needs to rediscover her own joy. Koji Yakusho conveys with few words the deep introspection of a man who has what he is supposed to have and yet is still filled with longing.
Beguiling in his determination, the awkward accountant is transformed by passion. He has tasted the joy that can transform his life. When, at last, he shares his secret with his wife, she sees and understands. In their new honesty with each other, Sugiyama transcends his guilt and can now dance openly in public.
Because the hunger for joy is universal, an American watching a Japanese can be empathetic and at the same time riveted by the ramifications of ballroom dancing in a culture that disapproves of any public display of emotion. How moving it is, in any culture, to watch a shy man decide to fly free of the dictates that surround him. Along with legions of 40-year-olds, he has answered the question, Is this all there is?
The question, "Shall We Dance?" is writer/director Masayuki Suo's metaphorical invitation to Japanese to welcome change in their lives, to try the unknown, to consider answering yes to that question whenever life becomes mundane. This is a sweet, sad, innocent tale with a big message, and it is absolutely charming.
Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 491
Studio : Miramax
Rating : PG
Running Time: 1h57m
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