Saturday, April 14, 2012

Day 360 - Shall We Dance?

Shall We Dance? (1996) directed by Masayuki Suo

"If you can walk you can dance. If you can talk you can sing."
- Zimbabwean proverb

Like 90% of all people, I am an awful at dancing, but like 90% of all people that doesn't mean I don't enjoy it when I do. We were all born to dance even though most of us don't realize it. We're often too far removed from our natural instincts and caught up in the every day routines of life. It is fitting that Shall We Dance? is set in Japan, a socially conservative society so focused on manners and etiquette that even standing on a dance floor can be a huge challenge. In the opening scene the narration states that even holding hands in public or spouses saying "I love you" is uncommon, so how can two people ever dance with each other? But this just isn't a Japanese phenomenon, it is universal. We've all been there before, standing on the sidelines watching others let loose, wondering why you can't do it yourself, too nervous or embarrassed to really enjoy life.

The main character is Mr. Sugiyama, married with a kid with a new house and a good job. He is living the life that he assumed he always wanted, yet he feels an emptiness deep inside. One night while riding the the train home he glances out the window and sees a beautiful woman standing alone at a window. She looks distinctly sad, lost in thought. The next night he sees her again at the same window with the same sad and lonely expression. It is an achingly beautiful scene of longing. Sugiyama decides to investigate further and finds out that the building is a dance studio that teaches ballroom dancing. Intrigued by the woman who is a teacher there he enters and before he knows it has signed up for classes. If he weren't already married this would be a good premise for a romantic comedy, a dance teacher and an uptight man who learns to let loose, but this film surprises by not really going that direction. But of course Sugiyama only signs up for lessons because of her, but he quickly realizes his place when a friendly offer of dinner is refused. The instructor, Mai, sternly warns him that she takes dance very seriously and if he's there only for her he should just quit. Embarrassed and determined to prove to her that isn't why, he begins to take dance seriously and finds out that he really enjoys it. But why is Mai so sad? Why does she hardly ever smile? What is her story? These are all questions that we slowly figure out, but it turns out that it is teaching Sugiyama that she begins to enjoy herself again as well.

Shall We Dance? is a warm and enchanting film about, well, a man learning to dance, but is deceptively more rich than its light hearted tone. This film could have very well been titled Shall We Paint? or Shall We Cook? Dancing is just the vehicle for Sugiyama to find an outlet for himself. The two lead characters are an intriguing pair because they are both looking to fill a void in their lives. This film could have been despairingly somber or over the top cheesy but thankfully it finds a nice medium. It is both sad and thoughtful and humorous and fun. A really good movie.

Grade: A-

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