Sugiyama is a glum, poker-faced office drone who drags himself home every night on the train feeling like he’s accomplished absolutely nothing. His wife and daughter barely see him—in fact, his co-workers barely see him, either—and there isn’t anything in his life aside from his job and his meager contact with his family. One night he’s peering out the train window at one of the stops when he sees a woman standing in the window of a ballroom dance studio, and just like that he’s hit with the mad urge to find out more about her.
Her name is Mai, and she is one of the three dance instructors at the ballroom, the other two being a grandmotherly type and a stout and somewhat sarcastic veteran. Sugiyama isn’t even sure he’s interested in learning how to dance per se, but at this point in his life he’s so desiccated by boredom it takes very little temptation to get him interested. And soon he’s stopping off one night a week to learn how to rumba, foxtrot, tango and cha-cha, putting a spark into his step that everyone around him can’t help but notice. Is he having an affair, or is he just really living for the first time?
Shall We dansu? isn’t so much about dancing as it is about transcending social norms, about becoming a butterfly in a world of cocoons. Japan is the perfect setting for a story like this—where kissing one’s wife in public is frowned upon and even something as harmless as ballroom dancing is somehow charged with the aura of being taboo. That doesn’t stop people from surreptitiously learning about it, of course, whether out of curiosity or a sense that something is dreadfully missing from their lives. That sense of the taboo goes double for women, too, and it’s no coincidence that three of the major characters are like embodiments of the only ways women can theoretically exist in Japan: as unmarried young women, as bitchy hags, or as grandmotherly crones. But get them on the dance floor, the movie argues, and they can all be great.
Fascinated as Sugiyama is by Mai—or, more likely, by what she represents—he’s still a responsible adult. He has a mortgage to pay, and a job to do, and he still troops on home after his Wednesday-night classes at the dance studio, albeit with more of a spring in his step than before. It’s such a startling psychic makeover that his wife worries, and after smelling perfume on his shirt, she goes to a private detective. He, experienced in being both a detective and a grown man, tells her not to worry. And it comes as no small relief to his comely young instructor that he’s not interested in sex, just … happiness. Being able to dance is, in the words of his co-student, “better than being drunk” (no small confession in a world where getting drunk is the salaryman’s one big release from tension).
Sugiyama is played by Koji Yakusho, one of Japan’s most dependable and visible character actors. I’ve encountered him most often in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s movies (Doppelganger, Charisma, etc.), where he usually plays a cipherish Everyman caught in outlandish circumstances. In dansu? he draws on the same withdrawn, poker-faced acting, at least at first, to give us someone who is starving to death spiritually and barely notices it. It’s a shock to even see him smile for the first time, and I think that was precisely the idea. He also gives a quiet monologue, late in the film, when he tells Mai how he’s worked so hard for everything he has, and how he thought he was happy, but the one person he’s never really been able to please through all of that was himself. And yes, it’s been a long time since she felt that enthusiastic about dancing, too. It’s not love, but a kind of renewal of the spirit, which is just as invigorating.
Sugiyama has two classmates—one a co-worker, Aoki (Naoto Takenata), and the other a dumpy man who makes up in cheer and vigor what he lacks in talent and grace. Aoki fancies himself a transplanted Latin Lover type, garbing himself in a ridiculous black wig and loud outfits. He has two scenes of physical comedy that are the very funniest moments in the whole film, one involving a misunderstanding in a lavatory and the other a running joke about the fact that his dance steps have given even his walking gait a good deal of extra discipline. At first he sees Sugiyama as nothing but competition, but eventually caves in and starts giving him pointers (which is where the lavatory scene comes in, actually).
The gentle, low-key charm of the movie is part of why it works. This isn’t a story that needs big laughs to make its point, or big plot developments, either. By the time we get to the climactic dance contest, it’s almost an afterthought—although there are some great laughs to be had there, too, as when the private detective and his assistant sit in on the action and criticize everyone’s moves. Sugiyama has learned to smell the roses, however briefly, where so many of his cronies seem willing to simply admire them and walk on. The director, Masayuki Suo, was also responsible for the charming Sumo Do, Sumo Don't and the scathing Hentai kazoku (aka Abnormal Family), but dansu? appears to have been his last effort as a director, and it's a shame: I would have liked seeing the same low-key charm at work again.
Like many recent Asian cinematic success stories (Ringu, Dark Water, etc.), dansu? ended up becoming fodder for an American remake. Richard Gere and Jennnifer Lopez starred, and it was an affable enough romantic comedy, but the most interesting part of the movie—the tension between Sugiyama and the society that quietly frowns on his attempts to be happy—evaporated when the locale was changed to the United States. In that, I think, is one of the main criticisms about all such remakes. It’s like what happens when you bring Guinness out of Ireland: everything that made it special just isn’t there anymore. But the original still shines quite brightly.
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