SHALL WE DANCE? (1996)
Sugiyama (Koji Yakusho, who may be recognized from his many roles in Kyoshi Kurasawa's recent horror films) is a salaryman who is dedicated to the ideals of Japanese society - career, family, material wealth - even at the cost of his own happiness. Every evening during his long commute, he sees a woman staring out a window of a dance studio. He feels drawn to her, and eventually makes the fateful decision to go to the dance studio.
Sugiyama, while devoted to his wife and daughter, feels a pull to meet Mai. And while at first his only intention was to see her, Sugiyama slowly succumbs to the joys of dancing. But Sugiyama is ashamed of his newfound love and hobby, and keeps it secret from his family and co-workers, save for Aoki, who he discovers is also a student at the studio. As an amateur dance competition grows near, Sugiyama doubles his efforts to perfect his steps in order to compete. The joy he finds in dancing helps Mai, who has become jaded to dancing to rediscover her passion for the art form as well. Meanwhile, Sugiyama's wife, who has noticed Sugiyama's aura of happiness, believes he is having an affair, and turns to an investigator to follow him.
Japan is a very morally and socially conservative nation, despite the opposite inclinations their entertainment exports may exude. Even social dancing, which is their catch-all term for ballroom and modern dance styles, is looked upon with distaste, and is believed to only be a hunting ground for lechers and perverts. Within the context of the film, social dancing becomes the stand-in variable for all activities and hobbies in Japan that are seen as less-than-fitting for the common Japanese man.
The common Japanese man. Here, the character Sugiyama practically embodies all of modern Japan and more importantly is a dissection of the salaryman (a term bestowed upon the rat-racing middle-management white-collar worker) who does everything that he is supposed and expected to do. Deviation from his strict daily routines are not tolerated and even personal enjoyment is basically out of the question. When he discovers dancing, he must hide this very personal part of him, while still dedicating himself to the learned steps and styles, as if it were an important skill.
Despite the social context that drifts along the entire storyline throughout the picture, at its heart it is a comedy, and goes to great lengths to keep a smile on your face. The supporting characters, who much like Sugiyama go through their own dynamic transitions in discovering themselves, provide some fantastic comedic moments. At the forefront of these is Aoki, Sugiyama's co-worker who also dances with him. He is obsessed with Latin style dancing, and can only dance when he has a chin-length wavy wig covering his otherwise shaved head. Much like Samson, he is powerless without his hair. Aoki also provides some philosophical advice and thoughts on what dancing means, which helps Sugiyama truly appreciate what he has discovered.
Masayuki Sao, the director and writer of the movie, treats his film very much like a long dance number accompanied by multi-tempo song. There are quick-steps, long sweeping movements, a climactic build-up, and a drawn out denouement. Sao's camerawork is very fluid and always seems to be moving around the action, pausing just enough to note the "dance move" just performed before moving on to the next. The entire production seems to be a very personal piece, drawn as much from Japanese culture in general as much as he draws from his own personal views of modern Japan.
Although the full version of the film which runs 136 minutes (there is an shortened version provided by Miramax, of course) may seem a little long and slow-paced for American audiences, Japanese audiences fully embraced this made-for-television film upon its broadcast. Critics also praised the movie, and it wound up completely dominating the Japanese Academy Awards in 1997, taking home all of the major categories with fourteen wins in all! It is really a wonderful film that much like a musical piece can be interpreted and examined in several ways based on the individual's experiences, and enjoyed by anyone with a melody in their heart that they must dance to.