Shall We Dance? is both a question that has resonated throughout musical and film history, as well as the title of a 1996 Japanese film centered around ballroom dancing. The title, as you’ve probably guessed, refers to the incredibly energetic scene from The King and I, in which Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr waltz around a massive ballroom, flawlessly displaying one of the best dances committed to film. The passion and exhilaration of that one dance is enough to spur anyone on to imitate such actions in their own living room. In recent years there has been a resurgent popularity in the “dance film” genre. The Step Up franchise in particular has brought dancing back to the screen, showing talented young people perform amazing feats. However, these films are little more than a showcase for the dance moves,often times leaving story and character development to the wayside. This is certainly not the case with this film.
Shall We Dance? Is just as much about the Japanese social culture as it is about dancing. In an opening monologue it is explained that dancing is socially embarrassing to do in public with your wife, and even more embarrassing with someone that is not. Shortly after this we meet our protagonist, Mr. Sugiyama, a business man with a wife and a teenaged daughter. His life is ruled by routine. He sees a woman in a window of a dance studio on the train ride home, and eventually builds the nerve to visit the studio where he promptly gets talked into joining the class. He, along with a small group of beginners are taught the basics of ballroom dancing. As the film progresses, everyone in the class becomes quite good, to the point where they are entering competitions. What started as a moment of infatuated weakness with another woman, turns quickly into a passion for a socially embarrassing hobby.
Ballroom dancing is an expression of a passion that all the characters seem to be lacking. The beginners start the class nervous and unsure of themselves. The dancing, though initially stiff, becomes excellent and exciting to watch. It is not, however, the only aspect of the film that is interesting. What we’re treated to with this movie is a charming comedy/drama about Japanese culture, love, trust, friendship, self confidence and forgiveness. To me, the most interesting and engaging aspect of the drama is the relationship between Sugiyama and his wife. She wants so much for him to be happy, encouraging him to go out and have fun. When he finally starts to take secret dance lessons she begins to suspect and affair. Her longing to be a part of his life, and their lack of communication leads to an eventual confrontation that, facilitated by their teenaged daughter, leads to a loving resolve of a complicated and heated issue.
The film is chalk full of some of the funniest and likeable characters you’ll see in a dance movie. Each suffers from some sort of self esteem issue that makes them very relate-able. The embarrassing nature of taking dance lessons is familiar to anyone that has attempted to try something new with no prior experience. It can be the most terrifying thing in the the world, expressing yourself in such a public manner, but it can also be the most rewarding thing in the world. The film delves into the priorities of the characters as well, they are forced to deal with family and professional lives as well as their new hobby of moonlighting as ballroom dancers. These themes are handled in a manner that is both intriguing to the audience and true to the feelings of all parties involved.
Shall We Dance? is, for lack of a better word; charming. It’s an incredibly sweet film that shows the hiccups of daily life and routine paralleled with the intricate art of dancing. If one area of life is neglected it effects the whole. If Mr. Sugiyama keeps his family in the dark, he’s headed for a collision, in the same way that if he missteps just once on the dance floor, he risks colliding with another couple. Familiar ballroom music pervades our ears as we watch graceful dance routines weave their way through this heartwarming drama.