Some context first… I recently chanced upon the news that Masayuki Suo’s Shall We Dance? Blu-ray has been released. I was childishly and deliriously excited and told my wife sitting next to me, not that she would bother anyway, or so I thought. I was surprised to see her eyes light up and her voice went up to a higher pitch. When your wife becomes a different person, you pay close attention. It turned out that she has actually seen this in 1996 at the cinema and she has a lot of pleasant memories of it. She shared with me that it was one of a few movies she saw at the cinema because for her in those years, watching a movie at the cinema is a luxury she couldn’t afford. She can count on the fingers of her two hands how many films she saw at the cinema before she knew me. That somehow made me feel so sad. She shared a lot more about the movie and what it meant for her but that’s only for me. I then asked her what are the other films she saw at the cinema before knowing me. She couldn’t recall them but she said it is not important because all the movies she saw then were when she was invited by friends. Only two she actually wanted to see on her own accord. Those two were Shall We Dance? and the other is also a Masayuki Suo crowd pleaser Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t, which is also one of my favourites.
Sugiyama lives a point A to point B life. After buying his dream house for the family, he has no more purpose in life. It all changed when one night in a train, he sees a lady standing by an open window of a dance studio across a station. He is captivated by her. Is it her beauty? Is it her melancholy? From that night onwards he longs to see her from the passing train.
If this is a Wong Kar-Wai movie, that scene will be the centre of the movie. He will love her from a distance because there’s nothing purer than that. But this is not his movie. Sugiyama ventures closer and closer to the dance studio and eventually learns dancing and finds his second wind.
It’s hard to explain why we love this so much, even much more than the Hollywood remake. I think one of the reasons is that the story and subject matter absolutely fits the strait-laced Japanese society. Ballroom dancing is frowned upon and it’s perceived as an embarrassing activity. I guess in some way it is the same here in Singapore because there are certain perceived ideas that connate with it. In a Western society, the story is not easy to pull off so powerfully.
We love how the film has a normal looking dude as its protagonist which makes it more believable. The Hollywood version has Richard Gere… I hardly think he projects an image of a man who lacks confidence and direction. More than anything, Gere sends out the vibe that he wants to get into Jennifer Lopez’s pants, probably not intentionally. The Japanese version never sends out that vibe. It is clear that Sugiyama feels repressed and the allure of what Mai represents is attractive to him.
The Japanese version has a lot of heart and sincerity. It doesn’t feel pretentious one single bit. The final denouement is delivered with restraint and it transcended the film to an almost heartachingly moving level. We also enjoyed listening to all the dancing instructions given to Sugiyama like the first step is the most important – he has to take the lead by taking an authoritative big stride. We can see all the metaphors for living one’s life. Life is indeed a dance.
Still a great movie after all these years!