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Sure-Footed 'Shall We Dance?'

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 18, 1997

When the music starts most people’s toes begin to tap. The trouble comes between those who keep the tapping trapped at the toes and those who let it spread through the whole body -- it’s called dancing, and you who do it, I believe, have a different genetic system than we who do not.

On that fault line, exactly, is "Shall We Dance" situated, but with an additional degree of difficulty added: The man who wants to dance but can’t is not only middle-class, middle-aged, repressed, shy and full of body-shame, but he’s also Japanese, and formed by one of the most rigid of social codes.

So while it’s a charmer about one guy who manages to fight his way out of his bind and let his inner Fred pirouette across the dance floor, the film is also a story of a man struggling for some kind of liberation against a system that sees him merely as a cog in a big machine.

Mr. Sugiyama (Kogi Yakusho, familiar from "Tampopo") is a "salary-man," a white collar worker for whom the day is one long and grinding ordeal supervising an accounting department, sandwiched between long commutes in from and out to the suburbs, the usual 6-10 (a.m. to p.m.) job. He has a marriage that feels more like a duty than a union. Like oh so many human beings in that circumstance, he has begun to ask himself the most dangerous question: Is this all there is? Is this it?

One night, at a train stop, he looks up to see a ballroom dance school and in its window, for just a fleeting fraction of a second, the face of a young woman. His heart experiences the big one, and from that moment on, he knows he must dance.

But in an American film, you’d know what would follow: meet cute, have sex cute. It’s not so easy in Japan, and indeed it’s not sex Mr. Sugiyama seeks, but amazing grace. In fact, grace and its polar opposite, gracelessness, are the subtext of Masayuki Suo’s film, which draws an endless bounty of laughter out of that most ridiculous of images, men dancing badly.

At the dance academy, Mr. Sugiyama finds he has entered a strange world of sure, swooping women and desperate men, for some of whom ballroom is a contact sport. Mr. Sugiyama soon finds he has a gift for the ballroom -- why else would he have been so drawn to it? -- but some others in the class have none. Suo catches it all, the twisted fury and deep self-abnegation of the anti-rhythmic, who pray desperately for the epiphany of smoothness but cannot come close to achieving in their own clumsy flesh what they have seen in the temple of their minds.

You can figure where the film is going easily enough. The gal of Mr. Sugiyama’s dreams is Mai (ballerina Tamiyo Kusakari), a former champion ballroom dancer who failed in the clinch and was abandoned by her partner. There’s a big dance coming up. Can Mr. Sugiyama learn quickly enough to help her; can he get good enough? And why does he not dance with his wife?

The movie is perhaps too long, and takes a final, very Japanese twist at the end, where Mr. Sugiyama’s sense of shame compels him to withdraw almost from life itself for a time while everybody waits for him to work out certain inner inconsistencies. But the movie has a great deal of zest and charm, and Yakusho gets so exactly that crest of melancholy that is a man’s early 40s, until he decides to go for another kind of life, that the movie is infinitely touching.

SHALL WE DANCE (Unrated) — Contains mild sexual situations. In Japanese with subtitles.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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