Shall We Dance

on October 15, 2004 by Cathy Thompson-Georges
   Given the success of the hugely popular Australian indie "Strictly Ballroom," many viewers will no doubt come to "Shall We Dance?" expecting more of the same. But this Japanese film is far more sympathetic to its characters than the sometimes freakish Luhrmann film, treating them with humanity and respect. Whereas the earlier movie was a parade of garish costumes and human grotesques, "Shall We Dance?" is a gentle examination of the graceful appeal of ballroom dance, using it as a metaphor for human longings for beauty and release.
   "Shall We Dance?" opens like a mid-life crisis romance. A Tokyo salaryman (Koji Yasuyo) becomes captivated by a beautiful woman (Tamiyo Kusakari) he glimpses on the way home in the window of a dance studio, and pursues lessons to win her eye. What begins as infatuation for a young woman, however, develops into a love of dance, and our hero finds himself caught up in a world far outside his office--of tango and quickstep, dance competitions and weekend dance halls. What he really wants, it seems, is not a fling but the chance to spread his wings outside the stifling confines of his office and the regimentation of Japanese life.
   "Shall We Dance?" abounds with charming small moments: An older instructor (Naoto Takenaka) whirls the bashful beginner through a dancehall as she explains her love for "The King and I"; the simple salaryman practices dance steps in the rain beside a train platform; and an office colleague (Akira Emoto) proves to have a second life as a flamboyant, bewigged king of Latin dance. The cast is uniformly winning, especially the handsome Yasuyo, as he moves from stumbling beginner to an assured and tuxedoed dancer. The film relies a little too heavily on a subplot about a dancer who has fallen in competition, but this is a cavil; "Shall We Dance?" is light on its feet, a Japanese film that invites American audiences to love.    Starring Koji Yasuyo, Tamiyo Kusakari and Naoto Takenaka. Directed by Masayuki Suo. Written by Masayuki Suo. Produced by Shoji Masui and Yuji Ogata. A Miramax release. Comedy. Japanese-language; English subtitles. Rated PG for mild language. Running time: 122 min. Screened at the Santa Barbara fest.
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