Dance with Me
t.l. Balla con me
ダンスウィズミー (Dansu Uizu Mi)
Japan, 2019, 104’, Japanese
Directed by: Yaguchi Shinobu
Script: Yaguchi Shinobu
Photography (color): Taniguchi Kazuhiro
Editing: Miyajima Ryuji
Music: Asari Naoko, Ishizuka Nobutaka
Producers: Sekiguchi Daisuke, Tsuchimoto Takao
Executive Producer: Masui Shoji
Production Company: Warner Bros. Japan
Cast: Miyoshi Ayaka, Takarada Akira, Miura Takahiro, Yashiro Yu
Date of First Release in Territory: August 16th, 2019
Premiere status: Italian Premiere
The Japanese film industry has made many musical films, but almost no Hollywood-style musicals. One reason why is Sugawa Eizo’s You Can Succeed, Too (1964), a singing, dancing salaryman musical inspired by the Broadway hit How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Billed by the Toho studio as Japan’s “first real musical” it was also famously a flop.
Yaguchi Shinobu’s sparkling new musical comedy Dance with Me features salarymen and OLs (office ladies) belting and hoofing through big production numbers. But it is also not an attempt to out-succeed Succeed.
Yaguchi, who has been directing hit comedies from his original scripts since his 2001 breakthrough Waterboys, has made what might be called an “anti-musical musical film.”
His heroine, trading company OL Suzuki Shizuka (Miyoshi Ayaka), has a deep, dark hatred of musicals stemming from a childhood trauma. One day, she goes to a rundown amusement park with her niece, where they see a show by an elderly hypnotist (Takarada Akira of Godzilla series fame). He implants a fateful suggestion in her suggestible brain: Every time she hears music she must sing and dance to it.
This leads to a series of disasters, beginning with a big company meeting, important to Shizuka’s career, that goes south when she starts singing and dancing on the desks. Her antics also threaten her budding romance with a hot junior executive (Miura Takahiro).
The song-and-dance scene is staged with an energy and panache that recall classic Hollywood musicals, but underscored by Yaguchi’s own brand of realism. Everyone who sings, Miyoshi as Shizuka first and foremost, actually sings, with no assists from velvet-throated professionals. Also, the musical theatrics play out solely in Shizuka’s fevered imagination. In reality, she makes a huge mess of the office as jaws drop.
All funny enough, but the joke of Shizuka’s implanted compulsion risks becoming quickly repetitive. And, for all its sleek comic propulsion, the film is short on laugh-out-loud gags. Instead of straining for them, it develops an awakening-and-empowerment character arc also found in Yaguchi’s 2004 hit Swing Girls, in which musically illiterate high school girls form a swing ensemble and, after character-building trials, wow the audience at a band contest.
Not that Shizuka begins as a tone-deaf klutz: She turns out to be as tuneful in real life as in her imagination. But her immediate goal is to find the hypnotist and make him reverse his subconscious suggestion, a search that takes her to Hokkaido. On the way she recruits an ally in the excitable, voluble Saito Chie (Yashiro Yu), and finds adversaries in three persistent loan sharks who are also on the hypnotist’s trail.
This could have been formulaic stuff, but Yaguchi’s treatment of Shizuka’s journey, in which her vocal abilities bloom as she and Chie busk and bumble along, is smart and inspired. He inserts more rousing musical numbers that showcase his heroine’s talent, while giving her space to grow naturally as a person and performer.
As Shizuka, Miyoshi is making a comeback. Her last feature starring role was in the 2013 drama Leaving on the 15th Spring, and she had to audition for the lead in Dance with Me. But there’s no rust on either her performance or her voice. Both are (what else?) hypnotic.
Born in Isehara, Kanagawa Prefecture in 1967, Yaguchi Shinobu studied at Tokyo Zokei University. In 1990 his 8mm feature Ameonna was awarded the Grand Prize at the Pia Film Festival. His 1993 follow-up was his first theatrical feature, the comedy Down the Drain. Yaguchi’s commercial breakthrough was the 2001 Waterboys, a hit comedy based on the true story of a high school boys’ synchronized swimming team. His next major hit was the 2004 Swing Girls, a film about a fledgling high school girls’ swing band. Since then Yaguchi has continued to make comedies on a variety of themes, always based on his original scripts.
1993 – Down the Drain
1997 – My Secret Cache
2001 – Waterboys
2004 – Swing Girls
2008 – Happy Flight
2012 – Robo-G
2014 – Wood Job!
2017 – Survival Family
2019 – Dance with Me