Shall We Dance?

International Premiere | Out Of Competition | PART 2 - A/B side VIBES. Greatest Hits from ‘80s & ‘90s | acknowledgement to SUO Masayuki


The follow-up to his 1992 hit Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t, Suo Masayuki’s Shall We Dance? is again set in the world of a minor, by world standards, sport: Ballroom dancing. Also, similar to its predecessor, the film has a high quotient of laugh-out-loud moments, again mostly supplied by comedian/actor Takenaka Naoto, this time playing a dweeby systems analyst obsessed with Latin dancing.

Other familiar faces from Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t return, but the star is Yakusho Koji in a breakout role as Sugiyama Shohei, a shy, serious accountant who has turned 40 with a big mortgage to pay – and unhappy with his humdrum life. Taking up dancing at a studio near his train line, he develops a crush on his statuesque dance instructor Kishikawa Mai, played by real-life ballerina Kusakari Tamiyo.

Scripted by Suo, the film is not a romantic comedy: Sugiyama is married happily enough, as well as being the father of an affectionate teenage daughter. Also, when he invites Mai out for dinner, she tells him bluntly that she never associates with students outside of class. That rejection changes Sugiyama: He realizes that, though he may have started his lessons with an ulterior motive, he enjoys dancing and doesn’t want to give it up. The film is really about his blossoming from a depressed corporate drudge to a man with a passion that charges up the screen.

Playing Sugiyama, Yakusho illuminates his character’s inner life with sensitivity and nuance, as when he glances up from his commuter train and sees Mai at the window of her dance studio, looking somehow melancholy. We can sense everything from his longing for this mysterious beauty to his curiosity as to what her studio might be.

Ballroom dancing, as the film humorously reminds us again and again, has a negative image in Japan, especially for men, who are assumed to be doing it to pick up women.

But through Sugiyama’s eyes we also see the studio as a portal to a freer, brighter world.

After opening in Japan in January of 1996, Shall We Dance? became the biggest hit of Suo’s career, finishing its run with a box office gross of Y2.72 billion, the second-highest total of the year for a Japanese film. It also inspired a ballroom dance boom while winning 14 Japan Academy prizes, including Best Film, Best Actor for Yakusho and Best Director for Suo.

Released in the United States by Miramax it became the rare subtitled movie to crossover to general audiences. It earned $9.7 million in the US and a total of $33,287,618 internationally, then-astounding figures for a Japan film. Critics raved, with Roger Ebert saying that Shall We Dance? was “one of the more completely entertaining movies I’ve seen in a while.” Miramax agreed, producing a 2004 remake starring Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez.

Yakusho went on to more triumphs, including starring roles in Imamura Shohei’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner The Eel, Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s J-Horror classic Cure and films by such leading non-Japanese directors as Alejandro González Inárritu (Babel) and Wim Wenders (Perfect Days). In Wenders’ film, for which he won a Best Actor prize at Cannes, Yakusho plays a Tokyo toilet cleaner who finds daily joy in the light filtering through the trees. Looking up, camera in hand and an expression of quiet wonder on his face, he is like Sugiyama, gazing at Mai from his train and, at the last minute, jumping out the door ready to take a chance – and bring us along on his journey of discovery and delight.

Mark Schilling
Film director: SUO Masayuk
Year: 1996
Running time: 137'
Country: Japan
27/04 - 5:40 PM
Visionario, Via Asquini 33
27-04-2024 17:40 27-04-2024 19:57Europe/Rome Shall We Dance? Far East Film Festival Visionario, Via Asquini 33CEC Udine