Recently I watched the Hollywood version of Shall We Dance? I had seen the Japanese original a few times and was equally moved by the film on each viewing occasion; seeing the American remake helped me to understand the depth of Masayuki Suo’s story (he both wrote the screenplay and directed) and to appreciate its poignancy even more.
Both movies tell the story of a hard-working man with a stable and seemingly contented family life. But when, on the train ride home from the office, he sees a beautiful woman standing in the window of a ballroom dancing school, he realizes he is missing something. He eventually responds to the siren call and enrolls in a beginner’s dance class. The woman, a dancer who has suffered a great disappointment, quickly proves to be beyond his reach but as he falls in love with dance her aloofness matters less than her ability to instruct. He joins the family of misfits in the school and is both transported and transformed in the process. His enthusiasm also reignites the melancholy teacher’s passion for the dance.
Meanwhile the main character’s wife, whom he has not told about the dance lessons, suspects he is having an affair and hires a detective to follow him. In a climactic scene at a dance competition, husband and wife must confront each other and the process of reigniting the flame must begin.
Shall We Dance? (Hollywood), which adheres closely to its Japanese parent in terms of plot, fails on a couple of major fronts to live up to the standard of its predecessor. A good part of what makes Shall We Dance? (Japan) so compelling is the cultural context in which the story takes place. The lead character, Mr. Sugiyama, is a “salaryman,” which in Japan means that he is a virtual slave to the company, commuting several hours by train every day, usually to and from a small apartment in a large housing complex, and working until late at night. A salaryman’s wife generally does not work and is expected to look after the home and the children in his absence and to ensure his comfort during the short time he is at home. Children rarely see their father. Vacations are to non-existent.
An aspect of Japanese society that is perhaps even more critical to the movie is its homogeneity. Japan is not a country of individuals who fiercely defend their right to go their own way. The old saying in that country that “the nail that sticks up will ultimately be hammered down” is still true, especially in the world of business. Thus Sugiyama’s decision to heed the call to adventure is a far bolder act than the same decision made by John Clark, the hero in the American version, which many in his culture would openly admire and approve of.
In both movies, for example, there is attached to the dance school an off-the-wall character, who turns out to be a co-worker of the protagonist. In the Japanese version, the character, Aoki (brilliantly played by Naoto Takenaka), disguises himself in an outlandish wig that serves both to hide his real identity and to render him a sexy, mysterious Latin dancer. For Aoki, the disguise is necessary and the horror is real when his true identity is discovered, as he is surely a nail that sticks out—in his case, way out. The always excellent Stanley Tucci plays Aoki’s counterpart, Link (as in Missing?), in the English-language movie. He is as outlandish as Aoki but the effort to disguise himself seems superfluous as outlandish in American society does not usually have to mean outcast.
The other flaw in the American version is the acting. Theoretically Richard Gere is a good choice to play the lead: he’s cute but dull. The problem is that he has no depth as an actor, so we get nothing more than cute but dull. Jennifer Lopez is beautiful but even duller and shallower than her co-star. Susan Sarandon is a fine actress but the wife is not really a major role, so she isn’t given a lot to work with.
Even if Hollywood’s Shall We Dance? had hit all the right notes it would still have been difficult to measure up to the Japanese original. It is simply superb filmmaking. Writer-director Suo has created multi-dimensional characters that do not depend on looks or charm for audience appeal but rather express the all-too-human but often heroic aspirations of the common person. Sugiyama is as plain as rice and about as romantic as a dish towel, but there is spark inside him that is ignited by the small success he achieves in dance and by the pure pleasure he derives from moving fluidly across the dance floor. He is transformed, made whole, by the experience. And the sensitive and newly energized husband he finally brings to his wife make for a heart-warming finish to this captivating film.
Several of the characters in the dance hall are quirky outsiders—the pathetically insecure and wildly exotic Aoki, the abrasive Toyoko, and the overweight, lonely diabetic Tanaka—who provide wonderful comic moments throughout the story. There are indeed many very funny scenes. But beneath each of the clown costumes is a real person suffering in his or her own way the sorrows of isolation in a society that accepts and rewards uniformity, not difference. In the end it is dance that offers them a world that celebrates their uniqueness and thus to which they can comfortably belong.
This movie is an honoured and often viewed member of my DVD collection.
Shall We Dance? (Hollywood) is a movie I likely will not see again.
Movie Poster @ Wikipedia
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- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Two
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