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Shall We Dance? (1997) DVD Review

Shall we dansu? (Shall We Dance?)

US Theatrical Release: July 11, 1997 / Running Time: 119 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Masayuki Suo

Cast: Kôji Yakusho (Shohei Sugiyama), Tamiyo Kusakari (Mai Kishikawa), Naoto Takenaka (Tomio Aoki), Eriko Watanabe (Toyoko Takahashi), Akiro Emoto (Tôru Miwa), Yu Tokui (Tokichi Hattori), Hiromasa Taguchi (Masahiro Tanaka), Raiko Kusamura (Tamako Tamura), Hideko Hara (Masako Sugiyama), Hiroshi Miyasaka (Macho), Shuichiro Moriyama (Ryo Kishikawa)


As the opening narration of Shall We Dance? tells us, ballroom dancing is not an activity widely embraced in Japan. It is, however, the activity at the center of the film, a light but likable dramedy from writer/director Masayuki Suo. In America, dance is also not a typical adult hobby. But this Japanese film was remade last year in Hollywood with little change. The remake, from Miramax Films and starring Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez, lands on DVD this week and that is of course the reason we are now seeing this original film released at the same time by the same studio.

Little is done or needed to be done to establish the protagonist of the film. Mr. Sugiyama (Kôji Yakusho) is a milquetoast middle-aged man who seems fully devoted to his smileless office job as an accountant. Sugiyama is mild-mannered, serious, and seemingly oblivious to his straight-faced workaholic existence. Sugiyama has done well for himself; he has a wife and a pre-teen daughter and they've just moved into a new house.

Sugiyama is awakened from his slumberous routine when he discovers a ballroom dancing studio. Actually, he doesn't quite know what he is discovering; he only knows that he is drawn to the sight of a pensive young woman gazing out the window while his train ride below stops for a moment and then proceeds. Once he decides to investigate that building, he learns that dancing lessons are going on inside. That pensive young woman is Mai (real life ballet dancer Tamiyo Kusakari), a pretty, distant instructor for an activity that should be frowned upon by working stiffs like Sugiyama.

Mr. Sugiyama likes to peer out the train door windows. Mai likes to give melancholy looks like this.

Despite his ignorance and the widely-held societal outlook, Sugiyama agrees to sign up for some costly group lessons. He finds himself alongside two fellow newcomers all awkwardly adapting to the various graceful forms of dance. For some reason, Sugiyama takes a liking to dance. It provides him an outlet from his fairly humdrum existence at work and home. As any respectable adult would, Sugiyama keeps his newfound passion for dancing in the closet. So does Aiko (Naoto Takenaka), a co-worker who against expectations lets loose as a flamboyant, bewigged fellow dance student. Although he keeps his secret, Aiko cannot resist making an exaggerated dance move out of every turn he takes when walking around the office.

Back at home, Sugiyama's wife (Hideko Hara) suspects something strange is going on, as her husband seems to escape the house every Wednesday night for several hours with no questions asked or answered. Fearing he's mixed up with some strange people or engaging in the unthinkable extramarital affair, she reluctantly hires a private detective to tail Sugiyama and find out what on earth he is doing.

Shall We Dance? isn't too concerned with taking any of this somewhere in particular. Sugiyama elevates his interest into preparing for serious dance competition and he vocalizes his 'attraction' to Mai. It is unlikely that anything could occur between them, but then the premise of a serious, uptight businessman who begins to dance seems to defy odds itself. This central transformation of Sugiyama is what the film chooses to explore most, and his departure from adhering to everyday routine provides a much-needed adjustment in his life.

Aoki is surprised to see someone from the office! Concerned and befuddled mother and daughter watch Dad on the dance floor.

Though it's advertised as a romantic comedy of sorts, and previews of the Richard Gere remake reek of those airs, I found this original Shall We Dance? more sad than funny. The film is kind of solemn as it takes a low-key approach to a premise that would seem well-suited to broad strokes of physical comedy. More important than its tone, though, the film is compelling. As someone with no leaning toward serious dance, if there was a great spark in its portrayal of the form, it didn't register with me. Nonetheless, I was able to appreciate the film for its accessible portrayal of human characters.

The film is comfortable with deliberate pacing which holds some shots for a long time and never settles for quick payoffs. Apparently, this US version of the film loses about seventeen minutes from the Japanese cut (which is not included) and it seems to drag plenty already, although it would have been interesting to see the deleted material. The title is taken from a song in The King and I, which holds meaning for one of the dance instructors and we hear a couple of times.

One can take several different things from Shall We Dance?. At surface level, it works as a lighthearted look at how dance affects the lives of a handful of grownups in different ways, from the women who instruct it and compete at it to the men who use it as an outlet from everyday life. But the film is perhaps more resonant as an examination of the human condition, achieved in slow and subtle ways, and contrasting the way Sugiyama "feels alive" while dancing with the cold, emotion-less office life.

I do not doubt that the film would connect more with viewers who are either more accustomed to the Japanese way of life or more familiar with a type of exhilaration that dance can provide. But, it affected me, more than I would have expected based on the subject matter. That's not a ringing endorsement, because while involving, Shall We Dance? has plenty of lapses and never hits its full potential. Still, it doesn't deserve dismissal due to its appearance, and especially not the appearance of Gere and company in the smarmy-looking remake.

Buy Shall We Dance (Original Japanese Version) DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Surround (Japanese)
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Closed Captioned
Release Date: February 1, 2005
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $29.99
Black Keepcase

VIDEO and AUDIO

Shall We Dance? is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and has been enhanced for 16x9 televisions. The transfer is decent, but far from reference quality. The picture exhibits a bit of softness and some shimmering, which is pronounced at times, but usually not too noticeable. More problematic are the color inconsistencies. Hues waver, and at times, the transfer takes on a reddish-orange tint. On the plus side, the print is free of any dust, grain, scratches, or imperfections, which isn't too surprising for a mid-'90s film, although some of the foreign imports that Miramax takes in have looked pretty beaten up. The player-generated subtitles (in English, French, or Spanish) are located a bit higher than the bottom of the frame, which results in them infrequently covering up a bit of the lower frame action. Of course, that's not a problem if you understand Japanese!

Audio is conveyed in a Dolby Surround track in the original Japanese language. The sound mix is mostly low-key like the film. Score is infrequently employed, but when it is, the surrounds are used well. Environmental effects are used even less frequently, such as in the late-movie scenes of the competition. The volume seems to be low on the whole, but otherwise, the track is sufficient.

Dancing! We are dancing! Woo! The main menu for "Shall We Dance?"

BONUS FEATURES

Shall We Dance? comes with just one bonus feature and it's on Miramax's remake rather than this film. "A Look Inside Shall We Dance? 2004" amounts to an 11½-minute commercial for the update starring Richard Gere, Jennifer Lopez, and Susan Sarandon. The original film is hardly mentioned at all, even though it seems like most scenes are pulled directly from it. Instead we hear about how this new take is hip and fresh, in soundbites from cast and crew. Much of the featurette is devoted to the music, such as Mya redoing David Bowie and the Pussycat Dolls "improving upon" Dean Martin. If that doesn't entice you to check out the remake and if somehow Nick Cannon talking about the hot women of the film doesn't either, then perhaps footage of Richard Gere in a hip-hop club will. No?

The disc opens with two previews: a fun Miramax 25th Anniversary spot which showcases clips from the studio's most memorable films and the obvious trailer for 2004's Shall We Dance? remake. For a DVD trailer for this original version, you'll have to look to that remake's disc. The 16x9-enhanced menus are basic and static screens with a simple white background adorned with the cover artwork and some dance move foot patterns. There is no chapter insert inside the case.

Sugiyama and partner put on quite the show. "Say cheese!" The dancers pose for a pre-competition photo.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

This original Japanese film won't hold much too surface appeal for those who enjoy the main focus of this site, films from Walt Disney Pictures. It also seems like an odd choice to remake for a Western audience. In spite of this and the fact that some meaning will be lost on those unfamiliar with Japanese lifestyles, Shall We Dance? has some potent universal relevance. This primarily comes from its depiction of humanity, specifically its transformed protagonist. Not without its flaws (which are probably far less than the 2004 version that will be more familiar to many Americans), Shall We Dance? is still an interesting watch for one looking to expand their horizons and embrace some international cinema.

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Reviewed January 31, 2005.

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