Directed by Masayuki Suo. Japan. 1996.

Directed by Peter Chelsom. USA. 2004

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In Masayuki Suo's Shall We Dance, a suppressed middle-aged accountant on his way home from work spots a beautiful woman gazing pensively out of the window of an upper level dance studio. Determined to get to know her, he gets off the train and enrolls in dancing lessons at the studio but, because of the taboos in Japanese culture against physical touching in public, does not tell his wife. Learning basic waltz, rumba, and mambo steps under the tutelage of the graceful teacher Mai  (Tamiyo Kusakari), he gradually releases some of his repressed energy and begins to re-experience the joy of being alive. He practices his steps in the street, at the beach, and underneath his desk at work. Things become a bit complicated, however, when his wife notices a positive change in his attitude and hires a private detective to see if he is having an affair.

Koji Yakusyo strikes just the right note as the repressed accountant, conveying a man who has closed down but has a hidden reserve of vitality just underneath the surface. He is ably supported by fellow dance students: Mr. Aoki (Naoto Takenaka), a co-worker who wears a black wig and imitates a famous Latin dancer, and Toyoko (Eriko Watanabe), a brassy Bette Midler type who constantly changes partners and berates those who do not meet her standards. She admires Sugiyama, however, and is a big factor in changing his outlook when he wants to quit. Mai, the dance instructor, it turns out, is a world-class dancer who was cut off by her father after an accident in a competition in Blackpool, England and is now teaching part time at the studio but dreams of returning to competition. 

In an emotional scene, she confronts Sugiyama as someone more interested in her affections than in the art of dancing. Later, however, she helps him overcome his fears and both gain the courage to follow their dreams. While Shall We Dance is essentially a comedy, it is also a subtle commentary on cultural taboos and the restrictive nature of Japanese society. Though the film is subdued and without a big emotional payoff, Suo's strong direction allows us to identify with the characters and glimpse the possibilities in our own life that are open if we are willing to take a chance. 



Directed by Peter Chelsom (2004)

Shall We Dance was given the Hollywood treatment by director Peter Chelsom. The remake is a well meaning and often entertaining film but lacking in the charm and subtlety of the original. The plot is similar to the first film except for the ending and has the same supporting characters, except that here they are silly stereotypes instead of fully developed characters. Richard Gere is John Clark, an estate lawyer who is bored with the routine of his daily life and is entranced by the sight of the dance instructor Paulina (Jennifer Lopez) staring out of the window of the studio. Gere is a first class actor, but he seems too glamorous for the role and having a beautiful wife like Susan Sarandon does not help the film's credibility. Though the first hour is difficult to sit through, things pick up in the last half-hour and I found the conclusion to be quite emotionally satisfying. 


Howard Schumann
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