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Shall We Dance? (1996)

Everyone who's ever sighed over a Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire number or dreamed of swirling around a ballroom floor in a sparkly gown and high heels is bound to love Shall We Dance?, an engaging 1996 comedy about the sheer joy of dance. And if you happen to know a little bit about Japanese culture, you'll probably appreciate it all the more. As hero Shohei Sugiyama (Koji Yakusho) — an accountant frustrated by his predictable life who finds a new spark thanks to an impulsive decision to take dance lessons — explains, anything remotely resembling effusive, demonstrative intimacy is the height of embarrassment in Japan. That's why most of the people he meets at the Kishikawa School of Dancing are slightly defensive about their reasons for being there — and why most of them keep their hobby a secret. The married Sugiyama has more cause to be close-mouthed than the rest; he was drawn to the school by the sight of melancholy instructor Mai (Tamiyo Kusakari) standing in the window, and he can't shake his fascination with her. But as his lessons progress, Sugiyama discovers that he loves ballroom dance for itself, for the freedom and happiness it gives him. Meanwhile, his wife, Masako (Hideko Hara), suspicious about her husband's frequent absences and new attitude, takes matters into her own hands and doesn't quite know what to think when she discovers the truth. Sugiyama has discovered a physical way to express how he feels, but in order to save his relationship, he'll have to find a way do the same emotionally. Yakusho is a study in nerves and gentlemanliness as Sugiyama, who starts out with two left feet but gradually becomes graceful and confident. He's surrounded by a great cast of colorful supporting players — blowsy Toyoko (Eriko Watanabe), fiercely enthusiastic Aoki (Naoto Takenaka), maternal Tamako (Reiko Kusamura), fussy Hattori (Yu Tokui), and awkward Tanaka (Tomio Aoki) — all of whom help Sugiyama realize that not only has he discovered a new pastime, but he's also found a new community that likes him for who he is, dance shoes and all. Former champion Mai has her own journey to complete, and it's to the movie's credit that she and Sugiyama are allowed to find their way without falling victim to the expected cinematic clichés. Shall We Dance?, which inspired the 2004 remake starring Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, and Jennifer Lopez (which was actually quite charming, despite the general critical reaction), manages to be both heartwarming and original, all while leaving you wishing it was you quick-stepping for the judges. Buena Vista/Miramax presents the film on DVD in a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Japanese Dolby 2.0 Surround audio (English, French, and Spanish subtitles are available). Lamentably, the only extra is an 11-minute promo featurette for the Gere/Lopez remake (can you say synergy?). Keep-case.
—Betsy Bozdech

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