Shall We Dance? opens (at least to American audiences) with an explanation that in Japan, dancing is as socially acceptable as, say, picking your nose.
The movie then introduces Mr. Sugiyama (Koji Yakusho), a good-looking Japanese businessman in his early forties. He sold his soul to the company to earn enough to buy a house for his wife and daughter. With that accomplished, he realizes he is still unfulfilled.
Every day, at a certain stop on his train ride home, he sees the same girl gazing forlornly out the window of a dance studio. He becomes infatuated and, one day, gets the nerve to go to the studio for a closer look. Flustered, and unable to pay for private lessons with the girl in the window, he enrolls in a beginning dance class with two other students. Sugiyama is a below-average student, but his infatuation keeps him coming back every Wednesday.
After a few lessons, he gets up the nerve to ask Mai (Tamiyo Kusakari) out for dinner. She coldly tells him that she doesn’t date students — then adds that if he joined the class because of her, he should quit. Rather than admit his ulterior motive, he decides to stay in the class.
Without any hope of winning Mai’s affection, Sugiyama throws himself into his studies. Not only does his dancing improve, he begins to enjoy it more. For now, he has found another source of fulfillment. Soon he finds himself practicing dance steps on the train platform while he waits to go home.
At the apex of the story’s arch, Mai looks out her window and sees Sugiyama absentmindedly practicing his steps. This time he is the object of her glance, and she is the one who is moved. She sees that Sugiyama has found a simple joy in dance, which moves her to re-evaluate her own motives.
The plot then continues to its rather conventional conclusion.
Two aspects of this movie make it a rewarding choice. First, it is good-natured and lighthearted. Sugiyama and Mai each start with a certain dissatisfaction: Mai is always forlorn, Sugiyama is unfulfilled. Along the way each finds satisfaction, not just through the ritual of dance, but through simple human contact and interaction. The movie has some light funny moments (some say at the expense of character depth), that make a nice balance to the movie’s simple but earnest “message.”
Second, the movie offers Americans a rare look at Japanese culture. Many of the great Japanese movies available in the U.S. are historical epics that don’t show us the personal side of Japan today. Shall We Dance? offers a look at the everyday modern Japanese world. For example, Sugiyama doesn’t even have a cubicle at work; he sits at a long table with another person — right behind another long table seating four people. (His computer uses Microsoft Windows.) A modest house in Japan is hard to come by: it took Sugiyama until he was 40 to be able to afford one. Many of these “mundane” details captured in the background of Shall We Dance? can be fascinating to the western viewer.
So though Shall We Dance? is lightweight, it doesn’t pretend to be otherwise. It succeeds well in what it sets out to do. Let’s hope it does well enough in this country to encourage more cultural exports like it.