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MOVIE REVIEW - Shall We Dance?

Throughout this movie, I kept thinking about the Abba song, "Nina, Pretty Ballerina", which depicts the secret life of an office worker. Every day, Nina is just "a face among a million faces" on the train. On weekends, however, she morphs into the "queen of the dancing floor". In this film, a Japanese accountant in his 40s, Shohei Sugiyama, (played by Koji Yakusyo), becomes king of the dancing floor in a secret life he creates for himself.

Sugiyama has attained all the material hallmarks of success, but longs for something he can't define. From the train home one night, he spies a beautiful girl, Mai Kishikawa (Tamiyo Kusakari) gazing sadly out of the window of a dance studio. Something in him awakens, and it translates into a passion for ballroom dancing.

Among the many recent movies fueled by the resurgence of ballroom dancing, this one's a sparkling gem. We're treated to displays of showy professional dancing, and funny/sad moments with awkward students. The little dance-school community is an engrossing microcosm of life that is very different from Sugiyama's own, which rejects that stratum of society. And, while the man is a stiff dancer in the beginning, he perseveres and becomes an elegant, very desirable dance partner complete with tux, slicked-back hair and high-gloss shoes.

The film is an interesting depiction of Japanese life, and for me was full of surprises. Sugiyama's house could have been anywhere in middle-class suburban North America. While some of the furniture exhibited Japanese influence, the home's architecture and decor were very western. The house was quite large for the three people who lived there, and set in a suburb near the sea. The roles that Sugiyama and his wife played were reminiscent of the 1950s: mom doesn't go out to work, but cleans house, keeps herself looking nice, cooks meals and waits for dad to come home from the office. And dad buys the lifestyle.

We're also told at the beginning of the movie that, "Ballroom dancing is regarded with great suspicion in a country where couples don't go out hand in hand, or say 'I love you'." This helps explains why, when Sugiyama decides to take up ballroom dancing in the evenings, he keeps it a secret. And why his wife, rather than ask him what he's up to, hires a private eye to find out. Such disconnects lead to a lot of amusement, as well as a happy ending, when Sugiyama and his wife take up dancing together.

This 1996 movie is a fascinating character study as well. It's great to see Sugiyama lighten up over the course of the story, thanks mainly to the irreverent characters at the dance school. One of these is an office mate of his, who has long been ridiculed for his dancing, but comes out on top in the end. Another is a plump mom who holds down several jobs but won't give up her passion for the sport. And, while the elegant Mai finally seems to come out of herself, she remains a bit of a tragedy queen to me. She will probably always be standing at that window her widow's walk looking for her prince to return.