Contrast in Cultures: Shall We Dance?
Reviewed by Ted Cohen
During the opening title sequence of filmmaker Masayuki Suo's 1996 lovely and
heart-warming film, we learn that “In Japan, ballroom dancing is regarded with
Conservative, middle-aged businessman Shohei Sugiyama (Koji Yakusyo) has
all things in life that his culture promises would make him happy: a successful
career, a well-appointed home, and a loving wife and daughter. Despite all this,
something is still missing. Taking note of his disheartened state, Sugiyama’s wife
suggests he get out more and enjoy himself.
One evening during his train ride home, Sugiyama spots the beautiful and
mysterious Mai (real-life ballerina Tamiyo Kusakari) glancing out her dance
studio window. Days pass, as Sugiyama keeps his eye peeled for the figure of
the mystery woman. Eventually, Sugiyama’s curiosity gets the better of him. He
courageously leaves the train at the station closest to the dance studio, enters it,
and enrolls for dance lessons.
Before he knows it, Sugiyama is smitten with dance. The lessons bring him back
to life—so much so that he secretly practices his dance steps while sitting at the
desk of his sterile and restrictive office. Sugiyama’s fellow dance pupils provide
both comic relief and moments of poignancy. They include a goofy, heavy-set
man, a funny short gent, and one of Sugiyama's fellow office workers; quiet,
reserved and bald by day, he is transformed by dance into the glitzy, well-coiffed
Latin lover by night.
While weaving his charming, feel-good tale, Mr. Suo provides Westerners with a
rare look into the world of Japanese culture, particularly in what Sugiyama risks
to satisfy his mid-life crisis. In Japan, displays of public affection even between a
married couple is considered indecent—the idea of unmarried dance partners in
close embrace is nothing short of scandalous. Engaging in this unpopular activity
could cause Sugiyama to be labeled a degenerate. Yet he and his fellow
students are willing to risk the shame for just that smidgen of freedom and
creativity that ballroom dancing provides them in their restrictive, conformist
culture. (Since this film set box office records in Japan, it can be argued that
there are quite a few Japanese who share Sugiyama’s plight and long for such
relief in their own lives.)
The usual dance film would have Mai and Sugiyama fall in love during the big
dance competition finales, but Mr. Suo stays clear of such clichés in favor of
portraying dance itself as a means for one to uplift themselves and their spirit. In
doing so, the audience leaves the theater with toes a-tapping and a smile on their
In the 2004 U.S. remake of the same title, Richard Gere is a big city lawyer who
has grown unhappy with his life. Something is missing; something that he cannot
find from his wife, the still sexy and appealing Susan Sarandon (a department
store executive), nor from his sassy and lovable teenage daughter.
Jennifer Lopez plays the role of the unhappy dance instructor who stands in the
window of Miss Mitzi's Dance Studio with a far-away look in her wistful eyes.
Gere, like counterpart Sugiyama, spots the enigmatic beauty during his rush hour
ride home, and like Sugiyama, one evening musters the courage to satisfy his
ever-increasing curiosity and investigate the girl and the dance hall.
Jennifer’s instructor is a woman who openly bears the emotional scars of
something that is not shared with the audience until Act Three. As a result, Ms.
Lopez’s misdirected character is one who is so lifeless as to be mannequin-like.
Absent the charm and light-heartedness of the Japanese Mai, the inner-conflicts
of Jennifer’s Paulina prohibits the audience (and her students) from embracing
the joy of dance which she is hard pressed to convey through such a seriously
depressed and easily agitated character.
Unlike Japan—where ballroom dancing is a regarded with suspicion—the
inference here is that ballroom dancing is regarded, at the most, as something
less than manly and, at the least, as just plain silly. This is revealed in two
scenes: one in which Stanley Tucci (in the role of Gere’s fellow office worker by
day, Latin lover by night) is secretly practicing his dance steps in the company
washroom with Gere. Rather than be caught in the act, Tucci feigns a heart
attack when a fellow worker unexpectedly enters. In another scene, Tucci is
“outed” as a ballroom dancer by his colleagues, and quickly redeems his
manliness by grabbing one of the deriding secretaries and expertly manipulating
her in a macho dance maneuver, leaving the startled woman breathless and with
a new-found respect for the art form—and perhaps, Tucci’s character, as well.
Another major difference between the American and Japanese versions involves
the characters of the wife and daughter, who are mere background objects in the
Japanese version. In the American remake, both women figure in more
prominently. Unlike the Japanese wife who does not ask or interfere in her
husband’s unexplained, weekly evening absences, the Sarandon character,
when faced with identical circumstances, must naturally assume that her loving
and trustworthy husband of 17 years is having an affair. So, does she confront
her husband with her suspicions? Not on your life! She does what any red-
blooded American movie wife would do under these circumstances: she hires a
As mentioned earlier, this is a semi-faithful remake of the original, but its
conclusion is less subtle and very typical of what often happens when a big
studio takes on a simple story.
Also hard to overcome is the fact that our society is far from restrictive in its
cultural attitudes. Since ballroom dancing in the U.S. is not regarded as
scandalous, there is no need to keep it a secretly-conducted activity as in Japan.
Therefore, both the fear of discovery and the human yearning to find freedom
through art are not factors in the American film, which greatly diminishes the
overall impact of the American version.
If you haven’t seen either version, rent them both for a rainy Sunday afternoon. I
strongly recommend you watch the original first. It might make you feel so good
that you’ll skip the remake altogether.
Shall We Dance? (1996) Color
U.S. Release Date: 5/97 (limited)
Running Length: 2:06
MPAA Classification: PG-13 (Mild Language)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Director: Masayuki Suo
Cast: Koji Yakusyo, Tamiyo Kusakari, Naoto Takenaka, Eriko Watanabe, Akira
Emoto, Yu Tokui
Producers: Hiroyuki Kato, Seiji Urushido, Shigeru Ohno, Kazuhiro Igarashi,
Tetsuya Ikeda, Shoji Masui, Yuji Ogata
Screenplay: Masayuki Suo
Cinematography: Naoki Kayano
U.S. Distributor: Miramax Films
In Japanese with English subtitles
Shall We Dance? (2004) Color
United States, 2004
U.S. Release Date: 10/15/04 (wide)
Running Length: 1:38
MPAA Classification: PG-13 (Profanity, sexual situations)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Cast: Richard Gere, Jennifer Lopez, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci, Lisa Ann
Walter, Anita Gillette
Director: Peter Chelsom
Producer: Simon Fields
Screenplay: Audrey Welles, based on the screenplay by Masayuki Suo
Cinematography: John de Borman
Music: John Altman, Gabriel Yared
U.S. Distributor: Miramax Films