"Shall We Dance?" (1995 Japanese film)

*Note: This thread is part of a Son of the SDMB Musicals Group discussion. *

This film is completely different from the other musicals we’ve discussed, and not just because it’s subtitled.

In it, the movie begins with the protagonist not only not knowing how to dance, but not knowing that he wants to learn. For the first half of the movie, we watch him learning – and learn, ourselves, that it takes time and doesn’t necessarily come naturally. (The only other similar movie portrayal I can think of is the montage in Footloose during which Kevin Bacon teaches the rhythm-challenged Chris Penn how to dance. Are there others?) We also find him discovering that the yearning for “something else” that initially triggers his foray into the studio isn’t, in fact, Mai herself, but the world that Mai – indirectly, as it turns out – gives him access to: the world of self-expression, of a physical freedom that somehow makes up for the social and economic constraints he lives within.

And he learns to accept that he wants that freedom, which is the final struggle in the film.

I can’t stress enough how much I love the “real people dancing” element of this film. Other than a few glimpses in Mai’s Blackpool flashback, we really don’t see a whole lot of professional-level dancing; instead, it’s ordinary people who practice hard and become … okay … at it, some of them fairly good, but they’re all people who have ordinary lives and do this in addition to, and not instead of, living those lives – who do it because they love it, and nothing else.

I love that the fat guy found a partner and put on that absurd shirt and tie and participated in the rumba competition, and that he clearly had a ball doing it.

I love that Aoki learned – well, began to learn, anyway – to accept himself.

I love that whatshisface, the protagonist, loved his wife, and that she loved him, and that he’s going to teach her to dance.

I love that the older female teacher keeps the joy of the experience in her heart.

And most of all I love the respect that the director treated the ballroom dancers with. The movie I was most reminded of was Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom (which predates Shall We Dance? by three years) – but that film has a tendency to go for the easy mockery at times, though they both end with the same image, that of a ballroom full of people dancing because they love to dance.

All in all, a delightful film – and one I’m not ashamed to admit got me a wee bit misty at the end.

Plus, it had some great moments of humor – the scene where whatshisface and Aoki are in the men’s room practicing a hold, and Aoki pretends to have had a seizure when the other guys come in, for one, and the detective sitting up at the top of the bleachers at the competition holding forth surprisingly knowledgeably on ballroom dancing, for another.

The one thing I was wondering about as I was watching, was how well it would Westernize. The most fundamental plot point was the scandalousness of ballroom dancing per se in Japanese culture. Did Richard Gere exhibit that level of shame – or any shame at all – in the remake? Has anyone seen the remake?

I’d forgotten how much I liked this movie. :slight_smile: I did see the Richard Gere version, and it was fine, but no, it didn’t quite have the whole “ballroom dancing is scandalous for anybody to do, not just this particular person” thing. It wasn’t awful, though. It was actually kind of sweet, honestly.

I have to admit, I watched this version entirely by accident. I picked it up at the library, expecting it to be the Richard Gere version, and then there were subtitles. And Japanese people. And no Richard Gere.

It seems like there was a movie trailer on the disc for the Richard Gere version, but the movie itself was not it.

I discovered later that it had been put back on the wrong shelf–it was where the Richard Gere version should have been, though the call number placed it over yonder (6 ft. away and at an angle) with the other foreign films.

I watched the Richard Gere one a few weeks later, and it was ok. I think it would have held up better had I seen it first.

I was on a real watching movies about learning to dance and competing in dance kick for a while. I mean, I saw both of these, probably Strictly Ballroom, and a couple of made for tv (or direct to video) offerings in the span of a couple months. I’m not sure why. Probably because they are light and sweet (mostly), and don’t require me to pay real close attention visually, so I can watch my knitting instead.

I have not re-watched this movie, due to my life being temporarily insane, and have to admit I don’t recall much other than what twickster mentions above and some annoyance about the fact that it was in Japanese and thus required more attention than I wanted to give it.

Good to know.

So they played it as scandalous specifically for Richard Gere – why was that? Was he in some particular profession, or something?

Twickster - Gere plays a conservative estate lawyer. Stanley Tucci plays his associate who loves the latin dances. It’s shameful only because it doesn’t seem “masculine” and it’s not what ordinary people do, unlike being rabid football fans or something. In the American version, when Tucci is outed because there’s a photo in a local magazine after a competition, his colleagues and the secretaries are laughing at him.


To be fair, Tucci was one of those really hilarious Latin dance guys. Also, I believe there was a terrible toupee involved, wasn’t there?

Zsofia - yeah, in the beginning, Tucci was all about the latin character and kept trying to hit on younger women. Bad toupee, a mouthpiece of some sort to make his teeth pop! and spray tan. He was obnoxious and didn’t realize it.


I’m on vacation now and my Internet access is somewhat limited, but I wanted to mention how much I love this movie. :slight_smile: One of my Japanese friends (a woman currently living in the US) tells me she was surprised that any Americans liked it, because having seen the English-subtitled version she felt that a lot of the story and character development that’s present in the Japanese dialogue is lost. She said it wasn’t that any plot points were left out or anything, but that the subtitles were a much simplified and shortened version of the original.

I still think the subtitled version is good, though!

Even to the Japanese the premise of this film now seems a bit dated, as ballroom dancing is no longer viewed with such suspicion by the mainstream. That is partially due to shifts in social attitiudes over the past 15 years but also thanks in part to the great success of Shall We Dance? at the box office. At least as of 5 years ago, when I was last living in Japan, it was still true that “couples don’t go out hand in hand”, though.

The two male leads (Koji Yakusho as Mr. Sugiyama and Naoto Takenaka as Mr. Aoki) are both quite well known in Japan. I believe Yakusho generally plays Japanese Everyman types while Takenake is often cast as a weird or eccentric character, so their roles here are pretty much the types of roles they usually play. The part of Mai was played by a professional dancer (Tamiyo Kusakari), and Shall We Dance? remains her only film role.

So Stanley Tucci plays Mr. Aoki, basically – I bet he’s good. Dang, I may have to watch the remake.

It’s almost always the case. And the same is of course true for English language films subtitled into Japanese. Sometimes a part of the meaning has to be left out because either it’s not culturally translatable in a short period of time, or because film translation professionals are forced to make their translations short enough to keep the reading speed flowing at the same speed as the dialogue/action of the movie.

Enough about that though. On to the film, I thought it was good and it certainly made a bit hit in Japan - the title itself became kind of a catchphrase for a few years.

One thing that surprises me in the comments here is that there was a sense that ballroom dancing is scandalous - I didn’t pick up that vibe at all from watching the Japanese original version. Perhaps that was a translation problem on the Japanese to English side? Embarrassing vs scandalous is a distinction that sometimes evades translators.

Mind you, it’s been some years since I’ve watched it, but I have it at home. If I watch it again soon and have some further comments I’ll post.

That mostly comes from a voice-over introduction at the start of the film, which explains the furtiveness of the protagonist’s behavior in general – I don’t recall any overt discussion of it in the film itself.

Great movie. Looks like I’ll have to make Mrs. Cad watch it now.

Bumping the thread with a discussion question for you all.

Although I love this particular movie, I personally wouldn’t put it on a list of great musicals because I consider the dance movie to be a seperate genre from the musical. To my mind, a musical isn’t a musical without singing.

I think most people would agree that a typical musical has both singing and dancing, but what do you think about movies that have only/mostly one or the other? I’m inclined to say that a movie where the characters sing but that has little or no dancing is still a musical (e.g. Once), but that a movie where the characters dance but do not sing (e.g. Dirty Dancing) is a dance movie but not a musical. But that’s my personal definition. Not to knock dancing, I just consider the expression of feeling through song a crucial element of the musical. I’d be curious to hear other people’s opinions, though.

I wanted to come back to this point because it’s not something I’d thought about myself while watching the movie, but that may have made a bigger impression on Japanese audiences. It’s been my sense that the Japanese are not really big on social dancing, at least not to the extent that people are in North America/Europe. It’s not that the Japanese don’t dance at ALL – dance is an important element of Shinto festivals, people dance in parades, and if you’re young and hip you can go clubbing in any decent sized Japanese city and dance to modern dance music.

However, events like school dances, dinner dances, and formal balls seemed to me to be extremely rare in Japan. Someone who was good at ballroom dancing would have few opportunities to show off their skills to friends, classmates, or coworkers even if they wanted to. When I was living in Japan I remember several people being rather curious about Americans and dancing and asking me if I could dance. I don’t think I ever heard of junior high or high school kids going to a dance at school. Both in my student days and now as someone who works in academia I’ve known a number of Japanese college students studying in the US, and quite a few have confessed to me that they were nervous about attending college dances because they’d never been to a dance before and didn’t really know what to do.

I don’t want to overstate this because many of the Japanese people I know are from smaller cities in Western Japan and things may be different in other parts of the country. But I am guessing that a fair number of people who saw Shall We Dance? when it was first released in Japan had seldom seen ordinary Japanese people (or at least actors playing ordinary Japanese people) dancing socially with a partner.

I have not seen the remake, but the Japanese film is one of my absolute favorite dance movies ever. I teared up at the end, too.

I love that they didn’t try to turn Mr. Sugiyama into a professional-quality dancer in some big ugly duckling story - he dances well for a beginner, at a beginner-level competition. And he does dance very much like a talented beginner on-screen (I used to coach a large university competition team, so I’ve seen a lot of beginner ballroom dancers).

I want to put in a good word for the American version as well. Because there is and was no stigma attached to ballroom dancing in American society (beyond, as StGermain said, a slight question as to the masculinity and relative coolness factors), the entire subtext of the movie shifted, but the American version very much had a point relevant to the lives of many Americans.


In the American version, Richard Gere’s character hides the fact that he is ballroom dancing from his family and friends not because it is inherently scandalous or outre, but because he is ashamed to admit that despite “having everything anyone could want,” he feels that his life is missing something. He sees a young woman staring lwistfully out of a high window, and can’t resist the desire to find out more about her. He probably thinks it’s about sex, even though he has never cheated on his wife, but eventually he realizes that it wasn’t, and discovers that ballroom dancing fills a hole he hadn’t realized he had. The young woman, while desirable, had never actually been about sex; she had been a princess for him to rescue, a symbol of romance and adventure. But, in trying to protect his wife from the idea that he is not contented with his life as it is, he hurts her terribly by excluding her from something that becomes important in his life. As is so often the case in human life, unintended consequences result from his attempt to shield her from the truth.

Many of the scenes are identical between the movies, but the focus is different due to the differences in host cultures, and thus the two movies are not at all the same. But both are good and very enjoyable.

I’ve made no secret of my love of dance, and of dance movies – some of you may recall my bitching and moaning about the lack of dance in Meet Me in St. Louis, which I wanted to call “not really a musical” because of that lack. And Once, too, which I adored (and which I own a copy of, filed in with the musicals – plus the soundtrack, which with the upcoming Hedwig, is a CD I listened to as though it were a “regular” album – I’m not really a soundtrack kind of gal) – I’m not sure I want to call that a musical, either. I think you need both to really be able to call it a musical (though I’m willing to be tolerant and say that you don’t need to have the same performers filling both roles).

Which of course disqualifies Shall We Dance? as a musical, because of the lack of singing, along with Dirty Dancing and, come to think of it, Saturday Night Fever. “Dance movie” works fine for these – not sure what to call movies with singing but no dancing – “song movies” doesn’t really resonate, does it?

Interesting distinction, which, several decades into my love of the genre, I’ve never thought about before. I shall continue to ruminate and return with more later.

I’ll come back and read the spoiler later – I just put in a hold on the remake at the library, because this discussion has made me curious about it. (I’ve decided to get off my “cultural imperialism” high horse about it – besides, I like Richard Gere, I don’t hate JLo, and I’m sure Stanley Tucci is a hoot. And Anita Gilette! My god! does she play the older female teacher?)

A lot of seniors in Japan know how to ballroom dance because it was more popular back in the day. My father-in-law for example is a pretty good dancer. However, younger people generally have no idea how to dance because its not part of any social activities like it is in western countries. Weddings generally have no dancing, nor are their social dances in high-school. Only people who take up dance as a hobby know how to do it, and latin or spanish dances are the most popular.

Personally, I wouldn’t call Shall We Dance a dance movie nor a musical. The dancing isn’t put on as a spectacle, it’s not what you watch the movie for, nor is the dancing unnecessary for the plot of the movie. People randomly bursting into song and dance for no particular reason is a musical/dance movie. This is just a movie, in which people happen to dance on the occasion.

By that definition, Dirty Dancing, Strictly Ballroom, and Flashdance are not dance movies. I can’t really get behind that.