Shall We Dance is a film with important ties to American culture such as the King and I and The Drifters, but it has far more important roots in its native Japan. Thus, its remake starring Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez undoubtedly loses some of the cultural significance of the original film.
Because Japan is a nation of etiquette, good manners, and the like. They act as a whole society, not as individuals. They care about honor, modesty, and how others will perceive them. They work hard for long hours. Men bring home the bacon and wives faithfully serve their husbands and families. Ballroom dancing in a culture like that is about as compatible as oil and water. Men and women are not to show affection — sensing it instead — and holding hands or saying “I love you” is out of the question. Thus, a mode of expression where men and women are meant to be so close and intimate has a stigma attached to it.
When a seemingly successful businessman, Mr Sugiyama (Koji Yakusho) spies a girl in the window of a dance studio, he has no intention of learning the art form. All he wants is to get close to this mysterious beauty. Of course, he has a wife, a daughter, and a good job, but he feels trapped in his life. He has nothing to give him joy, nothing to make him feel alive, just the monotonous rhythms of office life.
In fact, his first jaunts in the dance studio are rather comical, because his ineptness is magnified by his two classmates, one rather rotund and the other short and squat. It’s as if he’s learning to dance with Laurel and Hardy by his side. In fact, a great many characters have tremendous personality on the whole. Ms. Tamura is Shohei’s sagely teacher, who constantly builds him up with encouragement. Mr. Aoki is one of the work colleagues, who also moonlights an extravagant aficionado of the rumba. They are only a few in a vast company of supporting players.
But of course, this is a sort of faux-love story. Think Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire and you get the idea. Except in the Japanese society, the only place you dare talk about dance is in the men’s room with no one around. Stripping away everything else this film is about finding self-expression, especially in a society that has a complex relationship with such an idea. Mr. Sugiyama eventually revels in his chance to dance, practicing steps on the platform waiting for the subway, improving his posture in the rain, or even conspicuously tapping his feet on the ride home.
Mai the beautiful object of his desire is aloof, with glassy eyes, and often feels like the antithesis of Japanese women in many ways. She is strong, straightforward, and physically imposing in a graceful way. As an audience we know essentially the road this film will traverse. Mr. Sugiyama must go through a transformation just as Mai must because they are not the same two people we first met looking out from their prospective windows.
What became most interesting to me was this idea of the affair. Mr. Sugiyama’s wife feels like she has been cheated on and her husband agrees with her openly. However, as an American audience, we look at this plotline and see no sex or anything like that. In essence, it depends on how you define an “affair.” For instance, if we look through the lens of an Astaire & Rogers film, their musical comedies were romances, but they could never show characters sleeping together due to the production codes. So the evolution of a relationship had to be illustrated through dance – the courtship, the conflict, and ultimately the passion. Perhaps Shall We Dance is a little different, but if we look at dance in this symbolic way, this was a film about an affair.
More importantly, however, it is a film about reconciliation, self-expression, and really breaking out of the status quo. Those are themes that ring true, although they might be easier to swallow in an American society.