Shall we dance?

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

In 1996, the director Masayuki Suo wrote and directed a quiet little movie called Shall We Dansu (Dance). In 2004, an Americanized version was filmed, this time directed by Peter Chelsom. I watched both recently: the American version first, then the original. I liked both movies; the stories are similar in outline, though very different in execution.

Shall We Dance is the story of a man who seems to have it all, but something is subtly wrong in his life. As he heads home on the train, he glances up to see a woman looking out a window of a dance studio. She seems, as the lead character would say later in the movie, to show on her face what he is feeling inside. He is so intrigued that he impulsively jumps off the train and ends up enrolling in the school. The movie follows him and his fellow classmates as they train for a dance competition, and the lead character finds that, which was never lost.

There is a great deal of humor in both movies, aided and abetted by a wonderfully eccentric cast of characters. The dance sequences are beautifully choreographed and appealing enough to lead me to wonder if there are ballroom dance studios here in St. Louis. It’s a subtle, gentle story, and the people real, even when they are being caricatures.

The American version starred Richard Gere, as the lead character and he was very charming, and not a bad dancer at all, though we knew that from his excellent performance in Chicago. I adored the supporting cast, with the tipsy dance teacher, Gere’s fellow students, and especially Susan Sarandon as Gere’s wife. I did not care for Jennifer Lopez, as the Woman in the window that drew Gere to the dance studio.

The Japanese version starred Koji Yakusyo as the lead–the Salary Man, I guess is the term–with Tamiyo Kusakari as the Woman in the window. The number of characters are the same, and as mentioned earlier, the story line is very similar with both. However, the differences between the two, based on culture, were noticeable and fascinating. It is because of these differences that I judge the Japanese version of the movie to be the superior.

In the Japanese version, Yakusyo is a man whose life is constrained by circumstances. He’s well liked, respected, able to purchase a home and ably provide for his daughter and wife. Yet there is something there in his expression, on the way home from the train when no one is looking at him that shows he is not a happy man. It’s not until he sees the Woman in the window that his expression becomes animated, as he strains to look at her as the train moves away.

In the American movie, Richard Gere is the same, though of course, owning a home is not seen as much of a triumph in the American version; not to mention Gere’s wife having a successful and busy career of her own, unlike the Japanese wife, who stays at home and cares for the family.

Both men are vaguely dissatisfied with their lives, though neither will say anything to their families or friends. Yet it is only with Yakusyo that this state of affairs seems natural. Gere says later in the movie that he didn’t feel he could talk with his wife because he didn’t want her to know that the wasn’t happy with their life. Yet there is nothing in their interaction with each other that would lead one to suppose that either couldn’t talk about anything and everything with the other. His silence in regards to his dissatisfaction, and even his taking dance lessons, conflicted with what we can see of his family.

With Yakusyo, though, we can see immediately the effects of the Japanese culture, which, I must presume, does not encourage Salary Men to come home and unburden themselves with their spouses. Nor does Yakusyo’s wife seem comfortable questioning her husband about her perception that he isn’t happy. It is only in the daughter in both films that the cultural differences between the two families seem to fade.

Because of this, Yakusyo’s character is much more interesting as he works to overcome his discomfort at taking dancing lessons; watching him practicing his steps dancing by a bridge, where he thinks no one can see; moving his feet to unheard music as he sits at his desk at work.

There are cultural differences in many of the characters between the two movies. For instance, the dance studio owner, an older, dignified woman. Though in both movies the character is all that is proper, in the American movie, the studio owner would take sips from a flask from time time, and seemed to go through the first part of the movie in a gentle haze of inebriation. Not so the Japanese studio owner, who is never seen as anything other than a formalized representation of Teacher, and as such deserving of respect.

As for the Woman in the window, the elegant and refined dance instructor, I can see that Lopez must have watched her counter-part and tried to adapt her moves, but it didn’t work. Where Kasukari held herself rigidly dignified and unbendingly elegant, Lopez appeared stiff as a board. Her character was the only sour note in the movie, and completely forgettable. Kasukari, on the other hand, was a perfect foil for Yakusyo–a true embodiment of all his loss.

The two characters that I liked much better in the American film–the Latin dancer who is Gere’s co-worker and the overbearing female student–were played by Stanley Tucci and Lisa Ann Walter. I think it’s because the actors seemed more comfortable with the roles. In the Japanese film, the actors seemed to play the roles too broadly–they were given more humor in the American film, and yet also given more dignity.

The most significant difference in the movie, however, was the attitude about dance. I had no idea that dance with older Japanese is considered so unseemly; that a man would actually take his wife in his arms out in public. This formed an important underlying note for the entire movie–one that was missing with the American movie. The most it could do was bring up the stereotype of male dancers being seen as homosexuals, and a sense of homophobia in order to generate the necessary sense of embarrassment in taking the classes. Nowadays, in Chicago where the American movie took place, this just wouldn’t fly.

Both movies entertained, but watching them together gave me deeper insight into the Japanese culture. For all that I’ve read on Japan, it was the first time I had a true sense of how different both countries really are.

I recommend both movies. However, if you can only see one, I would recommend the Japanese version.