Just hearing the premise of Shall We Dance? is enough to give you a feel-good flutter. Shohei (Koji Yakusho), a Japanese corporate accountant, handsome with delicate cheekbones yet so morose he can barely crack a smile, rides the train home each night nursing a secret dream of…something. The trip takes him past a dance studio, where he stares, with ritual awe, at the lovely instructor in the window. He’s drawn to her beauty (and, perhaps, her loneliness). Finally, he wanders into the studio and signs up for ballroom-dancing lessons. Slowly, almost robotically at first, with his body paving the way for his soul, he begins to come alive. The ecstasy of movement frees the drone.
Had Shall We Dance? been made in America — and, indeed, plans are being set to remake it in America — the hero, in all likelihood, would be portrayed as a prisoner of his own devising, a dweeb who needs to lighten up and be just like everyone else. (The American middle class, after all, underwent its own collective ritual of dance liberation in the ’50s and ’60s.) Shall We Dance?, however, which was a sizable hit in Japan, is rooted in the Japanese ethos of modesty and control. In this movie, to dance in public — to wear your joy on the outside — is potentially a shameful, even scandalous, activity. The hero seeks a release denied him by his job, his family, his culture. He wants to become less like everyone else.
Like Shohei, we’re invited to experience not just the joy but the rigor of ballroom dancing — a ”seamless” lyric ballet that is woven from dozens of painstaking, finely etched movements, until its athleticism becomes invisible. There’s a gruesomely funny performance by Naoto Takenaka as Shohei’s rigid coworker, who invents an insane dance-floor alter ego; wearing a foppish wig and a ”sexy” leer, he’s like Prince channeling Charo. Shall We Dance? moves with such high-spirited anticipation that, I confess, I wish its payoff had been more…American. The romantic vibes between Shohei and his instructor, the glorious Mai (Tamiyo Kusakari), are repressed to the end. Even when the catharsis we yearn for arrives, it’s tinged with restraint. But then, the true romance in Shall We Dance? is more than personal. It’s the spectacle of a nation learning to dance with itself.