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Movie Review: Shall We Dance?

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The sweet Japanese movie, Shall We Dance? caught my attention for two reasons. First, after I saw it during its initial run in America, my Japanese friend told me that the American version had been cut to highlight the male protagonist instead of showing the couple's parallel journey. This year, after watching the Antonio Banderas flick, Take the Lead, a dancing friend commented that tango was the dance.

If you saw Take the Lead, or even vaguely remember the trailers, you'll remember the centerpiece dances were tango. In the movie, this is how the dance teacher lures the kids into learning ballroom. This wasn't the case in the documentary, Mad Hot Ballroom, or Strictly Ballroom, although the later did use another Latin dance, Paso Doble, as the portal for the lead to learn the true heart and soul of dance. Other movies, such as Moulin Rouge, Chicago ,and Rent used tango to push the story forward, mainly to signify a conflicted, unhealthy relationship. Yet, I didn't recall tango used at all in the Japanese version of Shall We Dance?.

The Japanese movie is now available on DVD because of the Richard Gere movie. The DVD is disappointing because it features, not commentary by the Japanese director/writer Masayuki Suo or stars (Koji Yakusho who was recently in Memoirs of a Geisha and Babel or professional ballet dancer Tamiyo Kusakari), but clips from the American version.

Watching the Japanese version again, I saw there was tango – not as a dance, but as part of the soundtrack. No one is seen dancing the tango at all throughout the movie. The clips for the American version do feature segments from a tango, with subdued romantic lighting, danced mostly by Jennifer Lopez with Richard Gere looking on and probably not really leading the choreographed piece.

These are not the only differences between the two versions. In the 1996 Japanese version of Shall We Dance? a voiceover explains that in Japan men are not expected to entertain with their wives and dancing, face-to-face within an embrace, isn't part of traditional Japan. Ballroom dancing doesn't have the same polite society past in Japan that it does in American culture. Certainly, ballroom does not have the same kind of cultural respect that it does in Europe, particularly England. Blackpool, England is the most famous international competition and British universities have thriving, active and highly competitive ballroom dance teams.

Yet Japan hasn't been stuck in a time warp, away from the deadly dancing fevers of swing, disco, line-dancing, salsa and hip hop. Last year, a Japanese couple won second place in stage tango in the third World Tango Dancing Championships. To be clear, that championship was for Argentine tango, not American tango – an American ballroom standardized version, nor international tango, the variation that would be danced in Blackpool. Argentine tango is considered a nightclub dance, like hustle, East Coast and West Coast swing.

The Japanese movie centered on a man, Shohei Sugiyama, who was quiet, serious and respected, working an accounting job that didn't require leadership or draw attention to him in any way. He doesn't join in the company gossip, most of which centers upon the geeky Tomio (Naoto Takenaka). Sugiyama's counterpart, Mai, is just as reserved, serious and aloof as he is. Both of them need to learn the joy of dancing and even the happiness from finding interest in life outside of work.

In the 2004 American version, you can just imagine the executives, writers and producers thinking — in this pre-Dancing With the Stars time period — that perhaps ballroom is scandalous enough for the Japanese, but that won't fly with American audiences. Who would watch stars dancing ballroom?

We need to sex it up, they were thinking. Can we get in something like hip hop for the young audiences? Oh, let's add a son so the protagonist can accidentally meet him and go to a modern dance place. That will draw in the young people. And what about having some sexy women and men in skimpy outfits dancing? Sure. That ballrooom practice dance scene is too boring. After all, Americans won't want to watch frumpy middle-aged men and women dancing. That might be OK for a Japanese audience. That would be too embarrassing, too boring.

No, let's get in some sexy dancers. They'll be dancing samba. We can have a samba dance line. Then they'll break into a waltz. That makes sense. People dressed in ballroom outfits waiting to dance a nightclub dance sequence–in a place that is both a meat market AND a ballroom practice place. Does this make sense anywhere outside of Hollywood and to anyone besides the demographics gurus?

In the Japanese version, Sugiyama has a certain elegance compared to his classmates who serve mostly as comic relief. Their middle-aged instructor is kind and wise and exudes the joy of both dancing and teaching as she watches her three new students transform with each lesson. In the American version, the teacher has to get a sip of alcohol courage before she faces her new class of beginners. Perhaps the writers thought the Gere-Lopez storyline wasn't enough because they also add side-stories about the other students and an attraction between Susan Sarandon who plays the wife of Gere's character and the detective. In the Japanese version,

Sugiyama doesn't dance the Latin dances and is replaced by Tomio because it would be too difficult for him to learn them in such a short space of time. This is one of the least convincing parts of the American version because the makers had to have a hot, steamy tango, danced by Gere as John Clark and Lopez as Paulina. Does that make any sense? Sugiyama carried himself with almost a formal air when he danced, seeming too stiff for the Latin dances. Yet the Gere character can dance tango? On the DVD, the extras include the original beginning, which actually makes more sense, and interviews with all the principals about how they felt learning to dance. Ironically, these interviews catch the true spirit lacking in the movie.

Why do people dance? For the sheer please of learning a discipline and being able to move gracefully and be envied by other people. They dance for the joy of achieving something and doing it well. People dance competitively for the chance to shine outside of their mundane lives. Sugiyama wasn't a high-powered lawyer working in an expensive building. He was someone who had risen to a certain level in his company, but was boxed into common expectations who found a chance to express himself by following a whim.

This is the least convincing aspect of the American version — why John would take lessons without his wife, without his daughter? He's a popular, well-spoken lawyer. Where Sugiyama was stiff though elegant, he couldn't master the sensuous hip movements necessary for the Latin dances, John can get some hip action going. And he can lead tango.

The American version also adds characters of convenience. Did we really need for John Clark to have a son? Yes, for the ephiphany scene when a young girl his son's age asks him if he wants to dance. Where is the son later? Why is his new girlfriend introduced into the movie? What happens to them? No idea. Do we see anyone dance tango at the competition? No, we don't.  When we later see Paulina practicing, is she practicing ballroom? No, she isn't.

A similar character, working a lower position in the same field found exuberant joy in becoming a producer. Played by Matthew Broderick in Mel Brook's 2005 musical film version of his 1967 movie by the same name, The Producers. Broderick's Leo Bloom just as Gene Wilder's Bloom, is an accountant, stiffled by the mundane routine of his job.  Another similar American character would be James Thurber's Walter Mitty. The 1947 movie version with Danny Kaye, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, didn't please Thurber, but was also a song and dance feature like the 2005 The Producers.

The late Don Knotts was known for his milquetoast characters from Barney Fife to his Mr. Limpet who finds courage as a fish. There is something whimsical about the scene between Saradon and Gere, as they dance together in the kitchen. As a couple, they work, but perhaps it would be better in another story – one that made more emotional sense.

On the DVD, you can see the original beginning, something that worked a bit better and made the exchange John has with Paulina make more sense and yet still didn't explain why, why John took lessons without telling his wife.

Perhaps the American version of Shall We Dance? would have been more successful if it had tried to find the commonalities between America and Japan. The dancers here and there might be stars at night and yet be rather dull during the day. Perhaps someday, if Americans get over their preconceived notions of tango, they'll realize tango is not about tortured or unfufilled romantic relationships. Sometimes a dance is just a dance and the passion isn't off the floor at all or if it is on the floor, it's about the dance itself.

Someday perhaps producers, writers and directors come to an understanding that universal appeal isn't playing to all audiences and thus serving none. Someday perhaps producers, writers and directors come to an understanding that universal appeal isn't playing to all audiences and thus serving none. Being a slave to the demographics is not how masterpieces are made.

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