movie review by Mark Leeper
Japanese Salaryman leads a double life,
first learning ballroom dancing then in competition
dancing. The story is simple with few unexpected plot twists
and while it has some bittersweet moments there is
insufficient material here to sustain a feature film. For a Japanese
audience there may be more here than meets an American eye.
Rating:5 (0 to 10)
New York Critics: 17 positive, 2 negative, 1 mixed
In the strict rules of Japanese society, public signs of affection are considered to be in bad taste. Things that Americans would find innocuous, like a husband putting his arm around his wife, are considered to be breaches of decency. And while there are Japanese who get involved with ballroom dancing, we learn in this film that it is considered as tawdry in Japan, as going to strip clubs would be in the United States. Paradoxically, the society that shuns the touching of a partner on the ballroom floor is the same society that jams so many people into a subway car that literally nobody else can be shoved through the doorway. But that touching is considered non-voluntary. Ballroom dancing has connotations of rebellion in Japan that we just do not see in our country.
Shohei Sugiyama (played by Koji Yakusho) is a successful 40- something business executive with a staff of people working for him. He has a wife and daughter and has recently bought a house in suburbia. In Japanese society, this is not just success, it is affluence. Yet Shohei is dissatisfied with his pat little accounting job and his simple, programmed life-style. One night, returning home, he gazes up from his subway car and sees a beautiful woman, Mai Kishikawa (Tamiyo Kusakari) gazing out the window of a ballroom dance studio. After seeing her there multiple times he decides to go up and look in on the dance studio. He enrolls as a student in secret. As anxious as he is to meet and even dance with Mai, he is unwilling to pay 6000 yen per lesson from her. So, unable to afford private lessons from Mai he enrolls in a public class with two other men to be taught by an older woman. There at least he can see Mai and perhaps occasionally dance with her. Shohei becomes friends with the two other men in his class as well as with a Japanese dancer with his own fiery Latin style. Shohei's wife Masako (Hideko Hara) recognizes that her husband is doing something without telling her and it is taking a lot of his time. She suspects the worst and determines to find out what mischief her husband is up to.
Masayuki Suo wrote and directed the film that tells its story and gives us a few chuckles and a few bittersweet moments along the way. The real problem is that what happens is rarely unexpected and never surprising. Indeed the dramatic last sequence of the film is not just cliched, it seems almost inevitable. Mai's secret that she contemplates so wistfully at the window each night seems far too trivial to warrant so much attention, and as the core of the film seems too meager. This almost might have made a decent hour- long story, but there really is not enough here to make a satisfying feature film. Perhaps some of the reason is that there are very likely cultural differences that make this story resonate better in Japan than it does in the United States. Certainly there is humor in this film that requires some knowledge of Japanese culture to appreciate. In one scene one of the characters takes a strip of dried squid and dances it on the top of a restaurant table. Some of the humor was lost on most of our audience who probably did not recognize what it was that was dancing. Certainly the Japanese would see the touching while dancing as being daring. While Tokyo may have rock and roll dancers in the park--dressed like 1950s bikers from The Wild One- -even they do not touch each other when they dance. It is difficult to see this film as a Japanese would and that might make all the difference between the simple story we see and one that is considerably richer. Similarly it is difficult to judge the quality of the acting. While we might recognize the difference between really bad acting and decent acting, it is unlikely we would recognize really great acting if we saw it.
What does come across is an innocuous and enjoyable comedy with a touch of human drama and a bit of melodrama. The story of the dancer with the secret past will remind some of Strictly Ballroom, but this film is nowhere near as amusing as that film was. I rate this one a low 1 on the -4 to +4 scale.
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