A simple dance, gracefully executed

Jul 16, 1997 at 12:00 am

The defining moment of Shall We Dance? is a brief glance that carries the force of a thunderbolt. In the middle of a long train commute to his new home in the suburbs, fortysomething accountant Shohei Sugiyama (Koji Yakusho) looks up to see a wistful sight: a lovely young woman named Mai (Tamiyo Kusakari) staring solemnly out the open window of a dance school.

This prompts him to begin doing something that in Japan is considered marginal and even shameful: ballroom dancing. When Sugiyama, after getting up his nerve, walks into the dance studio where Mai works, he finds himself among a group of colorful social misfits. But shyly he begins group lessons taught by the kind and patient Tamako Tamura (Reiko Kusamura).

Tamako-sensei, as she is called, has a Zenlike appreciation of dancing: As she teaches its pleasures to others, dancing nourishes her soul. She is the opposite of the haughty and scornful Mai, whose failure in competitive ballroom dancing has left her bitter and emotionally crippled.

As his teenage daughter notices him doing "strange movements," and his worried wife hires a sympathetic private detective to follow him, Sugiyama gradually finds not only his footing but a renewed sense of happiness and accomplishment.

But it's the most extreme and funniest characters who often steal the show: Toyoko Takahashi (Eriko Watanabe) prides herself on being a spandex-clad seductress and Tomio Aoki (Naoto Takenaka), an inept functionary in Sugiyama's office, puts on an outrageous wig and adopts bizzare facial expressions and movements to become his alter ego, "Donny."

This lovely, bittersweet comedy is at its heart a giddy musical and writer-director Masayuki Suo doesn't make a false step, even if he doesn't add anything particularly new to the genre. Some of the film's best qualities are the smart, nuanced performances by the ensemble cast.

Shot in bright colors, and with camerawork that seems to gracefully glide, Shall We Dance? illustrates the jaunty optimism of the song George and Ira Gershwin wrote for the 1937 musical of the same name. "Shall we dance or keep on moping?" Fred Astaire asked Ginger Rogers. "Shall we dance and walk on air?"

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].