My Favorite Movies #1: Shall We Dansu?

For most, defining their “favorite” movie is pretty simple. It’s that one movie that came along at exactly the right time, spoke the exact right thing to their heart, and is the ultimate desert island movie, the one movie that they can watch anytime, anywhere, repeatedly and ad nauseum, and still love.

Ask them what their “top five” movies are, they may have to take a beat. That’s me. I have seen and love so many different movies for so many different reasons, defining numbers two through five on my list is pretty hard. But like most, my favorite movie is easy:

Shall We Dansu?

…the commute…

No, that’s not a typo, and no, I don’t mean the critical and box office failure starring Richard Gere. I mean the original Japanese masterpiece on which that embarrassment was based.

Shall We Dansu? (dansu is the Japanese pronunciation of the English word) won 14 (count ‘em and weep) Japanese Academy Awards and was the most popular and successful foreign film in the US until, I believe, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Starring Koji Yakusho, who most will recognize from Memoirs of a Geisha, as a Japanese “salaryman” stuck in a dead end job and a dead end life, Shall We Dansu? is NOT a romantic comedy like it is generally marketed. Rather it is the story of a resigned and lifeless middle-aged man coming to life through discovering a new passion and a new adventure in the somewhat taboo world (at least in Japan) of ballroom dance.

In brief, the Salaryman, entranced by the mysterious woman looking out the window of a ballroom dance school he passes on his way home from work, inadvertently finds himself enrolled in dance classes just to be near her. However, he soon discovers that it is not an affair he is after. It is not an escape from his loving though passionless marriage. It is an adventure he needs, and this accidental adventure he finds himself in brings him, and those around him, back to life in ways he never could have anticipated.

It may seem an odd favorite movie for a man, especially one as burly and gruff as me, but honestly, there are few movies that capture the soul of a man as truly and clearly as this almost unknown movie about dance. It illustrates so well the resignation most men fall into as their sanitized, safe, and “correct” life progresses, and what happens inside of him when he discovers his true calling, the true cry of his heart.

It is a Man Movie.

One of the best things about this movie, besides the core story and theme of life, is the use of the ensemble. In America, we rarely get stories that focus on anyone but the main characters in any meaningful way. In Shall We Dansu?, virtually every single character gets a moment to shine, especially Hiromasa Taguchi in a heart breaking monologue, but that’s just one example. By the end of the movie, you have fallen in love with each and every odd and unique character in this strange little world of this one dance school.

An odd little band of brothers…

See this movie.

I can’t really be more clear than that. From a technical standpoint, it is a masterful piece of filmmaking. Unorthodox yet incredibly effective cinematography, a witty, uplifting, and at times heartbreaking script, and performances that will blow you down.

Tragically, I have found out, much to my chagrin, that my favorite movie, the movie I’ve watched and loved countless times over the past five years, is actually an American cut of the original Japanese release. CURSES! Again, Hollywood has determined that it knows better and has cut the winner of 14 Japanese Academy Awards (because it wasn’t good enough to begin with, apparently) by 18 minutes, the irredeemable fiends. (Sorry, this is a sensitive subject.) I am in the process of getting hold of a Japanese cut of the film and will post an addendum as soon as I can.

Until then, SEE THIS MOVIE. If you don’t have Netflix (where at the time of this posting, it’s available for streaming), just buy it. It’s worth it.

Thank you, everyone, for reading my first post! I’ll be back every week (maybe even more) just sharing my passion for movies, TV, story, filmmaking, life, the universe, and everything.

So what’s your favorite movie? Why? What was that time in your life, and what did it speak to you? What was the last foreign film you saw? How much value do you think there is in exploring media and stories rooted in cultures different from our own?

9 responses to “My Favorite Movies #1: Shall We Dansu?

  1. you showed this movie to me. fantastic! sooo much better than our poor excuse for an American remake.

    • Yeah, still haven’t seen the Gere one, but I was really surprised (at first) to hear the version I love is still an edited version. Now I’m not surprised. H’wood always does this. A full cut is on its way, so I’ll be posting an update soon hopefully. Still incredibly frustrating.

  2. I cannot agree with you more about this film, Benjamin. I am now in the process of getting my second DVD copy, since my first one has worn out. However, I seem to recall that when Mai apologizes for her original assessment of Mr. Sugiyama’s character, he makes a comment about having seen in her face (from the train station) the sadness (? Not sure if that’s the correct word that he uses) that was in his heart and explaining that it was what drew him to her. I don’t consider it a romance movie, as much as a film about people finding their own little paradise on earth through the love of dancing. Of course, this is my OHO. But yours is an excellent review of an equally excellent movie. I look forward to reading more. Be Blessed.

    • Agreed, it is not a romance movie at all. BUT it is his, at first, possible romantic interest in her that sets him off on this journey. Yes, it is her melancholic look that first attracts him to the class, but it is an ATTRACTION. He says, “It was that affection for you that brought me to class” (as the subtitles read in that same scene), so while it begins as a possible adulterous attraction, it opens the door into what he ACTUALLY needs: Adventure.

      It’s well documented that most men who have affairs aren’t doing it for the sex. It’s for the ADVENTURE. They’re daily grind, the beating down of their masculine soul, either by the culture or by their wife or both, has left them desperate for any kind of adventure, and so they turn to sneaking around. It’s exciting. It’s forbidden. And that translates to, in a broken, beaten man’s heart, adventure.

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