Mr. Sugiyama (Koji Yakusho) is an accountant with a large firm. Each night, he makes the long commute home to his wife and daughter. One evening, he gazes out of the window of his train and spots a lovely, sad woman, Mai (Tamiyo Kusakari) standing in the window of a dance studio. Impetuously, he darts out of the train and soon begins taking ballroom dancing lessons, merely to be near her. At the dance studio he meets a number of new friends and is soon encouraged to be the partner of a brassy woman in a local competition. Meanwhile, his wife becomes a little suspicious and hires a detective. The detective soon learns the truth and doesn’t know how to tell the wife.
Last year, Miramax Films released “Shall We Dance?” starring Richard Gere, Jennifer Lopez and Susan Sarandon. You may have read about it or seen an ad. Maybe you even saw the film. It was a pleasant diversion for a few hours. What you may not know is that the film is based on a Japanese film. Released in 1996 by Miramax, the Japanese version became a hit on the art house circuit, prompting Miramax to make the American film. When the plans for the American film formed, the Japanese version was not released on DVD. I guess they felt it would be too confusing. Now, the original has been released to coincide with the DVD release of the Richard Gere version.
Watching the original, “Shall We Dansu?” it was striking to me how similar the two versions are. The American version is virtually a shot for shot remake. Characters are the same, settings are the same, and plotlines are the same. The one difference seems to be that they strengthened Susan Sarandon’s character in the 2004 version. She plays Richard Gere’s wife, has a demanding job, and is involved in the big finale. In the 1996 version, the wife seems to stay at home and doesn’t participate in the finale, urging her husband to go alone.
Making an American version of a foreign film is becoming more and more common. Studios feel that they can make an interesting story more acceptable for American audiences by removing subtitles, toning down the story and/or content, making the film more homogenous.
“Shall We Dansu?” is a very pleasant film, but it is easily one of the most “Hollywood-like” foreign films I have seen in a long time. If you like foreign films, you probably go to the theater to see a story that you might not ordinarily see on a multiplex screen, something a Hollywood studio would never make. “Dansu?” appears to be a homage to American filmmaking. There is a supporting cast of colorful characters. A balding office worker struts around the cubicles, practicing his moves. When he shows up at the dance studio, he is wearing a wig and seems to be channeling the spirit of Denny Terrio. There is an overweight man who finds his rhythym and dances better when he is in love. There is an older woman, a former dancer, who now runs the dance studio, delighting in the achievement of her students, living through them.
Everything in “Dansu?” seems a little too calculated, a little too easy. Much like an American version of this film would be. This explains why Miramax was so interested in “Americanizing” it. But why go to the trouble? The film is not that challenging to begin with.
A co-worker commented that one of the reasons the Japanese version worked so well was because dancing is much less common in their society. It is funny and charming to watch a stiff Japanese man try to loosen up and become a ballroom dancer. This is part of the reason for the film’s success, but it doesn’t work completely. Throughout the film, this character doesn’t really change. He remains a stiff man and has great difficulty loosening up. Yes, he does appear to be a good ballroom dancer, but he doesn’t take to some of the more informal types of dancing. These are left to the more comical characters in the dance class. Mai is also a bit too dour to become completely likeable. She is as stiff as Mr. Sugiyama, at least initially. When she realizes that he is determined to learn the dancing, she begins to help coach him a little. Part of the problem with both of them being so stiff, is that I had difficulty believing they have formed any attraction to one another. Mai doesn’t even smile at him until the very final scene. What is the attraction here? We don’t really find out.
If you can discount the lack of a believable central relationship, the film is pleasant to watch. The supporting characters are broad and stereotypical. But they work. Another reason why the film easily translated to an American-ization.
“Shall We Dansu?” works best when we get brief glimpses of what Japanese society is like. The endless commuting to a job that leaves the central character feeling dead. The wife’s reluctance to share her problems with a detective. The daughter’s ability to smooth things over. These are all interesting to watch. The dancing is also interesting to watch, but because the characters are so broad and there is little development in the relationship of the two main characters we don’t feel for them and the dancing doesn’t have the impact it should have.
“Dansu?” is a pleasant, unchallenging film. It almost seems like a Japanese remake of an American film. And not the other way around.