We work too hard sometimes. Our lives seem nothing more than a succession of routine motions in which we cannot find ourselves. Something external to us – duty – overwhelms us, and we are unable to feel we are still the authors of our lives. Even the diversions that are meant to release us from the tensions of work no longer recreate us. They too become predictable and empty.
This is the situation in which Sugiyama, the main character of the Japanese film “Shall we dance”, has found himself. Sugiyama is in his mid-40s, a chief accountant in a small company. He has a loving wife and a daughter who admire his dedication to the family. Recently he took out a long-term loan so he could buy them a modest house. In the eyes of his colleagues, he is a picture of success. But his wife worries that he works too hard.
On his way home one evening, at a train stop, Sugiyama looks up from the glass door of the train and sees a beautiful woman staring out from the window of a dancing school. The lonely figure obsesses him. Everyday, he would search for her as the train makes its regular stop at that station. Sometimes he would see her glide by as she danced, but most of the time, he would find her in that still solitary pose, full of sadness and mystery.
One evening, not finding her where she would usually be, he bounds out of the train on an impulse and, before he realizes it, enrolls himself in a shako dancing school. And now he is face-to-face with the mysterious woman he has only admired from a distance. She is Mai, the daughter of the school’s owner, and an accomplished dancer who once competed in Blackpool, the Mecca of international dance competitions.
At the school, Sugiyama meets other students, old and new, all of them wrapped up in their respective idiosyncratic memories in which dancing signifies something. He gets re-acquainted with an office mate who undergoes a weird transformation each time he hits the dance floor. He meets a hard-working woman, a lonely widow, who sees in him a reincarnation of her late husband. He learns his first steps from a kind lady instructor who took to dancing after being summoned by the song “Shall we dance” in the movie “The King and I”. He fumbles, he stiffens, and he steps on the toes of his dancing partners. This is punishment worse than work. His heart is not in the dance; all he cares about is the chance to see the adorable Mai.
But Mai is tormented by her own problems. She is a dancer, not a teacher. Her father has ordered her to work at the school so that she herself may learn a lesson. It is not to learn new steps, for that is just a matter of skill. It is rather to learn something about the ethics of dancing, the matter of being present and attentive in the company of others. Some dance too much for themselves, forgetting to share the pleasure with their partners. Some dance for sheer selfish exhibitionism. Others dance as an act of duty to the steps, and forget to enjoy themselves.
Our hero, Sugiyama, first comes to the dance floor to watch a woman, possibly to pick up a woman. Mai senses this, and sharply reminds him that these are motives that rob dancing of its integrity. The shako dance hall is not a pick-up joint, she warns him. And dancing is not a route to other pleasures; it is its own pleasure.
Mai’s words chasten him. But he cannot accept that his intentions have been less than pure. To redeem himself, he subjects himself to the discipline of dancing. With an accountant’s resolve, he rehearses his steps in the train, in the office, and in the privacy of his study. He buys himself a shoulder brace to improve his posture. It is still hard work, but now he realizes he is also actually beginning to enjoy himself. His humility, his efforts to overcome himself, and his attentiveness to the needs of his fellow learners impress everyone, including Mai.
But his wife begins to suspect that he may be having an affair. He has not told her anything about these dancing lessons. She feels shunted out of his life. She hires a detective and discovers the truth: he is having an affair with dancing.
This is a feel-good movie, one of the best contemporary films to come out of Japan. It is also one of the funniest films I have seen in years. But more than all this, “Shall we dance” is a poignant existential film that portrays the constant tension between self-creation, on one hand, and social solidarity, on the other. This is basically the artist Mai’s dilemma. But it is also the situation that the film’s key characters represent in one degree or other.
The film seems to say that while the quest for fulfillment and meaning may be primarily a private one, the social space we inhabit with other people compels us to be equally attentive to their needs. Lucky are the ones who can experience self-fulfillment through a life of service to others. They are able to hold the social and the personal in a single vision. But they are the exceptions. For the rest of us, life is a constant balancing act between the public world of social duty and the private world of self-invention.
It is a theme that has powerful resonance in Japan where the force of tradition and group loyalty can smother the individual. Here, the need to secretly cultivate a second self may often be a matter of survival. “Shall we dance” empathizes with this need, but it also warns against the dangers of self-obsession. (Readers may still catch the film at the ongoing contemporary Japanese film festival, when it moves to the Cultural Center of the Philippines for the week of March 8-12.)
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