Screen gems...with M.V. Moorhead
Shall We Dance?

For a Valentine's date of sheer, old-school romance, dancing is tough to top. But for those of us with the choreographic grace of an arthritic hippo, the movies will have to do. Dance is one of the great movie subjects, and there have been several favorites specifically about ballroom rug-cutting, like Dirty Dancing and Strictly Ballroom.

One of the best is the 1996 Japanese film Shall We Dance? Masayuki Suo's sweet, wistful comedy was given a big-budget Hollywood remake last year, starring Richard Gere. The Yank version is pleasant enough, but it's the original that most deserves to be seen. Happily, both are now available on DVD.

The hero is Mr. Sugiyama (Koji Yakusho), a married, middle-aged office drone, successful but bored and melancholy, who looks up from his commuter train one evening to see a beautiful, ineffably sad-faced young woman (Tamiyo Kusakari) gazing down from the window of a ballroom dancing school.

Drawn to this enchanting vision--maybe sensing a kindred spirit--he gets off the train a few nights later and impulsively signs up for a beginner's class.

He doesn't, initially, get anywhere near the woman from the window--his first teacher is a nice older lady--but before long he's fallen in love with dancing itself, and quietly bonded with the various eccentric people he meets at the school. His wife, thinking his absences mean he's having an affair, hires a private detective to find out the innocent, but for a Japanese businessman very peculiar, truth.

Eventually Sugiyama-san does get closer to the window woman, and learns what makes her so sad. But while Shall we Dance? is unabashedly romantic, it isn't about an amour. The true object of the movie's romance is dance itself, and the liberation it offers to the passionate yearnings of people who might not otherwise be able to express themselves. As such, it offers an extra level of  amusement for Western viewers. Ballroom dancing may seem to us formal and old-fashioned, but in a culture as traditionally reserved as Japan's, it seems hot, exotic, almost promiscuous.

Which brings us to the American remake, Shall We Dance (the title of both films is in English, but the American version drops the question mark in the credits). Richard Gere plays the dance aspirant, here a Chicago lawyer. Susan Sarandon is the suspicious wife, and Jennifer Lopez is the sad-eyed glory in the window.

I was expecting to hate the film, but it's actually not just a knockoff. The acting is fine--Gere gets better and better as he gets older--and there's some really good dialogue by Audrey Wells.

The dances are flashier and less believable, edited more like musical numbers, but they're entertaining in their own, vulgarly American way.

But unless you're among those who can't abide subtitles, I'd suggest you start with the Japanese Shall We Dance? for your Valentine viewing.

The DVD: The American version is loaded with extras, most of them on the blah side. Beginners' Ballroom, a documentary about history of ballroom dancing, is interesting if brief, and the other documentaries are basically glorified promos for the film.

There's a video of the signature song Sway by the Pussycat Dolls, who are easy on the eye but no threat to Dean Martin. There's a commentary track by director Peter Chelsom, and there are some deleted scenes, including a long and perplexing alternate opening.

The Japanese version is even more bare-bones--apart from a promo for the American version, it has no extras. But it doesn't need any.

The Japanese version is rated PG (for mild language); the remake PG-13 for (for some sexual references and brief language). Both would probably be considered suitable family viewing in most households.