If your life has gone pretty well and you’ve more or less achieved conventional success but you’re still somehow unhappy then what is it that you’re supposed to do? Sugiyama (Koji Yakusho), the hero of Masayuki Suo’s charming ballroom dancing dramedy Shall We Dance? (Shall we ダンス?) is beginning to wonder, after all he’s a “serious” man as his wife repeatedly describes him but is it really acceptable for a middle-aged husband and father to chase emotional fulfilment or would he be cheating on the salaryman dream in daring to nourish his soul?
As he later says, Sugiyama has followed a conventional path in life. He has a respectable job as an accountant, married at 28 and had a child at 30. By 40 he was able to buy a family home, but also acknowledges that he sold his soul to the company to do so seeing as with the mortgage hanging over his head he is now fully locked in to the corporate system and couldn’t leave even if he wanted to. Yet he’s not quite like his co-workers, an early scene sees the roles somewhat reversed as he, the boss, declines the invitations of a drunken subordinate to stay out longer after an effectively compulsory after work drinking session to return to his family home at only 9pm but going straight to bed when he gets there. He and his wife Masako (Hideko Hara) share a room but sleep in separate beds presumably so he doesn’t wake her when he gets up early to go to the office making his own breakfast before he leaves.
“It’s not a matter of like or dislike, it’s work” Sugiyama tells his co-worker as she complains that the more glamorous sales department gets all the best perks and she’s sick of working in accounts, hinting at his inner malaise in his relentlessly corporate life. That’s one reason he’s captivated by the sight of a beautiful yet sad woman gazing out of a window from a building above on his train journey home. When he gets off the train to look for her, he in one sense leaves the salaryman rails breaking with the conventions that he is expected to fulfil in search of something more. Mai (Tamiyo Kusakari), a former ballroom dancer taking a temporary sabbatical from competitive sport teaching at her father’s studio, is just as unhappy as he is but for contrary reasons. She has lost the joy of dance, for her it has become as soulless a job as Sugiyama’s accountancy and she too struggles with the image she has of a dancer and what that means for her in terms of personal fulfilment.
Yet as Sugiyama explains in his opening voiceover, ballroom dancing is viewed as something of a naff hobby mostly associated with sleazy old men only there for the opportunity of physical contact with women of varying ages. When he spots his co-worker Aoki (Naoto Takenaka) at the dance class it’s embarrassing for both of them, each promising not to say anything to anyone at work, the floor later erupting in laughter when someone finds a picture of Aoki taken at a competition in the newspaper. Developing an interest in the sport, Sugiyama buys a ballroom dancing magazine but interrupted by his daughter quickly hides it as if he had been looking at pornography or some other material he feels to be shameful.
The irony is that Masako had wished Sugiyama would go out more, realising that he’s selflessly dedicated himself to the salaryman dream in order to provide for their family, but then becomes suspicious and resentful as he leaves her alone to pursue his new hobby which he cannot disclose to her out of embarrassment. She in turn sniffing perfume on his shirts fears he’s having an affair, but is unable to ask him about it directly preferring to hire a private detective (Akira Emoto) instead. Leaving aside that each of them ends up secretly spending money when they’re supposed to be saving for the mortgage, the oppressive social conformity of the salaryman existence is beginning to erode their relationship. Forced into the role of the conventional housewife, Masako too is lonely expected to find fulfilment only in home and family while preparing to re-enter the world of work now her daughter is old enough to care for herself because of the financial burden of the mortgage rather than her own desire to fulfil herself. Sugiyama isn’t having an affair, but still she feels betrayed because he left her behind to chase emotional liberation on his own rather than taking her with him never really noticing her loneliness.
Yet as Sugiyama is repeatedly told, dancing, unlike the salaryman game, is about more than learning the steps, it’s about feeling the music and finding joy in movement. That’s something Mai has also lost sight of, finally realising that she too was a selfish dancer who’d been dancing alone all along unable to fully trust her partner rediscovering her joy in dance as she coaches not only Sugiyama but his classmates towards their own liberation. Sugiyama remains conflicted because the excessively corporatised society leads him to believe that it’s taboo to devote oneself to anything other than work or in essence to experience joy that is not directly related to productivity, that he should be wholly “salaryman” and nothing else, just his wife should be nothing more than that. It’s this oppressive conformity that undermines their conventional marriage rather than Sugiyama’s transgressive decision to get off the salaryman train, put down his briefcase, and embrace his desire for personal fulfilment. Only through this act of mutual emotional authenticity can they restore familial harmony. A minor meditation on the emptiness of the increasingly elusive salaryman dream in the economically stagnant ’90s, Suo’s charming drama insists on joy as a basic human need in a society which often trivialises personal happiness.
Shall We Dance? screens at the BFI on 21/30 December as part of BFI Japan.
Original trailer (no subtitles)