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We are both outmanned and outgunned. Entering the Four Seasons Hotel lounge, I have a small Sony tape recorder (analog); Darrow Montgomery has two Leica cameras, one vintage, one more recent, and a few lenses. Japanese writer/director Masayuki Suo, however, is flanked by an assistant as well as a translator. As he prepares to be interviewed, he sets up a much smaller Sony tape recorder (digital) and a tiny video camera, which he directs at me. His assistant deploys another, larger video camera, focused on Suo. The director is constructing a video diary of his trip to America, the translator explains, begging my permission to allow the videotaping in a tone that is quintessentially Japanese: both apologetic and unbending.

This high-tech encounter might be appropriate if we were here to discuss the kind of Japanese film typically released in the U.S. these days: animated or heavily FX’d, futuristic, and frequently brutal. Suo’s Shall We Dance?, however, is one from the heart. It’s the story of a typical Japanese white-collar wage slave (or “salaryman”) who finds unexpected fulfillment in ballroom dancing. Skeptics who’ve grown weary of Miramax’s relentless worldwide search for lightweight fare have dubbed the film “the Japanese Strictly Ballroom,” but the two movies share less than might be assumed.

The difference is principally cultural. Both films mix high romanticism and low comedy, but the Australian Strictly Ballroom was far more brash and outgoing. The quieter, warmer Shall We Dance? is set in a country where ballroom dancing is a dark secret. Public contact between adults of the opposite sex (even married couples) is considered vulgar, and public dancing (like so many Japanese entertainments) is traditionally associated with prostitution. When Shohei (Koji Yakusho) decides to take dance lessons, he takes care that neither his co-workers nor his wife Masako and daughter Natsuko (Hideko Hara and Misa Shimizu) find out.

Dancing, of course, is often a preliminary to more intimate contact. But Shall We Dance? recalls the joke about fundamentalist Christians’ objection to sex: They fear it might lead to dancing. When Shohei spies Mai (ballet dancer Tamiyo Kusakari) at the window of a dancing school on his commuter-train ride home, he’s attracted to the statuesque, melancholy beauty. He decides to takes lessons just to meet her, only to learn that private lessons with the woman—a near-champion who failed traumatically at the world championships in Blackpool, England—are beyond his budget. He takes group lessons instead, still inspired more by Mai’s presence than any terpsichorean ambitions.

“Just like the main character in the movie,” recalls Suo, “I was in a train and I saw a dance school near the station. Then I realized that there are so many dance schools near the stations, and most of the Japanese salarymen are commuting at the same time every day. I thought if a man saw a beautiful lady at a dance school every day, then he might have a longing to dance with that beautiful lady one day.”

The director researched the Japanese ballroom scene, a subculture he had never previously considered, for a year before beginning the script. “I found a lot of interesting characters among those who are involved in ballroom dancing,” he says.

Suo embellished Shall We Dance? with such characters, notably Aoki (Naoto Takenaka), a long-haired Latin-dance enthusiast who is revealed, when his wig slips off, as one of Shohei’s co-workers. Shohei only has eyes for Mai, however, until one night when he invites her to dinner and she responds by impugning his dedication to dance. Chastened, he turns his attention to mastering the steps. But he still doesn’t tell his wife about his new avocation. Mystified, she hires a private investigator to uncover Shohei’s secret life.

This small domestic drama was one of last year’s biggest-grossing films in Japan, probably because it reached an audience that has largely stopped going to films. “The Japanese movie industry is very much in a disastrous situation,” explains the director. “Most movies now made in Japan are targeted for TV and video. I had a hunch that there is some hidden desire among the Japanese public to go to the movies, but the general public does not know what kind of movie is available. They have a feeling that there are no worthwhile movies playing.

“In Japan the majority of moviegoers are younger people. But the first audience for Shall We Dance? was housewives. In Japan, those who are most energetic in looking for what’s interesting in life are middle-aged housewives. They would go to Shall We Dance? for the first show, then they would go to lunch and go shopping. When they returned home, they talked of this movie to their husbands and their children. Because of the movie,” suggests the director, “they thought it was important to communicate with their spouses.”

This is a significant breakthrough, since one of the film’s premises is that Japanese husbands and wives seldom talk to each other. This gap is one of the things that contemporary Western observers find most disturbing about Japan: Such books as Pico Iyer’s The Lady and the Monk and Elisabeth Bumiller’s The Secrets of Mariko marvel at the distance married Japanese couples manage to find in their tiny houses and apartments.

Where Western movies about stifled spouses often present adultery as liberation, Shall We Dance? takes a perversely family-affirming path. Tipped off by the private detective, Shohei’s wife and daughter attend a dance competition where the salaryman is to reveal his other self. As her father twirls, Natsuko calls out encouragement. Hearing her voice wrecks Shohei’s concentration, but ultimately restores domestic tranquility. Once his cover is blown, Shohei must discuss his secret life with Masako. Then, at their daughter’s insistence, he begins to teach Masako to dance. Thus the rebellious younger generation teaches the staid older one to enjoy the everyday bourgeois pleasures of the West.

Natsuko’s role, Suo explains, is “a reflection of my feeling for my father. I expressed my own feeling through the mouth of the daughter. The lead character is like my father. He was a fighter pilot in World War II; at that time, he sacrificed himself for the sake of the country. When he returned from the war, he sacrificed himself to work hard for the family. So I was hoping that my father could have found some joy of life. I have never seen my parents doing things just to enjoy themselves, which is very typical of the older generation.

“After World War II, most of the Japanese worked so hard to compete with the Western economies. For most salarymen, it’s their life to work for the company and to work for the family. Companies and families are [now] better off, but it’s not necessarily bringing happiness to the salarymen. I wanted to encourage middle-aged men, including myself, to enjoy life, since we are somewhat lost.”

Outside regimented cultures like Japan’s, that’s not a bold message, and Shall We Dance? is not a bold movie. Still, it’s a well-crafted one. Though the film takes a little too long to get started, it doesn’t falter once the momentum is established. The director’s style is old-fashioned and ordinary, but the performances are assured and winning. Suo cites Dirty Dancing as instructive and the films of Billy Wilder as inspirational, but the most salient precedent is the work of his mentor, Juzo Itami, the director of such international hits as A Taxing Woman and Tampopo. (The latter screens July 20 and 24 at the Freer.)

The director was surprised, he says, to see that the places “where people laugh here and Japan are the same. When audiences become quiet and sympathize is the same. The only difference is that people here express themselves more. There’s a bigger reaction among the American audience.” He’s also pleased that Americans seem to “understand the Japanese marriage in the way that I want you to understand.

“When I was making Shall We Dance?,” he notes, “I did not think of any audience outside Japan. I never thought of distribution in the United States. [Miramax’s interest] was a great surprise to me. When I made Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t [his previous film], I expected that it should be shown in the United States.” (Miramax told Suo, he adds, that they’d be interested in Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t if Shall We Dance? is a stateside hit.)

“The people in the Japanese film industry don’t think that Japanese films can appeal to foreign audiences. So I think that my movie has a great responsibility. If Shall We Dance? appeals to the American audience, that may change the Japanese movie industry.” That might seem overreaching, but after shaking up the Japanese family, transforming the country’s film biz seems a small task for Miramax’s latest foreign charmer.—Mark Jenkins