Film: Shall we step out of line?

A Japanese director's critique of social conformity has rung bells outside his homeland, says Jasper Rees

You'll need a grid reference for Shall We Dance? A tale of self- discovery through ballroom dancing, it is best explained as the Japanese Strictly Ballroom. Inherent in both films is the paradox that a style of dancing with such rigid rules should be the metaphor for the loosening of the social fabric.

It is, to say the least, a hit with some improbable elements. An ornamental section of Shall We Dance?, for example, was filmed in, of all places, Blackpool. Its director, Masayuki Suo, began his career in the porn sector. His motive for making the film was to get Japan's middle-aged "salary men" back into cinema houses, but he has unexpectedly encouraged a whole bunch of Americans to tag along too.

As well as winning all 13 national film awards in Japan, it is the sixth most successful foreign-language film at the American box office. And Suo has been profusely thanked by the Japanese Amateur Dancing Association for rescuing ballroom dancing in Japan from ridicule.

The film tells of Sugiyama, a straitlaced middle-aged office worker who docilely assents to the established order of overwork, crippling mortgage and dull daily commute. Waiting one night for the train to train him back to his wife and daughter in the suburbs after a hard day's tedium, Sugiyama spots a glacially beautiful woman staring mournfully out of a fourth-floor window. Like a stricken damsel in a fairy-tale, she is there each time he waits for his train.

One evening he sheds a couple of layers of thickly encrusted inhibition and tries to find out who she is - only to discover to his horror that she gives lessons in a ballroom dancing school, Japan's rough cultural equivalent of the one-on-one sex line: as absurd as it is embarrassing.

Several more layers of inhibition have to go before he enlists for weekly lessons, only to discover that the object of his obsession will not be his teacher. He goes back every week, slowly overcoming his clumsiness among a colourful ensemble - a lumpy nymphomaniac, a periwigged rumba god from his office.

His wife interprets his late nights and furtiveness as evidence of an affair, and sets a private dick on him. In fact, when he does extend a dinner invitation to Mai, the woman in the window, who wears the psychological scars of tumbling in a prestigious Blackpool dance competition, she spurns him. This goads him to step up his dancing, which he now starts to relish for its own sake, which in turn defrosts Mai.

Shall We Dance? reads as an essay in how not to be Japanese, a manual for shunning formality.

Suo himself has clearly shunned formality: when I met him in London, he was wearing a mile-wide pinstripe suit by Yamamoto that even his most flamboyant ballroom dancers would rather die than wear. In an intimidating break with tradition, he also filmed the interview on a minuscule broadcast- standard Sony videocam.

So, I ask, is it about unlearning Japanese ritual? "That's one way of putting it," he says. "In Japan we are brought up not to bring out our emotions. We go through life suppressing, almost killing our feelings in order to conform to conventions of society.

"What I wanted to say was, let's not do this any more. Let's appreciate and enjoy our own life. But that doesn't necessarily mean let's become American."

The film's success in America proves that while aimed at the kind of lapsed cinema-goers embodied by the main character, it has a wider message. Suo's take on this is that "a film which I created for middle-aged Japanese people happened to contain what the Americans viewed as a treatment of the midlife crisis".

He claims he was also thanked by Americans "for making a film without sex and violence". They should have seen his first film, then.

Suo is not the only Japanese director to learn his craft in skin flicks. Born in Tokyo in 1956, brought up in Kawasaki, he studied French at university, after which office life of the kind endured by Sugiyama beckoned. "I appreciated that once I'd got into that kind of world, that's all I would be able to do."

He nursed an ambition to direct, but with the collapse of the studio system in Japan there is no fixed way of going about it. So Suo simply approached his favourite director and asked to be his assistant.

That director was Takahashi Bannei, who makes erotic "pink" films in the independent sector. Bannei didn't make In The Realm of the Senses, the most well-travelled example of the genre, but was best man to Magisa Oshima, who did.

Though to westerners it looks a bizarre entree for an aspiring director, porn in Japan is probably more mainstream and less artistically laughable than ballroom dancing. "In Europe, porno films aren't even on the map," says Suo. "But in Japan they are very much a part of film life. Of course these were erotic films, but Bannei was exploring the depth of humanity through sex."

Suo's first film was duly as pink as they get. But that didn't stop it from being a homage to the pre-eminent Japanese director.

"I wanted to express my absolute love for Ozu, the master," he says. "Ozu's Late Spring ends with the father sending his daughter off to marry and join a different household, and my film imagines what it would be like if she joined a household where people were a bit sexually perverted."

What would Soho's dirty-mac crowd make of it? They may get the chance to find out. Its Japanese title is Strange Family, but an English version is in the pipeline called The Daughter-In-Law.

Pornography served its purpose: Suo got a toehold in the business, and his next two more films threw sideways glances at more mainstream areas of Japanese culture. In Manic Zen (1989), a rock singer becomes a nominate monk in order to take over the Buddhist temple run by his father. Sumo Do, Sumo Don't (1992) tells of a bunch of skinny undergraduates who join a struggling sumo club to get credits towards their degree. "In the course of training in sumo they realise that life has a lot more possibilities than they thought it had to offer."

In the course of learning to dance, Sugiyama comes to much the same conclusion. In order to see the unfunny side of ballroom dancing, Suo underwent much the same regime as his hero. "To write the screenplay I danced for six months once a week and racked up 20 hours of dance practice. Before I danced I had no idea how enjoyable it was going to be." And like his hero, he fell in love with Mai: after the film wrapped he married Tamiyo Kusakari, a leading Japanese ballerina who plays her in her acting debut.

Filming outside Japan was another novelty, though he seems not to have found Blackpool as alien or - his word - "weird" as ballroom. "Wherever you look there's only old people," he says. "Time has stopped. Even though I'm not even vaguely English, I found it very nostalgic."

News
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
people
Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

Sport
football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
News
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
News
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister
news

Met Police confirm there was a 'minor disturbance' and that no-one was arrested

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Voices
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'
voices

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
News
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)
news

Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
Northern soul mecca the Wigan Casino
fashionGone are the punks, casuals, new romantics, ravers, skaters, crusties. Now all kids look the same
Life and Style
gaming

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Year 5 Teacher

    £80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

    Software Developer

    £35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

    Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

    £35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

    Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

    £30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

    Day In a Page

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

    The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album