A few weeks ago I reviewed the American remake of SHALL WE DANCE and I basically found it to be slightly below average. Now I have to confess that at the time I posted that review I had not yet seen the original Japanese remake even though I recommended it for everyone to see. I figured the remake, especially a remake starring Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez, would surely stand no chance against the award-winning original. Hence, recommending the original before even seeing it didn’t seem so far-fetched nor manipulative at the time. Well, having now finally seen the original, I can say that although I liked it and I consider it to be fine storytelling, I believe I would have enjoyed it far more had I seen it before seeing the American version. Even though I find the original to be the better version, the remake is a near exact copy of the Japanese version. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen the other as Peter Chelsom, the director of the American version, barely deviates from the original. With that said, if you watch the original after seeing the remake, you might find yourself getting bored, which I unfortunately did. In fact, I felt a little robbed because I wished I just stuck with the original version so that I could enjoy it on the same level as everyone else did.

Anyway, I’m not going to bother giving the story again since it’s the exact same as the remake except its set in Chicago instead of Japan. You can read my review of the remake to see what its about. I had mentioned in my previous review that my friend had commented that the remake fails where the original does not because the story’s premise is dependent upon the nature of Japanese culture. American culture does not lend itself to this story and, consequently, the motivations of the characters in the remake do not make sense. After seeing the Japanese version, this makes perfect sense and the story works so much better as a result. You understand why our main character, a Japanese businessman, husband, and father, is reluctant to enroll in dancing lessons. You especially have a better understanding as to why he decides to not tell his wife and daughter that he’s taking dancing lessons and why the wife doesn’t simply confront him about her suspicions that he’s having an affair. Against the backdrop of Japanese society, the characters’ decisions are understandable and even rational.

I found it interesting that the movie opens with a short introductory narration that explains the differences between American and Japanese culture and how dance is viewed by most Japanese. I wondered if this intro was contained in the Japanese release and I suspect it was not. I imagine most Americans are unfamiliar with Japanese culture and especially how expressive displays like dance are viewed. The stifling, almost Victorian sensibilities of Japanese society makes any outward display of emotion or artistic expression that much more satisfying to watch. When the dance students finally overcome their apprehension and discover the joys of dance, you feel that joy right along with them. What these characters do have much deeper negative repercussions than say Richard Gere deciding to take a few dance lessons. I know many guys who have taken ballroom dance lessons before their wedding day so its really not that unusual in the U.S. to learn how to dance.

One difference I noticed between the Japanese and American versions was in the relationship between the main character and the dance instructor who originally inspired our character to enroll in the dance school. The American version is very careful to avoid any suggestion that Richard Gere is being unfaithful toward his wife or that he’s even thinking about being unfaithful. On the other hand, the Japanese version pushes the relationship a little further and makes it pretty clear the main character is attracted to the dance instructor. I know adultery is looked down upon in Japan just like anywhere else, but I think a husband having careless thoughts about another woman is a little more tolerated in Japanese culture than in the U.S. Had the American version of this movie gone as far as the Japanese version did, I think audiences would have a problem with that and lose any sympathy for Richard Gere.

Aside from making a statement about Japanese society, SHALL WE DANCE is also about inspiring others to grow and learn. The main character of the businessman gets inspired by the young dance instructor to at first learn dancing, but ultimately to not be afraid to express himself. In turn, the dance instructor gets inspired by the businessman to learn how to once again enjoy dancing and to compete in dance competitions not for the sake of winning, but for the sake of simply enjoying it for what it is. You’re probably not going to walk away from this movie feeling suddenly inspired to follow your dreams, but I found this theme refreshing in a movie that ordinarily would only deal with surface themes of love and desire. This is not a romantic movie even though the characters do display a tinge of desire for each other. Its about helping others to not treat their lives like an obstacle course of endless goals, but to rather live it up for what its worth.

SHALL WE DANCE is a charming little foreign indie movie that I WISH I had seen before seeing the remake. Let that serve a lesson for any of you thinking about seeing this movie. Stick with the original and you won’t be disappointed. Besides, they actually play and dance to the song “Shall We Dance” from the KING AND I, which the remake did not do.

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