The change I liked best was the development of the relationship between the husband and the wife (played by Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon, respectively, two of my favorite actors). In the Japanese version, there are far fewer scenes with the wife, and we know nothing of her life other than sitting at her home in the suburbs, patiently waiting for her husband to come home from work, or driving her daughter to school. For her to have a job, as the American wife does, would be out of the question. The result, though, is a somewhat colorless character who seems to have a far more boring life than her accountant husband. In fact, it’s a wonder that she isn’t the one who ends up taking dance lessons.
On the contrary, we see a great deal more of the work place and its dynamics in the Japanese version, very natural in its depiction of the dominance of the office, as opposed to the home, in a Japanese "salaryman's" life. In fact, when the middle-aged professional, Sugimoto, played with marvelous understatement by Koji Yakusho, doesn't socialize with his co-workers after hours, he's viewed by them as odd for wanting to go home. In the American version, how mundane the lawyer, John Clark, finds his work to be is touched on, mainly through a voice-over (which I generally find to be a weak substitute for action), and not nearly as convincing.
The biggest loss in the absence of work place scenes in the American version is that there's no build-up for the Stanley Tucci character, Link Peterson, a colleague of John’s, and when he is "discovered" at the dance studio, at first we have no idea who this guy is and why he is so embarrassed to be found out. I also didn’t get the bit about his faked interest in sports, so I’ll have to see if that’s clearer in my second or third viewing. I have to say, though, that I loved the wig, and reviewer Rebecca Murray claims that “Stanley Tucci is the reason to see ‘Shall We Dance?’.”
Gradually, the camaraderie that develops between the two men in both movies is convincing as one of the reasons for the main character to continue dancing, even when his invitation to dinner is rejected by the lovely, young dance teacher, whose standing poignantly at the window of the studio was what attracted him to the lessons in the first place.
I was a bit put off by the slapstick in both versions. The effects could have been just as comical without the viewers being beaten over the head with a “This bit is really funny” dialogue or action. It ends up turning many of the characters, who have a potential for full development, into caricatures.
The older dance teacher, Tamako Tamura (played by Reiko Kusamura, who happens to be the same age as I am), so dignified and gracious in the Japanese version, becomes Miss Mitzi (played by Anita Gillette), the owner of a less-than-posh dance studio, in the American version, and a lush who sneaks nips from a bottle with no apparent reason than for a cheap laugh, except that it isn’t funny.
The female dance partner in the final competition, Japanese Toyoko (played by Eriko Watanabe) and American Bobbi (whom one critic described as “Lisa Ann Walter doing Bette Midler”), is boisterous and overdrawn in both versions, making it difficult to have sympathy for her when she collapses from the fatigue of holding down daytime jobs with long hours while spending evenings at the dance studio.
There’s a poignancy in true comedy, seen best in both versions at the climactic scene where, during the two-step – well, anyone who’s seen the movie or perhaps is even familiar with it knows very well what happens.
As for dialogue, why do Americans have to talk so much? Maybe I’ve lived in Japan too long, or gotten too used to Japanese drama with its long pauses and the camera dwelling on the somewhat expressionless faces, a compliment to the audience in that it suggests they can fill in for themselves what is taking place in the character’s mind. In one scene in particular, Clark ends up talking to himself about whether he should or shouldn’t return to the dance studio; the extra verbiage really isn’t necessary. The viewers can figure out what is dilemma is without him having to spell it out for them, and I found the self-talk distracting. The only character with very little dialogue is the assistant dance instructor, Paulina (played by Jennifer Lopez), and her body language is certainly enough to convey the basics of the relationship between her and John Clark.
My biggest complaint, however, is how quickly the American lawyer became adept at ballroom dancing. I realize that, in a 2-hour movie, it’s not possible to show all the grueling hours that it takes to learn a new skill. Having taken ballroom dance lessons once a week for 2 years, though, I can vouch for the fact that a novice doesn’t learn all the facets of the art – one that involves the whole body, including the direction of the eyes – in a few months. For me, more time on the lessons and all the aspects of learning the stance, the hip movements, the footwork, and all that is essential to expertise in ballroom dancing, would have been more rewarding and authentic. The American version simply makes it look much too easy!
I was also disappointed in the final scene, a farewell party for the young dance teacher, which doesn’t have the drama of the Japanese version with the spotlight going around the crowd as Mai (played by Tamiyo Kusakari), the dance teacher, looks for Sugimoto. Although a bit melodramatic, the suspense of whether he’ll show up or not is built up, and one breathes a sigh of relief when he dashes in, briefcase in hand, at the last minute.
In the American version, it is as though everyone was expecting Clark to show up, and, when he does, lo and behold, he has on both a tux and his dance shoes. It must have been quite a stretch for the writers to figure out a way of getting him from riding the El home to getting dressed properly, showing up at his wife’s store with a rose for her, and then making it to the party in time. It’s quite a stretch for the viewers as well.
In both versions, the young dance instructor is convincingly icy, when faced with a distasteful job – attempting to turn ugly ducklings into swans on the dance floor – and passionate, when caught up in dancing by herself or with a partner with whom she can float. I especially enjoy the instructions given by Paulina in the American version about how to do the rumba, which helped me understand the heart of the dance.
The rumba is the vertical expression of a horizontal wish. You have to hold her, like the skin on her thigh is your reason for living. Let her go, like your heart's being ripped from your chest. Throw her back, like you're going to have your way with her right here on the dance floor. And then finish, like she's ruined you for life.
There’s another in which she explains the man’s role in the waltz of acting as a frame for his partner, and I’m still searching for the full quote.
One other disappointment with the American version, though, is that it doesn’t fully explain what happened at the Blackpool Competition and what a crushing blow it was to both her and her career. (Granted that the Japanese version doesn’t handle this as adeptly as it might, since the entire incident is revealed mainly through a letter to Sugiyama at the end and a voiceover.) Also, it’s never quite clear what happened between Paulina and her former dance partner. I would love to see a 3rd version of “Shall We Dance?” in either language with this particular part of the story more fully developed.
What's lacking the most in the American version is, simply, dancing! From the title, I expected much more, not only for my own pleasure, but also because what must have been hours of dance lessons for Gere and Lopez ended up in a few, choppy unsatisfactory scenes.
I have to say that I liked the epilogue at the end of the American version, especially knowing that the klutzy, fat character (in a rather sullen portrayal by Omar Benson Miller) succeeds in getting engaged and married as a result of his dance lessons. OK, so I’m a romantic at heart. One never knows. Maybe I’ll be at an American wedding reception or my high school reunion or some other occasion where there’s dancing, and some fine gentleman will step up to me asking, “Shall we dance?”, and I’ll whirl away in his arms to a lifetime of dancing. Of course, if my partner looks anything like Richard Gere, all the better!
See an excellent review by Kuma, the Nihon Review, comparing the two versions at:
Other reviews worth reading can be found at:
Japanese (1996) version: http://www.midnighteye.com/reviews/shallwed.shtml
American (2004) version: http://dir.salon.com/story/ent/movies/review/2004/10/15/dance/index.html