THREE STARS - Thoughtful
Throughout the world, human beings find it difficult to trust. Although the reasons are different for each individual and uniquely defined for every culture, there is nevertheless a universal fear of being vulnerable. Because of this fear many of us live lonely lives hemmed in by our distrust.
This truth of human existence is all the more powerfully explored because it is embedded within the Japanese culture as shown in the Japanese film “Shall We Dance?”
Presented almost in documentary form as it opens with explanatory statements about the impropriety in Japan of even a husband and wife being seen dancing in public, the film is about a middle-aged accountant named Shohei Sugiyama (Koji Yakusho). Having achieved his goals in life with a wife, a child, and a recently purchased house, Sugiyama is unnerved by his unexpected emptiness.
When on the subway each day he stares out the window, he passes a second floor dance studio and notices the melancholy form of a beautiful young dancer named Mai Kishikawa (Tamiyo Kusakari) also staring out her window. He becomes obsessed with the desire to dance with her.
At first, we are led to believe his desire is sexual. This is reinforced by the advertising line explaining the film, “He’s an overworked accountant. She’s an accomplished dancer. Passion is about to find two unlikely partners.” Nothing could be more misleading. Like many desires which masquerade as feeling sexual, what drives Sugiyama and Mai toward each other is not sex, but the isolating loneliness of their distrust. Although married, Sugiyama does not trust his wife Masako (Kideko Hara). As the film explains, theirs is a culturally appropriate Japanese marriage in which they do not express their feelings to each other but are expected to “intuitively” know the other.
However, trust is built on faithful responsiveness to vulnerability and openness. The closed nature of Sugiyama and his wife’s relationship only deepens the canyon of their distrust. So when Sugiyama secretly begins dancing lessons, instead of asking him about his late nights, Masako hires a private detective to follow her husband.
This is a painfully real response of our common distrust. The very solution to distrust is to risk danger and trust another enough to express our own pain and loneliness. Yet we find it hard to do so. We would rather resort to private detectives, friends, lawyers and courts to express our pain.
When Sugiyama does in fact connect with the dancer of his obsession, Mai reveals herself to be a deeply wounded person who felt betrayed by a former partner. With Asian allure, she not only creates mystery in Sugiyama’s heart but in ours as well.
What is the source of her pain? Why does she reject all partners, even world-class dancers? Why is she unable to feel the joy of life?
Though we won’t spoil the enjoyment of the film by giving away the answers to such questions, it is not what we at first believed. Mai’s struggle is no different from Sugiyama’s, and her isolating distrust is no less restorable.
Both connect not as man and woman in sexual desire, but as lonely persons in search of a confidant. As such Sugiyama represents Everyman and illustrates the foundational importance of trust as a spiritual and psychological reality with which every person must struggle.
To trust is to risk and most probably to suffer pain. But to not trust is to live behind secure walls of isolation in which our souls become empty, saddened and alone.
This is why the Biblical word for “trust” and “faith” and “hope” is the same Greek word, and why life without trust, and trust without faith, ends in hopelessness.
Into the pain of these barren, distrusting lives comes an older dance instructor. Joyfully caring, she invites the reluctant and the awkward, the rejected and the aloof, to enter a world of joy by the simple phrase, “shall we dance?” She could have said “Will you trust?” and her gentle encouragement and healing faith empowered them to do both.
“Shall We Dance?” is an invitation to find the hope and the joy of life through faith and trust.