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Shall We Dansu? to Shall We Dance!
Hollywood Plunders, Part 1 by Slarek

On its release it was the most financially successful foreign language film ever released in the US and was one of the most genuinely enjoyable 'audience pictures' to emerge from Japan in years. Though known as Shall We Dance? in the west, the correct title is actually Shall We Dansu?. 'Dansu' is the Japanese reading of the word 'Dance', and is written with 'Shall We' in English and 'Dansu' in katakana (a Japanese written language reserved for non-native words), reflecting the multicultural element of a very Japanese story whose climax, rather thrillingly for is UK audience, takes place in Blackpool. It played spectacularly well to the capacity audience who showed up for our cinema screening back in 1998. So why oh why has it taken so long to make it to DVD? More to the point, why is being released now? Well it's all a matter of timing...

Hollywood is not nowadays known for its originality of ideas, and is always on the lookout for acclaimed or – better – financially successful foreign language films to steal from or simply remake. Shall We Dansu? did very big business for a small Japanese movie (almost $10 million) and Hollywood ain't gonna ignore that. Even better, it's a feel-good movie, a love story, a tale of a man escaping his hum-drum daily life through dance and triumphing over his own sense of shame and embarrassment. Oh wow, too good to be true. All we need to do is jazz it up and replace all those unknown foreign faces with bankable American ones, and have them speak English so the moronic majority don't have to read subtitles!

When this inevitable Hollywood remake was first announced, every fan of the film I know just groaned and held their heads in despair. Two factors made it even worse – it was to star Tom Hanks (oh no) and the title was to be changed from Shall We Dance? to Shall We Dance!. It's a little thing, that exclamation mark, but it speaks volumes about the film-makers' intentions. No hesitance here, let's dance baby! We could almost visualise the glint on Hanks' pearly-whites and hear the accompanying 'ping' as he flashes them at the audience.

But there's another problem here. The story of Shall We Dansu? was always a culturally based one, that of a company man who keeps his dance lessons secret because of the potential embarrassment of being a man in what is still perceived as a woman's world. This works fine in the context of a still largely patriarchal society like Japan, but just does not wash in a country whose cinematic icons include Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly and where the film and TV series Fame were such enormous hits. This would thus mean changing one of key narrative features of the story, and any big star would inevitably bring their own agenda to the film ("I think my character should be more..."), changing it to such a degree that there seems little point in paying for the remake rights – why not just make your own movie?

Which brings us to promotion. The prime motivation behind the average Hollywood release is to make money. I'm not going to get all superior here – this has to be a concern of anyone funding a movie, as they cost a lot to make and if you've invested millions in a project you'd kind of like to see your investment show at least some return, and that will go for the film industry of pretty much any country you care to name. But nowhere is the concern higher than in Hollywood, where the budgets are largest and films are judged less by their artistic merit than by how much they make in that opening weekend. And if you're going to release a Tom Hanks movie about ballroom dancing then you are going to want some kind of assurance that the many millions you are going to spend on a remake of what that relatively low budget original are going to be recouped. Well you've got Tom Hanks, and he has major box office appeal, but still, ballroom dancing? Will people go for that? But hey, it's a remake of the most commercially successful foreign language film ever to play in the US! Even if people didn't see it – and as it had subtitles, most wouldn't have – they will surely have heard of it, read about it, seen the trailers, met someone who loved it. It's a successful, familiar label just waiting for the right American package to stick it on. And here it is.

Except that it didn't happen. Something went wrong, someone changed their mind, who knows, but the project was shelved. Temporarily. And now we stand just months away from Mirimax's second stab at a US remake, one that looks on course for completion and release. No Tom Hanks this time, but even better, they've got Richard Gere, reinvented as a song-and-dance man after the huge financial success of the musical Chicago, and Jennifer Lopez, a successful singer and movie star much beloved of the paparazzi. With that sort of wallop, who needs to trade on the original any more, but just in case, a DVD release would put the title back on the shelves or the New Release pages of on-line stores and remind us of this warm, enchanting film, so that the brand name becomes familiar again before the new, larger, no doubt brasher American remake's pre-publicity machine kicks in.

Once the new version is out, the original will no doubt become a distant memory to all but its devoted fans, another great film swallowed up by the Hollywood Remake Machine. Again I am irresistibly reminded of Invasion of the Body Snatchers – when the humans are replaced, it's with a creature that has the same look and voice as the original, with the added polish of a physical perfection that the replaced victim could only dream of. On the surface they appear to the untrained eye to actually be superior, but they are fatally flawed in one respect – they have no soul.

Shall We Dansu?

Japan 1996
119/136 mins
Masayuki Suo
Kazuhiro Igarashi
Hiroyuki Kato
Shôji Masui
Yuji Ogata
Shigeru Ohno
Yasuharu Urushido
Masayuki Suo
Naoki Kayano
Junichi Kikuchi
Yoshikazu Suo
production design
Kyôko Heya
Kôji Yakusho
Tamiyo Kusakari
Naoto Takenaka
Eriko Watanabe
Yu Tokui
Hiromasa Taguchi
Reiko Kusamura
Hideko Hara
Hiroshi Miyasaka
article posted
12 March 2004