Urban Environment in Shall We Dance, Movie Review Example

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Movie Review

Masayuki Suo’s film Shall We Dance (1996) explores the impact that the modern urban environment has on the individual. The film explores this theme by contrasting the impersonal nature of the modern urban world with the personal and intimate nature of ballroom dancing. The movie was “Released in the U.S. in spring 1997, [and] is a romantic comedy that tells the poignant story of a Japanese businessman Sugiyama (Koji Yakusho) who studies ballroom dance in secret.” (Thom, 1997, p. 84)  The basic plot of the movie sets up a conflict between the joy and freedom of dancing and the perfunctory world of day to day life of Shohei Sugiyama who is a typical working citizen of Tokyo. The reason that the conflict provides so much drama (and comedy) is because of the fact that modern life as represented in the film is revealed to have a dehumanizing impact while dancing is shown as a humanizing activity. The theme of the film correlates with many contemporary assessments of the psychological and emotional hazards of urban life.

The setting of Tokyo is very important in the film because Tokyo represents a special kind of modernity. It is an urban environment that, on the surface, provides all the trappings and appearances of a successful city. The depiction of Tokyo in the film is such that it appears sleek and business-like with an air of sophistication. At the same time Sugiyama’s life there while being respectable and productive is somewhat empty. This is a special and specific feel of urban alienation that is part of the film’s most important themes. In order to full understand this theme it is necessary to realize certain specific traits about the city of Tokyo itself.

The article “Cities in the Developing World” mentions that Tokyo is an important manufacturing city. The article suggests that it si this capacity of Tokyo that defines the city. The article points out that “Industrial enterprise, whether in the small workshop or gigantic factory, is typical of Tokyo, something deeply engrained in the character of the Edokko, the true Tokyoite” (Cities, 399). The connection that is made in this statement between the city’s industrial functions adn the people who reside in the city is very significant. This is because the people who dwell in the city define themselves in important ways by the nature of the city itself.  This important connection is reinforced in the film. The way in which Sugiyama feels compelled to pursue ballroom dancing as a release from his status as one of the Edokko is at odds with what it commonly means to be a good citizen of the city.

The confluence of industry and people is the defining characteristic of the city-as-character in the film. As the article points out the growth of the population is tied to the growth of the city’s industry. The reason that this observation is important in the film, and also in general, is because it brings up the deeper question as to whether the purpose of any city is to make its citizens comfortable and safe or to provide a fertile ground for industrial expansion. This is the reason why the symbolism of dancing is so important in the film. Dancing, for most people, brings up an  image and series of symbolic associations that is in opposition to the idea of urban space. Dancing is an activity and art form that reaches back to the earliest notions of human history and seems to transcend any particular time-period.

The reason why dancing transcends any particular time-period is because it is a ritualized form of human contact adn intimacy and an expression of these ideas in bodily movement. As “Cities in the Developing World” affirms, as a nation Japan “is also coping with a severe population problem brought on by its rapid industrial development” (Cities, 400). This means that for every aspect of industrial expansion their is a potential reduction of human interaction and intimacy. This is due to the fact that the emphasis in self-definition is placed on productivity rather than emotional or creative experience. The ties that bind people together are based in work and profit rather than intimacy and self-expression.

These fact bring out a kind of strange landscape where — despite the appearance of productivity and normalcy — individual people are actually suffering from boredom and a sense of alienation.  In the article “Time and Space in the Postmodern Cinema” the film Bladerunner is mentioned as a work that explores the feeling of alienation that is connected to urbanity. According to the article, the confusion and impersonality of the postmodern city not only causes emotional disturbances for the average citizen, but the cityscapes of the postmodern world also result in dislodging individuals from any meaningful experience of space and time.  For most observers, the idea that urban landscapes disrupt the sense of space is obvious, but the idea that such landscapes also disrupt or even pervert the experience of time is more difficult to grasp.

A sense of what this means is transmitted in the film by the way that Sugiyama’s successful but utterly unfulfilling life seems to consist of one meaningless day blurring into another. In the article, the experience of people in the postmodern city is describes as being “the conflicted and confusing experience of space and time” (Time and Space, 322). This suggests that timeless practices such as ballroom dancing or dancing in general actually function as rituals that help to define the individual’s sense of space and time. As unlikely as it may seem, the experience of self-expression and communal experience in dancing is a method by which the individual’s life is made meaningful and therefore space and time are defined with meaning. Where there is meaning, there is purpose and where there is purpose, space and time are in harmony rather than in conflict with human emotion and human psychology.

This dynamic is even more dramatic in the film due to the fact that, as previously mentioned, Tokyo is portrayed in the movie as a pleasant environment. A city need not present the hellish and dystopian surface that is shown in regard to Los Angeles in the movie Bladerunner to symbolize alienation and dehumanization. In fact, the feeling of unsettling dystopia is present even in a city that is as clean and well ordered as Tokyo. The fact that “Japan’s success in establishing a high-quality urban life” (Cities, 400) does little to diminish the fact that the kind of life that is facilitated by the city is one which, for many people falls short of creating an ample atmosphere for human growth adn personal happiness.

The fact remains that no matter how they are designed or what purpose a modern city is meant to serve, “cities receive the great bulk of population increase” (Cities, 401). This in turn means that any given city, even one as carefully designed and maintained as Tokyo will have to serve the needs of a diverse population.  The depiction of alienation in Shall We Dance need not be  as overtly dystopian as the city depicted in Bladerunner. The fact remains that the simple overpopulation and industrialization of most cities functions in and of itself as a process of social alienation. It is important to realize, however, when making this statement that the people in a modern city are not necessarily miserable in their condition, but that the way of life that is encouraged or even demanded in the modern city is incomplete in regards to fulfilling human emotional and psychological needs.

The basic theme of Shall We Dance revolves around this central tension. The meaning of the film lies in the question “How can some sense of identity be forged and sustained in such a world?” (Time and Space, 317). The answer to that question is the reason that the film Shall We Dance  resonated with so many people. The basic human urge for self-expression and community is reflected in the practice of ballroom dancing. The fact that ballroom dancing requires a ritualized learning of specific steps and moves is also important because it shows that a kind of “counter-programming” to the emptiness of modern urban life exists within all people. All that is necessary is to learn the “steps” by which this counter-programming can be released. While the film in no way expresses disdain for modern life, it quietly accepts the shortcomings of the modern era and inserts the idea of recovering important aspects of  humanity through the simple act of dancing.

Works Cited

“Cities in the Developing World” Chapter 13 p. 399-401

Harvey, David. Time and Space in the Post-modern Cinema 1989.

Porter, Kenneth. “Spirituality in Clinical Practice: Incorporating the Spiritual Dimension in Psychotherapy and Counseling.” American Journal of Psychotherapy 56.1 (2002): 141+

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