Director: Shinobu Yaguchi
Cast: Ayaka Miyoshi, Yuu Yashiro, Akira Takarada
“Musicals are for idiots,” declares young Shizuka Suzuki. “People dance in them like they are mentally unstable”. She has a point. She probably means those lofty Hollywood musicals, where people sing as a metaphor for romance and joy. Or those showy broadway tragedies, where they sing to narrate stories of socialism, separation and sadness. Or even our big-budget Bollywood melodramas, where they sing for everything and nothing – or where nobody sings and there’s still music.
So when Shizuka is hypnotized by an old showman (“When you hear music, you can’t help but sing and dance!”) at a mysterious funfair, Dance With Me might appear to be a dated imitation of a ditzy 90s-Jim-Carrey comedy. It even has a shaggy sidekick.
But the light-heartedness of Shinobu Yaguchi’s quasi-musical movie is different. It isn’t just about the charm of watching a clumsy character break into a seamless song-and-dance routine at the slightest hint of audible melody. Some of cinema’s most famous musicals hinge on lovers and artists. Extraordinary characters or extraordinary circumstances. But Shizuka is a corporate slave. She works in a big city. She is barely in touch with her family. She crushes on her boss. She is also a conformist – in an early scene, she stops pigging out on her pasta when she realizes that her friends are stuffed. But at home, in her own space, she is surrounded by junk food and bad habits. She may look like a rom-com star, but she is painfully normal.
Most importantly, Shizuka is Japanese – she belongs to a culture that isn’t known to be excessively expressive or outwardly. She forms some of the several million footsteps that silently shuffle across Tokyo’s streets to office and back every day like clockwork. Hers are two of the several million eyes silently glued to their phone screens on buses and in trains. Her life is a composition of beeps and boredom. Discipline and workmanship – that’s the name of the suburban game. So when she is cursed (or blessed) with this strange power, she isn’t dancing for effect under a magic-light sky or in a perfectly manicured park. It’s the mundane, ordinary environments – and their sounds – that trigger her condition: Music on a powerpoint presentation, a cell phone ringtone, the car radio, a birthday celebration, a restaurant pianist, gangs of beatboxing boys, elevator tunes. She essentially moves to the rhythm of survival: The kind of music, or the lack of it, that Japanese go-getters hear everyday without even noticing it. Once she finishes, they look at her as if she were either drunk or ill or both. Her unabashed jigs are a disease to them – she often leaves a trail of destruction in her twinkle-toeing wake.
These locations – conference rooms, trains, streets, supermarkets – are emblematic of the big city struggle. It’s why the opening Los Angeles highway dance (“Another Day of Sun”) of La La Land is such a classic – it’s made of citizens who refuse to cheat the optics of their beloved city. They dance where they walk, sing where they sleep. The situations for Shizuka, funny as they might look in context of a genre movie, also reveal how much of heart gets suppressed in the mad rush to adulthood. Shizuka used to love singing as a child, but one bad stage experience ended it all, prompting her to join the rat-race and fear what nobody gave her a chance to love.
Ayaka Miyoshi is mesmerizing as the central character, and an excellent dancer to boot. She does a fine job of walking the thin line between a movie character and a girl who becomes a movie. She rescues the inconsistent narrative even when it lags, especially during the long-winding road-trip portions. She plays Shizuka with a sort of respectful duality; you can sense that she knows why the film is trying to both subvert and reinforce the idea of a musical. It is confronting the carelessness of a culture – a language of living – in the most primal way possible. And she embodies the playful integrity of this face-off. Not for love or money or earth-shattering payoffs. She dances in a land that otherwise marches to its own music. She croons for and against the idea of Japan. It’s only incidental that the result is a feel-good meta-musical.