Film / Reviews

'Dance With Me': Short on laughs, but big on energy

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

The Japanese film industry has made many musical films, but almost no Hollywood-style musicals. One reason why is Eizo Sugawa’s “You Can Succeed, Too” (1964), a singing, dancing salaryman musical inspired by the Broadway hit “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” Billed by the Toho studio as Japan’s “first real musical” it was also famously a flop.

Shinobu Yaguchi’s sparkling new comedy “Dance With Me” features salarymen and OLs (office ladies) belting and hoofing through big production numbers. But it is also not an attempt to out-succeed “Succeed.”

Yaguchi, who has been directing hit comedies from his original scripts since his 2001 breakthrough “Water Boys,” has made what might be called an “anti-musical musical film.”

Dance With Me (Dansu Uizu Mi)
Rating
Run Time 103 mins.
Language JAPANESE
Opens NOW SHOWING

His heroine, trading company OL Shizuka Suzuki (Ayaka Miyoshi), has a deep, dark hatred of musicals stemming from a childhood trauma. One day, she goes to a rundown amusement park with her niece, where they see a show by an elderly hypnotist (Akira Takarada of “Godzilla” series fame). He implants a fateful suggestion in her suggestible brain: Every time she hears music she must sing and dance to it.

This leads to a series of disasters, beginning with a big company meeting, important to Shizuka’s career, that goes south when she starts singing and dancing on the desks. Her antics also threaten her budding romance with a hot junior executive (Takahiro Miura).

The song-and-dance scene is staged with an energy and panache that recall classic Hollywood musicals, but underscored by Yaguchi’s own brand of realism. Everyone who sings, Miyoshi as Shizuka first and foremost, actually sings, with no assists from velvet-throated professionals. Also, the musical theatrics play out solely in Shizuka’s fevered imagination. In reality, she makes a huge mess of the office as jaws drop.

All funny enough, but the joke of Shizuka’s implanted compulsion risks becoming quickly repetitive. And, for all its sleek comic propulsion, the film is short on laugh-out-loud gags. Instead of straining for them, it develops an awakening-and-empowerment character arc also found in Yaguchi’s 2004 hit “Swing Girls,” in which musically illiterate high school girls form a swing ensemble and, after character-building trials, kill it at a band contest.

Not that Shizuka begins as a tone-deaf klutz: She turns out to be as tuneful in real life as in her imagination. But her immediate goal is to find the hypnotist and make him reverse his subconscious suggestion, a search that takes her to Hokkaido. On the way she recruits an ally in the excitable, voluble Chie Saito (Yu Yashiro), and finds adversaries in three persistent loan sharks who are also on the hypnotist’s trail.

This is formulaic stuff, but Yaguchi’s treatment of Shizuka’s journey, in which her vocal abilities bloom as she and Chie busk and bumble along, is inspired if occasionally slow. He inserts more rousing musical numbers that showcase his heroine’s talent, while giving her space to grow naturally as a person and performer.

As Shizuka, Miyoshi is making a comeback. Her last feature starring role was in the 2013 drama “Leaving on the 15th Spring,” and she had to audition for the lead in “Dance With Me.” But there’s no rust on either her performance or her voice. Both are (what else?) hypnotic.

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