Japan doesn’t really do musicals. They’re one of the most underrepresented film genres in the country, with many years passing between the releases of Japanese musicals, which — when they do finally premiere — are rarely big hits. Strangely, though, this aversion to singing and dancing on film doesn’t extend to Western productions. Disney’s live-action Aladdin is actually shaping up to be one of the highest-grossing 2019 movies at the Japanese box office, while the 2016 smash hit La La Land made more money in Japan than in any other foreign market. However, when it comes to their own cinema, Japanese audiences seem to share the sentiment of Shizuka Suzuki (Ayaka Miyoshi), the protagonist in the 2019 musical Dance with Me, who at one time proclaims: “Don’t you think musicals are odd? People singing right out of the blue. It’s crazy. Like they’re mentally unstable. Musicals are for idiots.”
That’s the kind of thinking the movie’s writer and director Shinobu Yaguchi had to overcome to sell Dance with Me to his countrymen, and he went about it by taking an almost horror movie approach to his work. In the film, the serious, career-oriented office worker Shizuka visits a theme park where hypnotist Martin Ueda (played by Godzilla movie veteran Akira Takarada) spellbinds her into uncontrollably singing and dancing in big, grandiose routines whenever she hears music, even if it’s just a cellphone ringtone. But as we find out early on, the perfectly choreographed musical scenes we see on screen only exist in Shizuka’s head. To the rest of the world, her performances look more like a rampaging drunk woman or someone who isn’t in the right state of mind. During one such uncontrollable outburst, Shizuka trashes an upscale restaurant and is forced to sell all of her worldly possessions in order to pay for the damages. This turns a seemingly ridiculous plot into something that’s actually quite menacing, possibly in a bid to offset the inherent “silliness” of musicals for Japanese audiences.
With this approach, Yaguchi took a slight detour from his usual formula. Dance with Me does share some similarities with some of the director’s previous works, which were also about taking young people out of the everyday and into the slightly offbeat. We’ve seen it in his Waterboys (2001), which focused on high school boys starting a synchronized swimming team, or Swing Girls (2004), which told the story of a group of girls accidentally poisoning their school’s brass band and forming a swing jazz ensemble to replace them. Dance with Me also contains the similar subplot of the main character’s arc being propelled by their attraction to a good-looking secondary character (Shizuka’s superior Murakami, played by Takahiro Miura), which we’ve also seen with the beautiful new swimming teacher in Waterboys or the promotional pamphlet model from Wood Job! (2014). But the musical seems to be the first Yaguchi movie that has something resembling a villain in it. Here’s the thing, though: it’s not Ueda nor his hypnosis. It’s actually Shizuka’s office.
When we first see Shizuka at work, she’s taking out the garbage and later gets roped into preparing a stack of documents for a presentation, all because she’s a woman. This is something that many Japanese female workers have, for a very long time, continued to experience in corporate settings, and it doesn’t end there. Besides at times being treated like maids (thankfully, perhaps more so in the past than nowadays) who are expected to prepare tea and clean the office, Japanese women may also be required to wear heels or forbidden from wearing glasses at work because it apparently makes them appear “cold.” The latter two cases are modern occurrences that women in Japan are only starting to speak out against now — mostly through social media hashtags such as #KuToo (a play on words comprising the Japanese word for shoes, kutsu, and the #MeToo global movement against sexual violence and sexism against women), and #MeganeKinshi (literally, “glasses forbidden.”)
Despite that, Shizuka keeps telling herself that her office career is all she’s ever wanted. But after she goes on a cross-country road trip to look for Ueda with his previous assistant Chie (Yu Yashiro) so he can undo the hypnosis, she finds out what real happiness is, all thanks to her condition. She forges a bond with Chie, befriends a street performer named Yoko (Chay), and even impresses a bunch of street gangsters with her hip hop/techno dancing. While this is happening, the prospect of Shizuka returning to her job starts to become something of a looming threat lurking in the background, ready to pounce on her and take her back into boring, oppressive reality. It’s no coincidence that Shizuka finds happiness for the first time in a long while after she ditches her office suit for an old T-shirt and jeans and gets as far away from her workplace as possible.
That really seems to be the main point of the movie because the musical numbers are probably not it. Dance with Me is really more of a musical sampler with a core story of a woman finally finding her voice after having it stifled by the corporate world for too long. This is made all the more interesting because of Shizuka’s name, which literally means “quiet.”
Cast: Ayaka Miyoshi, Yu Yashiro, Chay, Akira Takarada, Takahiro Miura
Director: Shinobu Yaguchi
Text by Cezary Strusiewicz