Dance With Me (Dansu wizu mî)

Japan (2019) Dir. Shinobu Yaguchi

“Do-ya do-ya do-ya do-ya wanna dance”

Personally no, as I have three left feet, no sense of rhythm, and a little thing called dignity that stops me from making a prat of myself in public. Others aren’t so inhibited and enjoy prancing about to music, though they are usually aware there is a time and place for this.

Office worker Shizuka Suzuki (Ayaka Miyoshi) is in line for a promotion after being asked to create a presentation at short notice by handsome new director Ryosuke Murakami (Takahiro Miura). The day before the meeting, Shizuka is left to babysit her young niece, who is nervous about an upcoming school concert. Whilst at a fair, they visit former TV hypnotist Machin Ueda (Akira Takarada), who does his spiel and tells the niece she will sing and dance like a pro whenever she hears music.

The next day during the presentation, Murakami plays some pop music to compliment the images when unexpectedly Shizuka starts singing along and dances throughout the office to the bewilderment of everyone, including Shizuka. Realising what has happened, Shizuka seeks out Ueda to reverse the hypnosis but he has disappeared, leaving debt collectors and former stooge Chie Sato (Yuu Yashiro) also looking for him, marking the beginning of a chaotic road trip for Shizuka.

From watching the first half of Dance With Me, one could be forgiven for wondering if director Shinobu Yaguchi saw La La Land and thought, “I could do that too”, since this is where the bulk of the big song and dance routines are featured. Obviously, there are other musical precedents Yaguchi could have been influenced by but La La Land is the most recent and some of the numbers are very much in the same whimsical vein.

Yaguchi has a varied CV, with titles including fluffy comedy Happy Flight, rural drama Wood Job!, and social satire Survival Family, so his dabbling in musicals isn’t that much of a shocking change of pace. But be warned, this isn’t a full on musical in the strictest sense with the second half devoted to the road trip, though music is a recurring feature the extravagant dance numbers less so.

Shizuka isn’t quite the accidental victim of hypnosis, as a flashback reveals her childhood ambition was to be a singer and dancer, but ended when nerves and stage fright ruined her big school performance in a “sick” way. Something left underdeveloped is Shizuka’s relationship with her family, hinted at being strained following this incident even after all these years, leaving a gap in her background story.  

Great fun is had from watching Shizuka suddenly on her feet singing and dancing whenever music is played, no matter how innocuous like a ringtone, but the beauty is in how the elaborately choreographed routines we see with everybody else joining in and cute flourishes added is in fact what Shizuka sees in her head; it is at the end of the song we see the reality – stunned faces, messy offices, an embarrassed Shizuka wishing the ground would swallow her up.

Arguably the best one for the red-faced aftermath is in a restaurant that earns Shizuka local infamy as some scamp filmed it on their phone. But all this does is expediate the need to locate Ueda, who is taking his dishonest show on the road. Hooking up with Chie, his shill who would eat onions and pretend she was hypnotise into eating an apple, an odd couple road trip begins, with private detective Watanabe (Tsuyoshi Muro) on the case until Shizuka is literally left penniless.

Chie is on the husky side compared to the trim Shizuka, but her personality is big and she is light on her feet. Also wanting a career on stage, Ueda said he could take her there but instead had her eating onions and now Chie wants her money too. The tone of the film is more US road trip flick with its series of calamitous bumps in the road and wild mishaps, unlikely to be topped by the meeting with cute busker Yoko (Chay) who is not as cute as she looks in one the film’s funniest moments.

Unfortunately, whilst these situations serve well in building up (and knocking down) the relationship between Chie and Shizuka, it does expose a cavil in Shizuka’s quirk, in that many times when singing with Yoko, she doesn’t go full Gene Kelly, despite most of the music being easy listening J-Pop. It’s a minor point to quibble over but this is the conceit of the plot, so we are presumably expected to accept the spell somehow has its lulls.

But I suppose the story is really about finding yourself and making sure your life choices are right for you and not for the expectations of others. Shizuka was just another office drone at the start of the film, her impromptu Busby Berkely routines bringing her out of her corporate malaise and taking her into a wider world. Chie, Yoko, and even Ueda are vital cogs in the machine for Shizuka whilst she fulfils the same role for them.  

It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn Ayaka Miyoshi is a former idol, adding authenticity to the dancing aspect of her role as Shizuka. A buoyant personality, Miyoshi makes the transition to dancer look smooth and natural, working different styles from classic Hollywood to street dancing, all shot with great energy and respect for the medium. Yuu Yashiro is a sort of Asian Melissa McCarthy but far more personable, also holding her own on the dancing front, whist J-pop singer Chay’s cameo is comic gold.

Not as profound as some of Yaguchi’s previous films and definitely more mainstream orientated, Dance With Me is nothing more than sheer, easygoing, fun entertainment. Remove the coarse language (at least in the translation I watched) and you have a great family film to lighten your day, make you laugh and get your foot tapping, when I count three – one…two…