Eight Questions for Masayuki Suo, The Director of "Shall We Dance?"
by Anthony Kaufman
“Shall We Dance?“, written and directed by Masayuki Suo, is the story of a
Japanese every(business)man (Koji Yakusho of “Tampopo” and recent Palme
D’Or, “Unagi“) looking for a way out of his humdrum life. When he sees a
beautiful woman at the window of a dancing school, he is drawn into the
enchanting world of ballroom dance. Distributed by Miramax, and opening
today, it is sure to be given an immense marketing thrust, “Shall We Dance?”
hopes to be the next “Il Postino“.
I met with Suo, a humble man who rarely looked in my direction, along
with his translator and an assistant who stood beside a video camera
pointed at the director. As I sat in front of a smaller camera fixed on
my own face, they told me he is documenting his press-tour of America.
indieWIRE: Why does your film begin with a water drop?
Masayuki Suo: First of all, the keyword of the movie is Blackpool [where
the ballroom dancing championships are held]. And the water was a black
pool. The first drop into the black pool was a tear drop of the leading
actress. And the one footstep into the water puddle, that’s the foot of
Mr. Sugiyama, the hero. Sugiyama steps into the world where the heroine
(The sound of autofocusing fills a momentary silence)
iW: What is your background, your previous films?
Suo: My first movie was called “Daughter-in-Law“. In Japan, it’s
categorized as a “pink” movie or X-rated movie. However, this movie was
about the director, Yasujiro Ozu, whom I respect very much. However, the
X-rated movies in Japan are perceived as regular movies, unlike the
porno movies in the United States. After making a TV drama, I made a
documentary about “A Taxing Woman” by Juzo Itami. After that, I was called
to make a major picture. And my first movie was called “Manic Zen” in
English. Although it wasn’t released in the United States, only in movie
festivals. It is a story about a rock singer who takes over his father’s
profession as a Buddhist monk. And the movie after that is about a
college student doing Sumo wrestling.
iW: You mentioned Ozu as an influence? Could you talk about his influence on “Shall We Dance?”
Suo: I don’t know.
Suo: I like Mr. Ozu so much, my first movie I consider as a continuation
of his work. In regards to “Shall we Dance?”, I didn’t think very much
about Ozu, therefore I don’t know how I was influenced and I haven’t
even analyzed it. I think the stillness is more about the way Japanese
houses are made rather than the way Ozu took a picture.
iW: In contrast to the stillness, there is, of course, the moving camera in the dances. How did you approach filming the dance sequences?
Suo: First, I made research into ballroom dancing as an outsider. After
that, I took lessons myself. The impression I had in the beginning was
quite different from when I had when I actually danced. The audience,
sitting in the theater, are not dancing with the characters, so my
challenge was how to make them feel as if they were. I thought of many
ways to shoot the dancing. We made a large disk, 2 meters in diameter,
and put wheels with swivels on the bottom and the assistants moved it
around. That made all the dance scenes very lively.
iW: About the characters in the script — you feel for everyone one of them. Could you talk about the writing and having every character as
important as the other?
Suo: The most important thing for me in movie making is to love the
characters of the movie, so even though you only have a few seconds with
a character, that person has to have his own life. Therefore, I want to
respect it, I want to make movies where each character has his own
iW: At what point did Miramax become involved?
Suo: We exhibited the movie at the American Film Market and that’s when
Miramax approached us.
iW: Were there any changes made?
Suo: I was told that subtitled foreign films that take more than two
hours is a message to the audience that they don’t have to come. So in
order to fit into this requirement, we cut it 18 minutes. Also, we
changed the narration in the beginning of the movie. I suggested it. In
order for audiences to better understand the movie, I thought it would
be effective to talk about the cultural background. Also, I prefer
repeating the same elements of humor many times in a movie even though
the audience may be expecting this, but those scenes were cut because
they were repetitious. However, I think that’s where you see the
influence of Ozu most. And also across the board, we cut a little bit
here and a little bit there.
iW: Do you think we’re going to be seeing more recent Japanese films in America?
Suo: In addition to such directors as Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Ozu, there
were many excellent directors in the past, but for twenty years, it
seems that there is a void and there hasn’t been many good movies. There
will be a new discovery of the old Japanese movies and people will
realize we’ve had many more directors than these three. Also, today,
there are many directors who are promising and very good, younger than
me. In the Japanese movie industry, there are no longer the major
studios producing movies, that was destroyed 20 years ago. Therefore, we
are in an era where you see new types of directors. And at the same
time, the American distributors are beginning to show interest in the
movies outside of the country. The quality of the Japanese movies are
improving and there are many foreign distributors who are paying
attention to Japanese movies, so in that sense I think they will be
shown all over the world.
iW: Are there are a lot of people making movies in Japan? Is their money
Suo: Actually, we don’t have money. Money is very tight. Yes, there are
many people with an ambition to make movies. Everybody is aware that
they can’t match the dynamics and size of American pictures. Because
money is tight, we try to make our movies different from the major
studios and because ours are different, that’s why American distributors
are looking at us now.