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Dance with Me
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by Jay Seaver

"A fun, silly musical about musicals being silly and fun."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Movie and stage musicals are grandly and gloriously unreal in a way that little else in popular culture manages to be, and people can't handle it; almost every one made these days builds in some excuse for the songs rather than giving the audience credit for understanding that they are not what's literally happening. "Dance With Me" is no exception, but it does that well enough to make one want to see what filmmaker Shinobu Yaguchi and star Ayaka Miyohsi could do without making excuses, since they've clearly got the right screwball instincts and the film is ultimately about loving this sort of material whether it's realistic or not.

Miyoshi plays Shizuka Suzuki, a sensible office worker who does her sister a favor by looking after niece Nana while she's in the city for a day, agreeing just a little too hard when Nana disparages having to do a song for the school talent show. They stumble upon once-famous hypnotist Martin Ueda (Akira Takarada) at an amusement park, and the hokum he does to get Nana over her stage fright instead lodges in Shizuka's head, so that the next day, any music she hears, from her workout mix to a co-worker's ringtone, has her singing and dancing along like a character in a musical. Ueda has already skipped town, but the out-of-work actress who had been working as his assistant (Yuu Yashiro), decides to help her track him down - not only was she a part of this, but Ueda didn't pay her. Or the yakuza. Along the way, they pick up a hitchhiking street musician (Chay) and hire a cheap private detective, but the odds that they find Ueda before Shizuka has to be back to work on Monday are looking slim.

The thing that mostly makes Dance With Me work is the thing that basically gives the game away; there are large chunks that the audience will not believe unless, at some point, the movie's heroine learned how to do all the singing and dancing, even if the trail of destruction she leaves as the result of her compulsion to make any song she hears into a musical number suggests that maybe she didn't, and once you've put that in her backstory, there's little doubt what she has to confront. Like a lot of meta-musicals, it's often conveying how characters bursting into song is great for conveying big emotions rather than just doing that, but Shizuka's story is eventually her own. How this will end is never in doubt, and is just a matter of making the path leading there crooked.

Fortunately, the first leg of the path is tremendously funny, with the second song especially utterly fantastic as Yaguchi contrasts the way it looks in movies with the utter chaos someone jumping onto a desk and kicking to punctuate her sentences causes, with Ayaka Miyoshi's pitch-perfect reaction to her character's predicament able to keep the laughs coming. Once she hits the road, it's a little rougher; there are fewer opportunities for big numbers, and the buddy-comedy thing that gets in the way is bumpy. I feel like I missed a scene that sets up her private investigator also being her rival, and another character's final appearance is especially random - the audience liked her, but maybe not that much, and she seems to be tidying up bits that don't really need it.

But, wow, is lead actress Miyoshi great. It's not just that she's cute as heck and can sing and dance, but she's terrific at finding the yin and yang of her character, where she can put herself above her friends' superficiality while still crushing on the same handsome executive given the chance, or finding terror in her actions feeling out of control even as she truly loves what her hypnotized brain is giving her permission to indulge in. There's another movie, perhaps, where maybe she comes to grips with the idea of being stuck like this, and the resolution doesn't completely fall on the casual whims of the hypnotist that put her in this situation - although veteran actor Akira Takarada is a smooth charmer in the part, making the most of every scene he waltzes into and sneaks out of. Yuu Yashiro and Mai "'Chay" Nagatani both prove fun complements to the reserved Shizuka.

The path leads to a fairly obvious place, and it's perhaps fitting that a modern musical that finds a reason to justify its numbers about how musicals will inevitably find a way to justify Shizuka singing and dancing in the future. That's how this sort of thing works, after all, and Yaguchi knows the tricks. Hopefully he and Miyoshi will find more chances to do the like in the future.

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originally posted: 03/23/20 10:50:04
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Shinobu Yaguchi

Written by
  Shinobu Yaguchi

  Ayaka Miyoshi
  Yuu Yashiro
  Takahiro Miura
  Tsuyoshi Muro

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