I’m going to be interested to see how this episode of Welcome to the Ballroom plays with the viewing public. Having seen the first two eps of the series at Anime Expo I already had a pretty firm opinion, namely that this ep was substantially better than the premiere (which was quite good in its own right). Stage-setting is hard, and sports shounen often seem to take a bit of time to find their stride.
In the final analysis, I think expectations will have a lot to do with how this series is perceived. The notion of a series about ballroom dancing carries a whiff of something exotic and unusual (though dance manga have had a minor boomlet in recent years). But in point of fact, I think it becomes apparent quite quickly that Ballroom e Youkoso is quite a conventional story – Haikyuu!! is the obvious comparison but by no means the only one. Thing is, though, calling a show conventional is not a criticism. Chihayafuru is likewise a series that quickly reveals itself as fairly conventional despite its unusual premise, and even Boku no Hero Academia – while obviously not sports-themed – is a very traditional shounen in terms of structure.
In the end it all comes down to execution. Are the production values strong? Check – Team Haikyuu!! is on the job. Is the main character relatable? Roger – Tatara has enough quirkiness and grit to lift him above what’s superficially a stock personality type. Is there a distinctive supporting cast? Is the core subject matter treated realistically, and does the work display a thorough knowledge of it? Do the original author and director have a sense of snappy dialogue and good pacing? Every bit of evidence suggests that the answer to all this questions is affirmative, and that makes Ballroom e Youkoso a good bet to succeed – probably winning itself multiple seasons of anime to adapt the manga in the process.
More members of that supporting cast emerge as the story proper rolls into motion this week. First, Banba Karen (Kodaira Yuki) and Jinbo Tomochika (Horii Chado), the unlucky pair drafted by Sengoku-san to teach Tatara (they’re still students themselves, so his lessons are free). Inexperienced teachers and a student with poor concentration and no experience yield predictably disastrous results, but Tatara-kun’s spirit remains unbowed – especially when he sees Hyodo Kiyoharu (Okamoto Nobuhiko, admirably off-type) and Shizuku dancing together at an amateur competition (which they win).
Kiyoharu is obviously an important character, the frival every good sports shounen needs. But he also represents something real and tangible in a way Sengoku doesn’t – Hyodo-kun is a boy Tatara’s own age, and he’s dancing with the girl Tatara is smitten with. Yet he’s also a stretch goal for sure – he already dances at a professional level (Shizuku claims even she’s not in his league, though there’s a degree of modesty in that I suspect), and even last year’s practice pants are too long for Fujita-kun. Kiyoharu is a fierce competitor but seemingly a flatliner when he’s not practicing or performing – you can see Tatara trying to psyche himself into believing the two of them are rivals, but the truth is that Tatara isn’t even a blip on Kiyoharu’s radar screen (yet).
It’s going to be interesting to see how this triangle evolves over the course of Ballroom – will Kiyoharu wind up being effectively a co-male lead, as we have in Chihayafuru, or is he here mainly as a foil for Tatara? Again, Tatara tries to convince himself that Kiyoharu is spoiled, entitled – his family owns a dance studio and he’s been Shizuku’s partner since they were five years old – but the truth is, Kiyoharu busts his ass to be as good as he is. As for Tatara, his genius seems to be of the instinctive kind – explanations don’t do it for him but if he can watch, he can learn (and quickly). So much so, in fact, that he can already “shadow-dance” with Shizuku just from watching Kiyoharu do so a few times. There are already a lot of flags being hoisted in Ballroom e Youkoso, and they don’t all agree with each other – and to me, that makes the series that much more of an interesting prospect. Remember, conventional doesn’t have to mean predictable…