OP: “10% roll, 10% romance” by UNISON SQUARE GARDEN
I was lucky enough to see the world premiere of Ballroom e Youkoso at Anime Expo last week, but of course one’s reactions watching it on television should be a little different than in a giant expo hall surrounded by 3500 screaming partisans. To be honest, my initial take on it (as I said at the time) was “Dance Haikyuu with Necks”. And funnily enough, a week later I find my feelings about it haven’t changed much at all. If anything, the initial impression has solidified. And that’s (mostly) a good thing.
I come at Welcome to the Ballroom as someone who’s scratched the surface of the manga, but for the most part is unspoiled. I know that manga is extremely popular; I know this anime is arguably the most highly-anticipated of the season. For me at least it shared that honor with Shoukoku no Altair, and my assessment of both premieres is roughly the same – highly competent and entertaining work by rock-solid staff from a prestige studio that didn’t quite blow me away (as Made in Abyss did, for example), but didn’t leave my let down in any way. We’ll see how each series develops over time – both have the luxury of two cours to play with.
If indeed one gets a Haikyuu!! vibe from Ballroom, it shouldn’t entirely be a surprise, as both shows come from Production I.G.. Haikyuu!! animation director Chiba Takahiro (who was at A/X along with director Itazu Yoshimi) performed that role on Haikyuu!! and brought much of his team with him to “Ballroom”. Haikyuu!! may be the most beautifully animated sports anime ever, so that’s all good. But for me the connection runs deeper than that – the personality and mood of the series (in the case of the volleyball show I felt it was “a floppy-eared beagle driving a sports car”) are very similar. Ballroom e Youkoso is intense, flashy, goofy and wholly adolescent in a positive way.
The hero in this case is Fujita Tatara (Tsuchiya Shimba), a third-year middle schooler adrift without anything he feels passionate about. One day he spots a beautiful girl from his grade walking into an underground dance studio, and one thing (a run-in with bullies) leaders to another (the owner putting Tatara into a headlock and dragging him downstairs). That owner is Sengoku Kaname (Morikawa Toshiyuki) who seems to co-own the place with Tamaki-san (Noto Mamiko). The aforementioned girl is Hanaoka Shizuku (Ayane Sakura), an accomplished dancer who’s immediately assigned to put the newbie through his first steps, but asks the questions a girl in her position might reasonably think to ask.
Now, I know even less about ballroom dancing (competitive “Dancesport” or otherwise) than I do about volleyball – and I’m even worse at it. But lack of knowledge shouldn’t be a barrier with a sports anime (and that is what this series is) if it’s well-written and well-produced enough. Haikyuu!! was (and is), and Ballroom e Youkoso seems to be as well. Sports anime are generally personal stories about growing up more than sports stories, and I think that’s the case here. Tatara is a likably awkward kid, and he doesn’t let his awkwardness and completely normal pubescent shyness turn him into a wallflower. I quite like the casting here as well, especially the choice of a fresh-voiced newcomer like Tsuchiya-san as Tatara. He can bring a lot of authenticity to Tatara’s moments of bewilderment and wonder at this new world opening up in front of him.
So what’s with that whole neck thing? Well, I’ll be honest – for me at least, the characters designs for this series have extremely long necks – it’s like Kishida Takahiro (another Haikyuu!! connection) is a big Kiseijuu fan. Posture is a very important theme in this story (as Sengoku points out), and presenting ballroom dance through hand-drawn animation is replete with challenges, so I suspect the neck thing is intentional. I’m sure in time I’ll stop noticing it so much, but truthfully it does stand out for me at the moment – it just looks very unnatural. It strikes me as an odd choice in an otherwise immaculately-produced series, but it’s hardly a deal-breaker – and maybe in the end it’ll win me over. If that’s the biggest complaint you can lodge against a show, it’s in pretty damn good shape…
ED:”Maybe the next waltz” by Mikako Komatsu