Header Ads

Welcome to the Ballroom (2017)

Tatara Fujita is an aimless high-school student. He is bullied in and out of school and he doesn't know what he wants to do with his life. Questions like which high-school should he to go to, what kind of career does he want and more fundamentally, who is he keep coming to the surface During an exchange with his exasperated teacher about the future he spies a girl across the room and imagines she is feeling the same thing he is. She displays the same disinterested expression and he sees a kindred spirit.

Because of this inferred connection, he follows her after school. She enters the Ogasawara dance studio and before he knows it he is exposed to the wondrous world of dance classes, competitive dance, hair-gel, posture exercises, suits, sequins, and shock-horror genuine social interactions with men and women. Welcome to the ballroom.

Welcome to the Ballroom is a slice of life anime about, well, all elements of ballroom dancing and competitive dancesport. When I first saw this listed something inside me bristled against it. I enjoy anime and I was a competitive and social partner dancer (including ballroom). This show could be amazing or a frustrating, insulting utter mess - like two couples colliding at high speed. I have many fond memories of dance classes, competitions (including the terror of it) and as such there was quite a lot I imagined it could get wrong. I'm strangely protective of my dance experience and over the years have tried to dispel myths, cliches and preconceptions of friends, family and colleagues. It's fair to say I had mixed feelings for this entry in the summer 2017 anime season. It would also be fair to assume that my expectations were irrationally high - I wanted high quality animation, movement to fit with music and something that captured the spirit of the world I had lived for many years. I was also very worried that a set of cliches and stereotypes would be wheeled out for another zany high-school "comedy" where the main character keeps falling in embarrassing ways into his partners.

As I sat to watch the first episode I sat there ready to be disappointed with the remote close just in case I had to stop watching. It was a tense few moments but very quickly my trepidation lifted, I relaxed and a big smile spread across my face. They had nailed it, I could now sit back, relax and enjoy.

Welcome to the Ballroom is directed by Yoshimi Itazu and animated by Production IG. It's based on the 9 volume manga by Tomo Takeuchi (which I started reading shortly after I started watching). It is a very simple premise with Fujita in some ways being drawn inexplicably into this world finding a passion he can't quite explain to others, realising he has some potential and for the first time finding something cares about. He makes real friends for the first time. He develops a sense of self-worth and self-respect and he works hard towards his aim. This takes us through dance classes, different teachers, competitions and unique practice sessions, inspirations and rivals (well this is anime after all).

The story is very much as you expect. After entering the world he discovers he has a talent and that talent is recognised by the others around him. Most of the story is focused on how he learns about himself, about dance, works to his goal and builds relationships. I don't want to dismiss it but I was less interested in the story than the elements it contained. It doesn't go for the obvious "romantic" storyline although it is present. Sometimes it felt a bit like a how-to ballroom dance DVD with its tips, technical jargon and critiques. It was fascinating to see my personal experiences on screen and because of my familiarity with the subject matter, the story took a bit of a back seat. It is kind of predictable, but it was fun to predict the direction the story would go in.

With Production IG on board for animation duties, you *know* that this will be a high quality production. The animation will be solid with some visual flourishes. For a show about dance and therefore one that will (or should) be full of movement I was heartened to see that it would be addressed by one of my favourite animation studios and it was to my pleasure that they did not disappoint.

As expected the dancing scenes are where the main effort is expended and very few of the details are missed out. Every dance depicted displays its essence on screen. I remember a particularly passionate tango early in the series. Ballroom floors full of couples move as you would expect. When focusing on a partnership movement is crisp and fitting for the dance. Sweat droplets are flicked across the screen, dancers place their feet properly, dresses swish and sway. This is no mean feat for an anime TV show so there have to be shortcuts taken.

Some of these shortcuts are the anime cliches - the static-pan, characters talking and dialogue from behind the speaker (so you can't see their face). Normally this would bug me but it did provide a strong contrast (and budget) to the movement on display. At no time during the competition scenes (or training) did Production IG scrimp on animation. They showed the hard work that individuals and couples put in to be the best. The shortcuts also enabled the more visually interesting scenes stood out.

Production IG deployed something that made me think of a Dragon Ball Z (or other fighting anime) power-up! They would show one dance partnership in focus, static with an energy field emanating from them. This is not always used for characters you expect either and for me represented that quality that some dancers (or performers) have that draws your attention. It was really effective at representing that ... something ... that top performers have. Your eyes are just drawn to them.

Production IG also manage to create interesting representations of all the characters using extreme camera angles that exaggerated facial features and body lines. Sometimes the camera would move in for an extreme close up showing lens distortions which was neat. At times these extreme viewpoints reminded me of Gurren Lagaan. For this show, the extremes highlighted the effort, exertion and strain that competitive dancers go through. Some of these images are quite ugly with grotesque facial distortions and what look like unnatural poses all drawn with an energetic sketchy line but for me, they captured the exaggerated elements of a ballroom competition perfectly.Whilst the character designs are defined and set in the manga, none of which are attractive that to look at, but there is a significant transformation for when they dance competitively. The designs also follow a few of the anime tropes. You know the red-headed characters will be firey and the blonde ones will be portrayed as slightly ditzy (irrespective of gender).

Where the show falls flat on its face is in the comedy, if you can even call it that. Whilst they didn't go for the obvious "and he falls into her chest again" a fair amount of what passed for comedy was primarily based on the appearance of the female cast members. It was only for these bits that the camera would behave like a horny teenage boy and undo a lot of the good work it had done for the rest of the show. During the training and dance sequences the female cast were treated as athletes, there was nothing lecherous or sordid about the shot or the viewpoint. Why they felt the need to ruin that in the "funny" bits is beyond me and was in poor taste.

Ignoring the comedy elements they captured the essence of my dance experience. The repetition of the lessons, all the things you had to think about (which is very overwhelming), the lack of glamour away from the ballroom floor are all things I vividly remember. They distil the elements of competition too. It is an organised chaos full of pomp and splendour. When not dancing our cast watch the other dancers and the dialogue or thoughts are the kind of things we used to say - "that is a wonderful frame" or "how strong are they!?".

The final thing this show captures is perhaps for me the greatest thing my experience with dance has given me - the positive impact it has on your life. It shows the kinds of friends and relationships you can make and how strong those bonds can be. It highlights the different people you meet and that through dance you can gain many skills and qualities you can take from the dance floor into your life. You can see why I found the "comedy" elements so unnecessary.

This was a surprise of a show. From its description, I expected to really dislike it - mostly out of disappointment. How wonderful that defied my expectations and did so in such a fun, vibrant manner that is full of heart. Whilst some of the jokes fell flat (to be kind) and some of the camera angles are a little suspect, it completely captured the hard work that dancers put in, the friendships that are built, and the respect and admiration for your competitors. The best animation is saved for the dancing sequences and as you would expect they are often the more visually interesting - extreme close-ups, fluid motion and displays of power that are not out of place in Dragon Ball. Welcome to the Ballroom is a well executed show that is well worth a watch to show you a world almost as fantastic as those found in fantasy films.

FROM Amazon Prime
24 Episodes 

IN A NUTSHELL: With the passion of a tango and the speed of the quickstep this anime grabs the attention of the judges and holds your attention. A simple premise well executed with oodles of heart. (Add an extra star if you are ballroom dancer.)