Anime Expo 2017 Welcome to the Ballroom World Premiere Report
by Zac Bertschy,
The main events hall at Anime Expo 2017 was packed to the rafters for the world premiere of Welcome to the Ballroom, the lavish new adaptation of Tomo Takeuchi's hit manga produced by Production I.G and Pony Canyon. The creative team adapting this show is world-class; show director Yoshimi Itazu, along with chief animation director Takahiro Chiba and Attack on Titan producer Tetsuya Kinoshita were on hand to soak in the screaming crowd for just a few moments before the premiere. “This is the first time anyone anywhere will see this - I hope you enjoy it!” said director Itazu, while Producer Kinoshita helped whip up the crowd into a frenzy before the screening began.
Welcome to the Ballroom has a very basic, very classic shonen premise - an uncommonly determined punk-ass nobody kid decides he wants to dive head-first into the exotic world of (oddball competitive sport). In this case it's listless Tatara, who doesn't have any idea what he wants to do with himself until he watches a cute girl named Shizuku walking into the dance studio of blonde Latin dancing titan Kaname Sengoku - who reluctantly agrees to become his dance coach. Soon enough Tatara has a rival for Shizuku's affections - her supernaturally talented professional dance partner, the crazy-eyed, perpetually blasé Kiyoharu Hyodo. It's up to Tatara to manifest his shadow partner, find his inner confidence and conquer the world of competitive ballroom dance!
The show feels like a made-to-order hit. I've only read the first volume of the manga, which sticks to the basic shonen formula so closely it felt like it was trying to pass a test. I found Takeuchi's strength to be her illustrative style, which took the elegant world of ballroom dancing and turned it into a display of wild, violent athleticism, with spattered ink and smeared heads splashing across the panels. The story was cute enough, but I was a little more excited to see how I.G's production team would handle the challenge of animating such a unique aesthetic take on the sport.
Happily, it seems Itazu's team has knocked it out of the park on that front. This is a group of artists more than capable of turning out theatrical-quality animation, and largely, that's what they've done here. It's shot like a television show - lots of cozy medium shots, and we're allowed in close to appreciate the incredible detail Chiba was able to stuff into these character designs. There's a lot of clever framing, and the character animation is second to none - I loved how each character's personality was communicated chiefly through thoughtful character animation (Sengoku in particular is dramatically more charming in the show than I'd anticipated). You can absolutely see the aesthetic influence both Haikyuu and Attack in Titan had, although the former is clearly in the forefront of this team's mind. In our upcoming interview, director Itazu talks about how the goal was to capture Haikyuu's incredible sense of movement, with the subtle eroticism turned down and the athleticism cranked way up - that's definitely what the show feels like.
The premiere event, presented by the show's exclusive streaming partner, Amazon's Anime Strike, included two episodes. In the second episode, they showcase a scene from near the end of the second chapter of the manga, where Tatara's rival Hyodo is training for an upcoming competition, and suddenly the animation shifts from polished, sturdy TV work into sakuga poetry. There's a brilliant sequence like this in the first episode too, and I thought for a moment that maybe this show would pull a One-Punch Man and feature a climactic bravura animation sequence in each episode. After only two episodes, it's a little too early to make that call; it would make sense given the pacing of the story and the way they're structuring these episodes (thankfully they have improved on the manga's pacing and are eating up about one chapter per episode). Either way, there are dozens of beautiful little cuts of animation in every corner of this show, and even if we don't get a splashy showcase every time, it should be a treat watching these artists play in this world every week.
It feels a little redundant to hype this show up - it was already one of the most anticipated series of the season, and the creative team they assembled would be expected to knock it out of the park. It was just as good as I'd hoped, and even managed to elevate the source material into a dynamite anime that showcases some of the finest animators in the world at the top of their craft. At the end of the event, the creative team reemerged from backstage and announced they were making 24 episodes of this show - which is just fantastic news. Don't miss it.
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