The Summer 2017 Anime Preview Guide
Welcome to the Ballroom
How would you rate episode 1 of
Welcome to the Ballroom ?
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How was the first episode?
Welcome to the Ballroom was one of the big hype properties coming into this season, blessed with a powerful roundup of animation talent, with many of them coming from the much-loved Haikyuu! Ballroom dancing isn't the most conventional of sports topics, but frankly, I feel like the particular sport of any given sports show is almost irrelevant to its prospects. A good show can make any topic exciting, and so far, Welcome to the Ballroom is a very good show.
This episode's strengths begin with its protagonist. Our hero Fujita is given a solid starting point in this episode, with his insecurity about his future and new passion for ballroom dancing both coming through convincingly and distinctively. Part of this comes down to his nicely written internal monologue, but even more is a consequence of this episode's consistently terrific character acting. All of the characters in Welcome to the Ballroom have a unique, specific way of carrying themselves, a strength that's distinctly appropriate to a show about dancing. Fujita is all slumped shoulders and averted eyes at first, and little details like his tendency to laugh when he's actually nervous give him a real sense of individuality. Fujita's first breakthrough comes when he has someone directly critique his posture, and thus his journey of learning to carry himself correctly for dancing ultimately acts as a direct echo of his emotional road. It's a great bit of visual storytelling that's only possible because this show's animation is so strong.
That strength of animation also elevates this show's sports drama-related pretensions. The show is well aware of the building blocks that lead to addictive sports battles, framing Fujita's efforts to learn the basic waltz steps as a series of distinct physical challenges. Narrative choices like framing his intended step as a kind of pendulum swing are matched with graceful animation that makes the contrast between his beginning and ending competency clear. If this episode is anything to go by, Welcome to the Ballroom won't have any trouble finding enough conflicts to populate a lengthy dancing adventure.
Overall, Welcome to the Ballroom's first episode is a pretty exemplary demonstration of its genre's fundamentals in all respects. Its loyalty to convention may be its only theoretical weakness, but I can't complain about a premiere that succeeds as character drama, sports narrative, and visual spectacle all at once. Even if you have no interest in dancing, give this episode a shot.
For many people this was the season's most anticipated title, as the concept holds the promise of elegant displays which could wow audiences in much the same way that Yuri on Ice did last year. I didn't have much interest in it myself, as watching people dancing holds no attraction for me (I've never seen an episode of Dancing with the Stars, for instance) but the hype for it was so high that I decided to give it a fair chance.
The episode starts off on the wrong foot with me with its very first shot, which shows protagonist Tatara Fujita. I immediately took a dislike to his giraffe-necked character design, and sadly, it looks like that's the norm for the series rather than the exception. Character designs don't mean everything, of course; after all, I still think Voices of a Distant Star is a masterpiece despite its poor character design aesthetic. However, in this case the aesthetic is just so off-putting that I struggled to get into the rest of the content. It also doesn't help that Shizuku is in no way, shape, or form convincing as being the age that she's supposed to be. The technical and visual merits are also generally weaker and less consistent than Yuri on Ice for example, though admittedly that's comparing it to a fairly high bar.
All of this being said, the story did eventually offer some attraction. Tatara is a fairly typical male lead, one who starts out nondescript but seeks something that he can get passionate about, and such characters are usually interesting to watch on their journey of exploring that passion. I also actually liked that Sengoku came off arrogantly rather than as friendly and/or accepting of Tatara's desire. To be credible as a top-level pro in a competitive sport where the whole point is to show off, you practically have to have a certain amount of arrogance. As expected, an education in dance procedure and terminology looks like it's going to be an integral part of the series, too.
So the way that the episode played out saved it from getting a bottom-basement rating from me. Still doesn't look even remotely like something that could hold my interest, though, and I still can't get over the Giraffe Neck Syndrome.
When you get bitten by the dance bug, there's no going back. I was five when it happened to me, but age isn't really a factor in how much you love or can learn, which is in part the basis for Tatara Fujita's character in Welcome the Ballroom: he has nothing that he feels like he cares about until he gets roped into attending a beginning ballroom class by professional dancer Sengoku. And then the bug bites.
If there's one thing this episode gets right, it's how dance can grab you. What's interesting is that the series' own characters don't seem to understand this, despite being dancesport competitors themselves – both Sengoku and Tatara's classmate assume that he's just in it to touch girls. But that's not what snares Tatara; it's the movements themselves and the way that performing/competing can allow a quiet or uncomfortable person to come out of their shell and be seen. Perhaps they fail to grasp this because Shizuka's been dancing for so long that she's forgotten, or simply gotten used to the feeling, while no one would accuse Sengoku of being withdrawn. In fact, he's another dance factor that the episode gets right: the male dancer who is aggressively masculine, because he wouldn't want anyone to think otherwise just because he dances.
All of this makes it disappointing that the original manga character designs did not translate well into animated form. Eyes look hollow and faces are craggy, while bodies look elongated even when not dancing. (Some elongation while dancing is acceptable to show speed and movement, at least in my opinion.) The animation is better – although the video of Sengoku's last competition Tatara watches makes use of mostly still shots to show aspects of the dances, when Sengoku is demonstrating the basic waltz step, the moves are fluid and graceful, really giving you a feel for the rise and fall of the dance, especially when compared with Tatara's attempts to mimic it. The art also captures the strength of the frame (how the dancers hold their arms) well, making it clear that there's a lot of muscle control even in this simple preparation.
Welcome to the Ballroom's first episode is faithful enough to the manga that it has a good rhythm to it, which makes me very hopeful. As a dancer (and the sister of a former competitive dancer), I love the manga, and thus far the anime is not disappointing me. As I said, the art didn't translate well, and I do wish the opening theme was at least a samba or something, but those are things I can look past. As long as there's more dancing and fewer stills going forward, this looks like a promising series.
It may have taken almost a week, but the season is finally starting to deliver the goods. Made in Abyss was the first show of the season I can honestly say I loved, and while Welcome to the Ballroom doesn't necessarily hit the same highs, it still ends up being one of the most entertaining and watchable premieres so far. If you're looking for a sports/competition anime to follow this season, then this seems to be the one to look out for.
An important thing that makes Ballroom so strong is the fact that it has a reliable formula to stick to, and it executes that formula well. Some stories are better served when they branch out and do new things, but I've always found sports stories to work really well even when they follow a fairly familiar roadmap. Tatara works well is the prototypically aimless teenager looking for some passion in his life, and Kiyoharu makes a big impression as his female co-lead, even though she has limited screen time here. My favorite member of the cast, though, would have to be Kaname Sengoku as the affable dance coach who ends up being a surprisingly vindictive hardass. This episode did a lot to paint a lot of his characteristics in surprising detail and his ego, his likability, his stubbornness, and his innate charisma all combine to make for a compelling mentor figure for the more predictably enthusiastic Tatara. A sports anime's success is based on the strength of its cast and its ability to make the sport in question entertaining, and Welcome to the Ballroom succeeds in that first category admirably.
It does well with the depiction of the ballroom dancing too, though the results there may prove more mixed for some viewers. The art and animation style the series uses to showcase the dancing opts for a more exaggerated depiction of the human form than one might expect, though it fits well with the aesthetic of the show. I will admit there were a couple of moments where the gangly limbs and elongated necks and faces of the characters reminded me a bit too much of Peter Chung's style of stylization, which is much less my cup of tea, but that threshold was never fully crossed enough to turn me off the show altogether.
Welcome to the Ballroom has been poised to be the big hit of the season for a while now, and I can see what all of the buzz has been about. It's a lavishly animated production with likable characters, and it's got a strong central hook with its focus on ballroom dancing. It doesn't feel like it's going to take the fandom by storm the same way something like Yuri on Ice would, and it admittedly isn't trying to be revolutionary or groundbreaking, but it's a lot of fun all the same. Every season needs at least one show that is consistently and reliably watchable, and Welcome to the Ballroom looks like it will fill that spot nicely.
This season has been fairly light on strong sports shows thus far, but I suspect that Welcome to the Ballroom would still stand out in a much more crowded field. This episode makes for a strong and focused debut, and it feels like the series already has a good handle on what it wants to be. Both the visuals and the narrative have a good sense of style, there's some effective humor to be found, and the story has just enough substance to lend it an emotional foundation. Simply put, it's making all the right moves.
More than anything else, the characters in this episode stood out to me. Both their designs and their body language do a lot to convey their personalities before they say anything. Sengoku's tough-guy style and confident posture make for a strong contrast with our scrawny, slouchy protagonist Fujita. Once that comparison is made, it makes sense that Fujita would gravitate towards dancing in his search for a purpose. The writing and direction adds enough humor into the mix to make them both likable, and Fujita's panicked inner monologue as he makes his big assertion is a definite comedic highlight. The rest of the characters don't get enough screen time to really hit their stride, but most early signs suggest that the series has a good range of personalities to work with.
As far as the story goes, it looks like Welcome to the Ballroom is going to make Fujita take the hard road to success. He isn't presented as having any special talents, nor does he have any useful experience to lean on. Instead, he's just thickheaded enough to keep trying in the face of adversity. This should help make his journey a bit more relatable than that of someone with overwhelming talent. Fujita's presumptive dance partner Shizuku appears to have some adversity of her own to deal with, though the focus here is primarily on setting up Fujita's story. Most importantly, this episode succeeds in communicating the appeal of competitive dancing. Even if it has to use a sensory-overload dream sequence to do so, that's genre hurdle number one cleared in swift and decisive fashion.
At the moment, I'd describe Welcome to the Ballroom as a promising genre title, rather than something truly original. It's working neatly within the basic sports fiction framework here, and it's making the most of those familiar steps at the moment. The story, characters, and visuals are working together to create something that's fun to watch. For sheer entertainment value, it's at or near the front of the pack. I expect it to please fans of sports anime, and it may even win over some folks who aren't normally drawn to this genre.
This attempt to replicate the monstrous success of Haikyu while it's on hiatus—erm, I mean, this fluidly animated adaptation of a popular shonen manga—is easily the most hyped new title of the season. Pony Canyon heavily promoted Welcome to the Ballroom at Anime Expo with special mashup merchandise combining it with Attack on Titan of all things, Amazon has put it at the forefront of all their licensing announcements, it's had like five or six PVs released over the past couple of months, and I'm writing this before its official simulcast premiere tomorrow because Amazon also decided to give the first episode a special streaming premiere on Twitch tonight. So with all this unprecedented pre-air hype, how does that first episode shake out?
Well, while my eyes were frequently impressed, my heart is mostly just saying that it's okay. It's gorgeously animated, easy to watch from start to finish, and it's got a snappy opening theme song by Unison Square Garden, who are always a welcome presence in my book. Beyond that, the story itself (and frankly the execution beyond each sharp and dapper cut of animation), is totally just okay. I imagine it will only be disappointing if you were, perhaps unfairly, expecting to be wow'ed more, like I was. I tried to keep my expectations measured, but you build something up that much for that long in deficit of much build-up for anything else (it's sort of a sallow summer so far), you might get a couple grouches like me coming away with a shrug.
I actually like the giraffe-necked and spade-chinned character designs of the show a lot, like they're idealized humans created for the sole purpose of using their long limbs to show off the perfect form for ballroom dancing. I was also 100% down with the rough-yet-tactile energy of the episode's dance animation. It probably took a lot of planning and an expert animation scheduling balance to keep the show looking so crisp in almost every moment, using rare moments of slippery roughness or vanishing details at just the right moments to keep the world and its dancers feeling cohesive. If anime were all about the animation itself, this episode would be nigh-on flawless. My gripes—not even gripes really, more disappointment over hoping for better—come from the show's unexpectedly bland editing and extremely paint-by-numbers plot.
The biggest problem is that there's almost no music in the entire episode for some reason, even during wacky comedy scenes and points of high tension, which sucks a lot of life and energy out of the scenes meant to give the show levity or drama. I wasn't expecting a show about competitive ballroom dancing to be so quiet apart from the actor's voices, I guess. On a story level, Tatara definitely gets dragged into the plot through eyebrow-raising contrivance and basically no will of his own, then promptly proves himself way too hard by falling in love with ballroom dance overnight, literally dancing his shoes to ribbons and his toes to Blisterville without even noticing that at least seven hours have passed. Did someone order a regular shonen protagonist with extra cheese?
I'd definitely recommend giving Welcome to the Ballroom a shot (especially considering its competition so far), but this might be a grower rather than a shower. Thinking back to Haikyu's first episode (even setting I.G. aside, the shows share more than a passing resemblance to each other), it was unexpectedly enthralling not just in animation, but in cinematic execution and story as well. Welcome to the Ballroom is still only one third of the way to the triple threat it wants to become. We'll just have to see how this dance progresses.
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