This Week in Anime
Whatever Happened to Welcome to the Ballroom?

by Nicholas Dupree & Jacob Chapman,

Welcome to the Ballroom began as one of the most anticipated shows of last summer season, but enthusiasm has dropped off sharply since then. This week in anime, Nick and Jake track the series' highs and lows (mostly lows) as it waltzes toward its conclusion.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network. Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead. Not Safe For Work warning for language.


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You can read our weekly coverage of Welcome to the Ballroom here!

Nick D
So Jake, it's been a while since it's come up around here, but are you still watching Welcome to the Ballroom like I am?

Jacob

I just, I don't know what to make of this show anymore Nicholas.

I don't know what you're talking about. It's a perfectly straightforward anime. A young man discovers ballroom dancing, starts training in it with his eccentric teacher and peers, and it makes him and everyone around him an irritable, miserable wreck for 25 straight episodes.

And some ladies with rubber spines show up occasionally

Tatara is having such a fantastic time with all his new friends and rivals...

But seriously, I take no joy in beating up on Ballroom. The show needs friends; it would already be considered a bomb in Japan if they had committed to 12 episodes much less 25, yikes. There are several things I like about the show! I've never had a problem with the character designs, I like how their weird poses and expressions spice up every shot.

The show's face-game is on point, and I will hear nothing to the contrary.

But for the most part, boy does this show just not want to let me like it. Or let any of its characters like each other for that matter, and that's Ballroom's biggest problem in a sea of problems. Every interaction between friend or foe is just like....abject pointless cruelty. Sometimes it's supposed to be funny, sometimes it's supposed to be dramatic, but it's just everybody at each other's throats all the damn time.

Hey now, there's plenty of light, friendly banter going on in this show. Like reminding your childhood friend of her deep-seated insecurity about her weight.

Right after she's lost a competition to you no less! Such wonderful friendships here in Welcome to the Ballroom!

That is actually the friendliest they've ever been with one another. This is right after they've (kinda) made up.

Okay yeah, Ballroom's characters are a disaster of the most unpleasant people I've seen in a sports anime in...maybe ever?

You can discuss the merits or detriments of the weird anatomy all day, or the strange pacing and surprisingly minimal animation during dance sequences (and failure to use actual ballroom dance music, another huge issue), but the constant animosity between the characters is, more than anything, what I think has been pushing people away from this show.

It's pretty baffling. This is a show about a sport built on partnership, where the entire idea is two people syncing with one another for a common goal, but everyone seems to either hate each other or just be casually cruel to their supposed friends. Like that time Mako's brother constantly insulted her boob size so much she resorted to stuffing her dress to compensate. And then they just make up like it's nothing and he never apologizes.

Yeah, poor Mako got shuffled out of the story pretty quickly after that, so there was little room for closure. The major reason I wanted to talk about Ballroom has been because of what came after, its main plotline and central relationship, the thing that fans of the source material claimed would instantly improve the show: the coupling of Tatara with his new partner, Chinatsu.

Somehow it made the show worse instead.

Ah right, our main duo. Please tell me who thought a Taming of the Shrew character arc would go over well in The Year of Our Lord 2017.

Chinatsu's entire motivation is to beat her former partner and rub it in her face, because female friends hate each other just like everyone else in Ballroom.

At child competition levels, there are more girls in ballroom dance than guys, so young women are often paired together. Chinatsu was always given the male part and therefore doesn't know how to follow so good, while her ex has flourished in her gender-matched role. So Chinatsu partners with Tatara because he's available (she's alienated most other guys), but they're an absolutely awful duo and they know it.


Chinatsu makes Tatara's learning process hellish, while Tatara sulks about how being a dude doesn't make him instantly better at dancing than her. Our hero everybody.


So here's where I'm thinking "Oh, people were excited for Chinatsu because she represents a shakeup in this show's odd gender politics. These two will have to learn to work together as equals." But it turns out to be the exact opposite scenario. Tatara needs to cowboy up, and Chinatsu needs to be tamed. She even wants to be tamed, as made evident by her overbearingly tsundere attitude toward her milquetoast new partner, where she literally says he isn't aggressive enough for her, and being considerate isn't her thing. Tatara needs to be more manly. Chinatsu needs to be more feminine. Those are the lessons they're going to learn. And honestly, the most bothersome part of this isn't that it's grossly sexist or anything (although it's certainly that as well). It's that it's such a boring conclusion. The show is romanticizing relationship dynamics that are decades out of date even in Japan. It's celebrating conformity to something that most people (thankfully) don't even expect from a partner anymore.

It's also just such a waste of what could have been a neat premise. Like when they had that sequence where Chinatsu took the Leading position while Tatara played Partner, I thought they might have something cool where she helps coach him on how to be a good leader, really make this partnership feel like a tight bond by having them learn from one another. But NOPE. They immediately switch back to their roles and never try anything different again.

Well, I'm not sure that's entirely fair. There are differences in their dynamic from the norm, and some of them are good. (That's why the competition's judges call it "revolutionary" even if I think that's a big fat stretch.) After all the constant sniping, casual violence, and eventual acceptance that Tatara is never going to be a very strong leader or Chinatsu a very cooperative follower, they do reach a happy medium as "equals" in one of the show's nicest visual metaphors.


The problem is HOW they reach this position as equals, and what "equal" really means in Ballroom. It means "separate but equal", along arbitrary gender lines that don't match these two's obvious strengths as a (slightly) masculine girl and a (slightly) feminine guy. (Because apparently even those slightlies are too much for this story not to obsess over.) The short version is that the show is using ballroom dance as a metaphor for extremely old-ass canards about matrimony as a "can't live with it/can't live without it" hellish ride where women and men are never expected to communicate directly, which is what makes romance "exciting". (Any relationship expert will tell you this is bullshit for an ocean of reasons.) Every time Chinatsu and Tatara attempt trust-building exercises or express their honest feelings, the results are bad. Every time they split up to talk to members of their own sex about what to do, or just work things out by forcing their wills on one another on the dance floor, the results are good.

The show is comparing a relationship as a pair of athletes to prehistoric ideas of courtship and I'm over here like

And not helping matters is the frankly ridiculous ways the show frames Chinatsu's attitude. It'd be one thing if they just said she was difficult to get along with or whatever, but no, the show has to tell Tatara to "take the reins" and break this "wild mare" in maybe the grossest metaphor for partnership I've ever encountered.

In Hyodo's own words

Right, he's saying Chinatsu has a handicap because she's experienced the power of being the lead in a couple for so long, when in reality, this additional context and experience would be a strength not a weakness. That's the other biggest problem with this characterization. Ignoring how sexist it does or doesn't strike you, it's just plain not accurate to how ballroom dancing really works.



OH RIGHT. It's been long enough that I almost forgot this show just MADE UP scoring rules to pressure Tatara to man up faster.

Yeah, that's all false. It's based on a gross oversimplification of dancesport judging that completely ignores the necessity of chemistry and communication for success, regardless of which partner is more skilled. I know this only because a host of real ballroom dancers on social media have angrily explained it at length. But that emphasis on practice and preparation and diversity in partner styles would contradict Ballroom's love affair with the idea of improvised power plays on the show floor, "taming" or "tricking" your partner into doing what you want in the moment, as an analogy for the highs of a heteronormative romance in its early stages. I get the desire to inject the show with drama, all sports anime need the tension of not having any idea how the game's gonna go until it's showtime, but there had to be a better way to do this than completely betraying the reality of how partner dynamics work in the sport your entire show is about.



How would this dynamic even work in competition? It wouldn't! There's no way to practice or get better at this kind of indescribable power struggle, because that's not how sports or performance arts work.

And that's my biggest problem with Ballroom. Even if you can wade through the frankly gross gender politics and the tedious character beats, this is a sports show that makes me never, ever want to get remotely involved with dancesport. Just look at Tatara and Chinatsu's main rival Kugimiya, who's so stressed out and depressed from the competitive dance scene that he welcomes getting run over by a fucking truck because it means he can quit.


Oh yeah. Even talking about stuff I like about the show is a double-edged sword, because Kugimiya is supposed to be the baddie that Tatara is going to overcome at the end of this season and he's my favorite character. Kugimiya is the only one so far to get me to like really feel a thing. I actually like the guy!

I feel a thing too! Pity. In a show like this, I'm supposed to want to see my favorite characters succeed, be it by improving or finding something they love even if they don't win the big competition. I just want Kugimiya to do anything besides ballroom dance because it's destroying him.

I mean, I think not dancing would have been even worse for him. The reason I like Kugimiya is because even though he's a cold dead-eyed asshole, he was basically raised to be that way by his horrible tiger parents, and dance is the only thing that lets him confront that anxiety and fight it. I mean yeah, the guy needs therapy not more dance lessons, but it's better than nothing.

I'd agree with that more if the show seemed to acknowledge that how he's feeling is unhealthy or dangerous. But Marisa, his coach, straight up tells him

I guess there's still something inspiring about seeing him take on this thing that he's not naturally talented at, something that truly scares him, and saying "you won't get me today." He faces the darkness inside him for recreation, and it's made him stronger.

It's still extremely fucked up, but at least it's interesting, which is a nice contrast from the more boring hetero-tyranny of Ballroom's character dynamics.

I guess it's interesting, but it's also super unpleasant to experience. I got actively mad watching Kugimiya because I've seen what that kind of attitude can do to people, so seeing it kinda pushed aside was just...yeesh.

Yeah for sure. I guess I'm looking for kernels of excitement in a predominantly dispiriting experience that I never expected to be so harsh. Dancesport is soul-crushing apparently!

I'm sure any high-level competition, amateur or otherwise, can be a demoralizing experience sometimes. And I'm cool with that being explored! Ping Pong The Animation and other shows have done that to fantastic result! But that episode just left me feeling slimy. Especially knowing that after all that suffering, Kugimiya's still probably gonna lose to our two tedious leads.

Yeah. After all their training, trials, and tribulations, the uplifting message we're supposed to take away from their bond is that they'll never really understand each other, so they shouldn't even try.

All men and women (erm "dance partners") can really do is try to control each other in a language they think the other will understand, and that's where the excitement of romance (and dancing) comes from. That's what Sengoku leaves them with, and they believe him. (And their chode-ass absentee coach isn't even watching them dance, he just lies and says he's watching, god he's the worst--anyway.)

Then they blossom into a BEAUTIFUL BODY HORROR METAPHOR FOR HETERONORMATIVITY

I guess if I ever meet a ballroom dance pair, I can ask them which of them is the naked chest-burster and which one is the Vitruvian Man.

Thank god I'm gay. Another reason Kugimiya is the best:

I guess that's where I stand on Ballroom. It's intermittently dull or gross and I'm looking forward to it ending. Past all the squandered potential and frankly wasted production values, I'm just kinda frustrated with what seemed like promising elements coming to nothing.

Hey, cheer up! When Tatara and Chinatsu win, we can take solace in the fact that they'll associate victory with playing horrible mindgames with each other instead of working honestly as a team, and when Kugimiya loses, he'll probably put himself right back in the hospital!


Here's hoping everyone breaks a leg! It'll go well with their spines.

LOL

I guess that's Ballroom's version of the Sunken Place. I'm disappointed it ended up there, but I'm gonna be glad to get out.


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