(Putting the delinquency in Juve-Niall Delinquency! Here’s a post that was intended for 2017’s 12 Days Of Anime challenge which, for my very first year of participation not to mention returning to long-form writing for the first time since college, I’m gonna chalk up as breaking even for reaching the halfway point. Who knew it’s actually quite difficult to write effectively for twelve days straight AND work twelve hour shifts five days a week? Not me I guess! Anyhow, some of the ideas I had for that challenge I have since had bigger & better thoughts about so look forward to those later on down the line. For now here’s a fitting tale of something else that hit the skids part way through!)
Welcome To The Ballroom had a tough go of things from the off, as it was perhaps unfairly held up as the spiritual successor to dancing boy superhit Yuri On Ice. Trailers and promotional material for this adaptation of Tomo Takeuchi’s manga suggested something if not in exactly the same vein then certainly a prestige production worth keeping an eye on. The presence of many of the staff that worked on the anime of beloved volleyball manga Haikyuu proved a considerable draw and that was enough to pique the interest of myself and many others. I for one was happy to take it as is for being a sports anime about a competitive activity I had rarely seen on TV outside of Strictly Come Dancing.
Beginnings were promising: ballroom acolyte Tatara could arguably be described as a wet drip of a protagonist but his nervous determination still made him relatable and a nice contrast to the usual hot-blooded aggression of sports anime heroes, embodied in this case by characters like Tatara’s absentee coach Sengoku or rival-cum-eventual ally Gaju. It takes two to tango though so I was more interested in how he’d interact with main female lead Shizuku, inwardly hoping it would prove to develop into something more than just a device to romantically pair them up. Imagine my disappointment then when she was effectively sidelined in favour of pursuing more narrative threads involving her dance partner Hyodo and how he relates with Tatara, playing up the friendly rivalry between them as if she didn’t also have a stake in the competition. It was here that my problems with the show and its attitudes toward gender politics became apparent. For maybe you’d have been sensibly under the impression that ballroom dancing was a team sport involving co-operation & communication between partners, performing together to put on a greater spectacle than either could manage alone. Welcome To The Ballroom has a much different outlook, rigidly sticking to a lead/follow dancing dynamic with the lion’s share of the attention (and credit) placed on the male lead.
Much criticism circulated online regarding this and rightly so. It’s difficult to reconcile Welcome To The Ballroom pretty much portraying women as props to be swung around by the men. We understood that this would be a sports anime, not realising it would be to the most archaic definition where female involvement was disregarded almost entirely. For some reason I stuck with it though. Maybe it was the occasional fluidly animated & expressive dance sequences that showed off the elongated character designs (Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure gets a pass but this bothers you? C’mon lads!). More so it was for Tatara’s viewpoint as an outsider looking in on all this, tentatively questioning this particular competition framework and why it demands conformity to these positions.
Things seemed to be improving after a stronger finish to the first cour with Tatara working amicably with partner Mako to push her into the spotlight, even if it was a strange turn to have the tournament judging panel react perplexedly as if they literally didn’t realise she existed previously. They looked even better with the advent of the second cour: Tomo Takeuchi must have heard these same concerns raised before with their manga and plotted a change in course. New character Chinatsu, strong-willed & assertive, arrived at just the right time and she offered the perfect foil to Tatara’s conflict-averse demeanour. It’s to be expected that Chinatsu & Tatara would have a challenging time aligning their clashing personalities, and I figured the logical progression would be for them to settle their differences and come to an accord. These two had so much to learn from each other: with Chinatsu’s background in leading the dance and Tatara more blatantly highlighting the backwards attitudes of the sport’s judging criteria I dared hope the show might evolve into a pointed critique of the ballroom dancing ethos in particular and gender roles in general. There was ample room to develop and make up for earlier shortcomings, so what does Welcome To The Ballroom do but double down on its distasteful elements. Focus is placed on dancing the “proper” way and never straying outside the bounds of your gender-assigned position no matter where your strengths lie. It’s one thing for Tatara to be more assertive to better communicate with his dance partner; it’s another matter entirely to refer to Chinatsu as a wild horse that needs to be broken, clearly spelling out the series’ opinions on how men & women ought relate to one another.
It was at this stage, after holding out longer than most, that I resigned myself to the eventuality that Welcome To The Ballroom was never going to magically morph into the ideal show I believed it could be. What made it all the more galling was how it would hover frustratingly close to making a cogent point and pull back at the last second. It instead became an exercise in constantly adjusting your expectations, which in the best case is a signifier of a text challenging you as a viewer and in the worst is just seeing how much you can excuse before it makes you quit (a decision made a touch easier in this case by an always ill-advised homophobic joke). Its decline was perhaps made all the more precipitous by those early allusions to Yuri On Ice and as mentioned it may not been entirely fair to expect something else on that level. Then again producer Tetsuya Kinoshita didn’t exactly cover Welcome To The Ballroom in glory in a Q&A where he had plenty of backhanded compliments for Yuri On Ice, so if their intent was to distinguish themselves from that anime then job well & truly done. Cap it off with unused scenes from the manga that would have given much greater insight into the female cast and you have all the hallmarks of a story not reaching its full potential. It’s a shame to see such promise go to pot but if anything maybe it can serve as a lesson in not setting your hopes unreasonably high. While I don’t regret what I watched I’m glad I opted out when I did; it takes time to learn how not to be afraid to ditch that sunk cost fallacy and drop out of whatever media you consume if it ain’t working out, and Welcome To The Ballroom proved quite a test of that instinct. At least we got two pretty rad Unison Square Garden OPs out of it!