2017 was a bit of an odd and tumultuous year for me. I won’t bore you with the details but… The short version is that I had some truly unique and trying circumstances that pushed me into places that I never thought I’d be at or in. Of course, just as life has things that are difficult To deal with, so too are there tons of things that are worth being thankful for.
Anime, for instance, was one of those things that served as a real bright spot for me in an otherwise pretty trying year. Interestingly, however, 2017, for all its highs was actually a year that I felt was marked with a lot of anime related disappointments for me. Nearly every series I decided to blog, didn’t turn out all that well, and if looked at as a whole, I could say that the year wasn’t all too great.
There was, however, one series, that eclipsed all the disappointments of the year for me. That show, the best show of 2017, in my humble opinion, was Welcome to the Ballroom. Welcome to the ballroom was a show that just on hit all the right notes for me, and made it something that I not only watched myself, but recommended to every friend and family member I could find in my offline life.
Yeah, Welcome to the Ballroom is that good, and that’s why I want to do something special for it, to really push other people beyond just my close friends and family, to watch it. Thus, what I want to do today, is talk about, in excessive detail, why Welcome to the Ballroom is so great. This is the first time I’ve done such an extensive deep dive on a particular series, and I hope that it will convince everyone,whether they be a casual or hardcore anime fan, to give this show a watch.
Now… Before we get into the nitty gritty details, I do want to start by talking about something that I’ve always said. The thing, that I’ve often said is that the reason I love anime so much, maybe even more so than video games, movies, western tv shows and what not, is the fact that the medium seems to have something for everyone. Anime was and is a medium where we’ve had great shows about things like sports, baking bread, cooking, the apocalypse, high fantasy worlds, cyber punk dystopian futures and so much more. Saying it in a different way, I’d say that anime has always had a real diversity in what it’s featured, covered and told good stories about.
Not just good stories either. Some of those shows that were based on those weird and strange topics, actually did go on to become exceptional. They moved beyond just having a unique angle, and became truly memorable experiences. One need only to point to experiences like Yakitate Japan, Maison Ikkoku or ERASED – Boku Dake ga Inai Machi as three very different kinds of stories that have each been rather amazing and addicting experiences in their own right.
But hey, I get it, that seems like it was in the past. It seems like these days, there’s a few standard genres, ones that sell and target a specific demographic, that seem to be doing really well. And while that is certainly the new reality of this once beloved medium of entertainment, I think there are series here and there, even now, that truly do define the best that the medium can offer.
Welcome to the Ballroom, is one of those shows. Its a show that will not only make you invest into it heavily, through its characters and story but will ultimately show you something that you probably would never have seen or understood before. There’s real meaning behind the experience of watching Welcome to the Ballroom, and it all results from the rather deep understanding that the show has for the thing that its about; competitive ballroom dancing.
Full disclosure; Welcome to the ballroom isn’t going to suddenly sell you on the idea of starting competitive Ballroom Dancing. It may not do that, but what it will do is have you understand what Competitive Ballroom Dancing is all about. And not just understand, but really experience the joy and fun of that particular subculture itself.
Look, A big reason for why I believe shows like Yakitate Japan and Welcome to the Ballroom succeed is because they really embrace the nuance of whatever topic they’re covering. They do that, and they layer it all with really solid storytelling techniques, characters and events that leverage that nuance in the best way possible. Its that love of the subject matter itself, combined with a love of good storytelling and characterization, that makes shows like Welcome to the Ballroom such transcendent experiences.
There’s just a specific sort of love and knowledge that only someone who’s really into a particular sport, hobby or activity can ever have. Its something that most of the time, other people can’t ever really even hope to understand let alone empathize with. There are just some things in life that really need to be experienced, in order for their value to become apparent.
Welcome to the Ballroom? Its a perfect example of the sort of series that can do just that; let you experience a truly different and unique world. Not only that, it lets you revel in that world, enjoy it and leads you to truly understand it. And through that experience, you begin to understand why a certain group of people may love something that you perhaps would never care for. Its this particular ability, to really have you look at something from a truly different perspective, that I think, highlights the true power of the Anime Medium as a whole.
Now… If you haven’t seen Welcome to the Ballroom yet, and the huge amount of praise that I just threw at the series made you curious, then I’d suggest bailing right about now. Come back to this piece of writing after you’ve seen the series (available on Amazon Prime Video), because I think you’ll find the next parts of this post all the more valuable after that.
In essence, I’m going to dive into heavy spoilers now, all in an effort to analyze the show, its characters, its three main story arcs, and basically talk about why I was impressed by this show, multiple times throughout its 24 episode run. And its because I want to do all of this, that this piece is in more of an article/essay format, rather than something more akin to a traditional review. So with that said, you’ve been warned, and lets really dive deep into what makes Welcome to the Ballroom so special.
Okay…. So… What makes Welcome to the ballroom so special? Why is it that this rather “shounen-ey” take on competitive ballroom dancing became so completely and utterly mesmerizing to me as a viewer? How is it better than shows like Made in Abyss, which were themselves a cut above the pack this year?
I wish there was just one simple phrase that could really distill what makes this show so special. There isn’t though, and the reasons for why Welcome to the Ballroom is so great, are rarely if ever visible on the surface. I actually think that Welcome to the ballroom has multiple good elements, all layered on top of one another with extreme skill. These elements all become evident as you make your way through the series, and thus I think its best to examine the series itself in parts, staring with:
PART ONE: Welcoming with the Relatable Protagonist
To start off, I think I’d like to highlight the one thing that people will notice really early on. Its a quality that I think any good show needs, even if in meager amounts, but its something that Welcome to the Ballroom has an absolute mastery over. What is that thing? Well, its basically how welcoming and inviting of a show Welcome to the ballroom is, to newcomers.
Welcome to the Ballroom doesn’t assume you have prior knowledge of ballroom dancing. It also doesn’t treat you like an idiot either, and actually respects you. It introduces the concepts of ballroom dancing slowly and carefully, with the love of a dear friend. In the beginning parts of the series, it almost seems like everything is in service to that easing into the world of ballroom dancing. The most notable, of those, is none other than the main protagonist of the show itself, Fujita Tatara.
What makes Tatara such a special main character in this show, is that he’s basically both the audience stand in and a character that’s easy to like and root for. Tatara is just as new to ballroom dancing as the audience that’s watching him. But rather than just starting from zero and quickly becoming a genius dancer, what Tatara does is actually discover ballroom dancing in a way that feels natural and believable. Simply put, what makes Tatara so powerful as a protagonist, is his relatability, which itself has multiple levels to it.
When the show starts, Tatara is a middle school kid that’s nearing the end of that particular point in his life. High school looms around the corner, and despite that, Tatara is particularly lost about what he wants to do in life. He has no thing that he’s passionate about, he’s kinda meek and timid, and he’s kind of just floating through life at this point. That kind of main character isn’t all that uncommon in fiction, but anime definitely seems to have a real lack of them, with shounen stories having a severe rarity of them in particular. So already, Tatara is kind of a breath of fresh air in some ways, especially when put up against protagonists like “Hinata from Haikyuu!” or “Soma from Shokugeki no Soma”.
Tatara is a kid who’s unsure of himself, and its that lack of clarity about his life, about where to go and what to do, that I think many people can relate to. Its something that I think even the most ambitious people have run into, at some point in their lives, and then either overcome that particular barrier or found something magical for themselves.
So, there’s that first level, which is where we meet Tatara as the series starts. He’s not got any particular goals in life, and he’s just drifting, and then, through pure coincidence, one day, he comes upon a dancing studio, and in essence, discovers what will ultimately become his life’s biggest passion.
Now, for anyone who’s discovered or found something that they truly love, the first few episodes of Welcome to the ballroom will be utterly nostalgic and truly fascinating. Its fascinating because while Tatara definitely gets into competitive dancing by like episode 4, the journey to get there is just really interesting and exciting.
Which incidentally, is the first story arc of the series, the one where Tatara is thrown into the deep end with regards to dancing, and ends up not only living through it all, but enjoying the experience all the way. The first story arc, is about a kid basically finding his passion project for life, and coming into it in a way that seems like it was almost meant to be.
But! One of the reasons the first story arc of the show is so powerful and works so well to draw in anyone who watches it, goes back to that idea of relatability that Tatara has. See, Tatara doesn’t know the first thing about dancing, and he comes into it completely and utterly blind, much like the audience.
But then, the show beautifully depicts the feelings of wonder, awe and excitement that Tatara feels as he first discovers the great spectacle of dancing, and then the joy of doing it himself. From the first episode, the show is definitely showing a kid discovering his passion and connecting with it, but the show also shows through every trick in the anime book, all the feelings and emotions that Tatara is feeling, and just how much of a good time the kid is having.
That’s what I think makes this first arc of the series so captivating; its how it communicates the love that Tatara develops for competitive ballroom dancing. From the moment where he sees the video of his eventual mentor and current reigning champion Sengoku, to the moment where Tatara himself ends up dancing in a competition with the “girl” that’s long since caught his eye, everything about Welcome to the ballroom screams exciting, surprisingly and unpredictable.
And that’s really what the first arc is, it surprises you both with how much Tatara takes to dancing itself, and how much events themselves seem to push him into that world. Like any good story that’s believable, the events that lead Tatara into dancing, aren’t all conveniently placed coincidences. Some of the events, are real trials that Tatara not just overcomes, but blasts his way through with such bravado and dedication, that its hard to not be enthralled.
See, in the very first episode, Tatara amazes and impressed both Sengoku and the audience with his “practice” of the dance move known as “the box” that he’s told to repeatedly do until further notice. What makes this episode great is in how it uses character dynamics and just good clean setup, to create something surprising and impressive to watch. See, we know that Tatara has never really been serious about anything, the show spends a good chunk of its first episode establishing that, and we even see Tatara kind of naively want to follow in Sengoku’s footsteps, and become a professional dancer like him.
The idea of Tatara just doing it on a whim, is definitely insulting to someone as well accomplished as Sengoku, so its no surprise that the guy gets pissed off, and instead tries to scare some sense into the kid, by giving him a rather difficult task, and then just kind of writing him off.
What Tatara does in response, however, is the first example of what makes Welcome to the Ballroom such a riveting experience. Rather than complain, or give up, or get embarrassed, what Tatara does is he just loses himself in his work. He’s been given a task, one that will lead him towards the thing that’s inspired him so much, and so he just does it. Over and over and over and over again, until its morning the next day.
The studio is filled with his sweat, the kid is exhausted, but he’s gone beyond all of that. Whatever it was that Tatara was doing, it was so captivating to him, that he lost track of everything. Time, place, people, none of those things mattered, and even though it was just a single dance move, the fact that Tatara went SO above and beyond, to the point of sheer absurdity, argues in favor of one simple fact; Tatara is GOING to become a competitive dancer eventually, even if he has to brute force his way into it.
Thus, By the end of this whole sequence of events, the show begins both Tatara’s transformation and his journey. He’s found something that he likes so much, that he loses himself in it, and he’s already done something that most people would consider unthinkable.
With the introduction of the protagonist more or less nailed, and the premise established, the show finally dives properly into Tatara’s journey. Its from here, that Sengoku begins teaching Tatara about dance and becomes his proper mentor, and Tatara slowly becomes to move into the world of competitive dance.
Of course, Competitive Ballroom dancing already has a ton of unique individuals inside of it, and its in the meeting of two such individuals, that the story really kicks things into high grear. Which, incidentally, brings us to the next part of this examination and another key element of this series’ appeal.
Part Two: Rivals, Friends and Character Dynamics
I suppose its about time to admit that I omitted a pretty huge part of the story, when I mentioned Tatara’s introduction and our general introduction to the world of Welcome to the Ballroom. Yes, I’m talking about Shimizu Shizuku, a girl that Tatara encounters in the very first episode, and who actually happens to be a professional competitor in the competitive ballroom dancing scene itself.
There was obviously a reason for that omission, and it largerly boils down to the fact that while Shizuku is definitely an integral part of Tatara’s story, she’s not his reason for embarking on the journey itself. Which, honestly, is just so darn refreshing.
For anyone who’s seen a decent amount of anime, you’ll be familiar with the trope of sports anime/manga where the protagonist will basically try to get good at his sport to impress the girl he likes. Anime have used this particular idea to great effect, with some of my favorites including the track romance show “Suzuka” and the legendary basketball show known as “Slam Dunk”.
Slam Dunk is especially important to consider here, because I think Welcome to the Ballroom actually takes the established central dynamic between the core trio from that show, and kind of really turns it all on its head. See, in Slam Dunk the central protagonist Sakuragi Hanamichi ends up falling for this girl named Akagi Haruko. Haruko’s a nice girl who’s really supportive and nice to Hanamichi, and basically drives him toward trying basketball out. Hanamichi does it to mostly impress her, but things get complicated when he actually makes the school team and finds out that the ace of the team, Rukawa Kaede is not only popular with the girls, but Haruko as well.
There’s a love triangle dynamic here, and the show has you basically root for Hanamichi to try and win Haruko over, even though its quite clear that its all pointless. Kaede is actually shown to be a lot cooler and more capable than Hanamichi, and we get the traditional shounen rivalry between the two (Hanamichi and Kaede) that erupts into comradery, competition and mutual respect.
Coming back to Welcome to the Ballroom, things are actually pretty darn different between Shizuku and Tatara. From the outset, the show kind of realizes that there’s established tropes and expectations from this kind of sports related show, and it uses it all to its advantage.
The first time Tatara actually comes upon Shizuku, she’s actually in his school’s faculty office, being drilled by a teacher about her “future”. To someone like Tatara, who’s pretty lost regarding his own life goals, Shizuku comes off as a kindred spirit. The show establishes, via Tatara’s naration, that Shizuku is actually pretty popular and smart, and despite that, she seems to be just as lost as Tatara is when it comes to life as a whole.
Tatara definitely is too meek or shy to actually approach her, but there’s that sense of comfort that he feels from meeting someone who has the same problems as him. Beyond just their eyes meeting in the faculty room, however, not much else comes out of this discovery that Tatara makes.
Its only later in the day, as Tatara is coming back from school, lost in thought, that he sees Shizuku head into a building. Curious, he checks said building out and finds it to be a dance studio. And its here that Welcome to the ballroom dismantles the very trope that it seems to be leveraging.
For one thing, its not Shizuku, but actually Sengoku (Tatara’s eventual mentor) that drags him into the studio and the dance world as a whole. Tatara’s inspiration doesn’t come from a pretty girl being nice to him, but rather from a grown man who dazzles him with how cool ballroom dancing is. And while Shizuku definitely leads Tatara to dancing itself, that’s all she really does, serve as a way to get Tatara to the dance studio. Everything else? Its all down to Tatara and his relationship to Sengoku himself.
I’ve talked about how Sengoku kind of gets annoyed by Tatara after Tatara asks to be taught how to competitive ballroom dance “like” Sengoku, so we’ll skip retreading over that. What I do want to focus on, however, is the dynamic between Tatara and Shizuku.
Simply put, rather than encourage Tatara at the very start of the story, Shizuku actively recoils from the fact that he’s suddenly at her dance studio after she briefly saw him at the faculty room at school, that very day. See, Shizuku is aware that Tatara is one of those “unsure about his future people” and so she flat out confronts him about it as they are paired up for his “trial” lesson.
“Why is a person who’s unsure about their future here? For kicks? Or are you a Pervert?”
Harsh and extreme words, and definitely not something that follows the whole “pretty nice girl gets guy into sport” trope. Instead, Shizuku is actively wary of Tatara, and even earlier than Sengoku in some ways. It turns out, in a rather cunning twist, that Shizuku is actually pretty sure about her future, and is darn serious about dancing herself.
So, from the get go, the girl that Tatara is kind of fascinated and clearly interested in, is actually someone who doesn’t view him in all that much of a positive light. Which is great, because when Tatara ultimately shows Sengoku his seriousness with regards to dancing, Shizuku sees it and is impressed by it as well.
Shizuku ends up seeing Tatara in a positive light, not because of the fact he’s a really good dancer, but because she sees potential in him. Not only that, she much like Sengoku is just impressed with not only how quickly he takes to dancing, but how much he immerses himself in it. The resulting fascination that Shizuku has with Tatara is based on how he continues to defy expectations and how he ultimately comes to love dance in a similar way to how she herself does.
Plus, there’s an important point here, Shizuku never actually falls for Tatara. There’s a weird romantic tension between the two of them sure, but Shizuku actually has a dance “partner”, a guy known as Hyodo Kiyoharu.
The dynamic between Shizuku, Hyodo and Tatara is the backbone of the show’s next arc, and perhaps even another foundational element for the show as a whole. See, Shizuku starts out as the girl that seems like she’s the typical love interest for the main character. She’s pretty, she’s nice and she seems to not only be into dancing itself, but actually sees some potential in Tatara as well. She’s a likable potential heroine for the story, but of course, there’s a catch, she’s partnered up with a very talented guy her age, the dancing prodigy Hyodo.
And here you’d think that the show would just devolve into a standard love triangle with a dancing backdrop. Its definitely a tantalizing idea, isn’t it? I mean, I for one, would totally be game for watching a show like that. But… Quite surprisingly, Welcome to the ballroom doesn’t actually go there. It doesn’t tell a simple love triangle story, and instead, doubles down on the idea of dancing, partners and competition itself, using whatever weird romantic tension there originally is between Tatara, Shizuku and Hyodo to do something unique.
See, what happens in this part of the story, is that Hyodo ends up injuring himself during a pretty major competition. He disappears for a bit during said competition, with both Sengoku and Tatara midly aware of what’s going on. Now, at this point, Tatara has found not only a love of dancing, but he’s actually already seen how impressive of a guy Hyodo himself is.
In another impressive dose of originality, the show doesn’t actually make Hyodo into the talented but dislikable “cool guy” rival (Like Kaede from Slam Dunk, or even Sasuke from Naruto). Hyodo is bad at communicating sure, he’s a bit quiet and reserved for one. But what the show soon reveals is that Hyodo is not only super passionate about dancing, but ultimately, a genuinely nice guy. Tatara, while still a bit uneasy about the fact that Hyodo is basically super close with the girl that he likes (Shizuku) understands and acknowledges Hyodo’s strength and talent at dancing. And once he realizes all of that, Tatara ends up looking up to Hyodo instead of hating him, and actually becomes one of his biggest fans.
Which, is such a unique dynamic right? I mean, who would’ve though that the guy that most people would see as their romantic rival, would be someone that Tatara would recognize, respect and want to be friends with. But that’s exactly what happens, and its a nice analogue for a situation that can happen in real life, provided there are good people involved. Good people appreciate one another, and instead of just being envious or jealous, will actually become friends if they share enough in common.
And that is the road that the show puts Tatara and Hyodo, on, at least to start off. There’s a rather nice sense of Hyodo actually kind of showing Tatara the ropes as he starts out. He gives him an old pair of pants, and even demonstrates a few moves for him. It also ends up working out pretty nice, as Tatara learns best by observation and example, and Hyodo is the perfect example.
But, there’s a problem. The problem, of course, is that there’s that romantic tension that I mentioned earlier, lurking in the background. Now… a lesser story, would just ignore that particular subplot and move on to other things. Welcome to the Ballroom, however, is clearly not interested in leaving things unaddressed and confronts that tension head on. In that competition where Hyodo is injured? Tatara ends up standing in for him with Shizuku, all at the behest of Sengoku.
The series of events that lead to that happening, are pretty insane actually. Sengoku, Tatara’s mentor and teacher, actually arranges the whole thing in a rather weird bid to try and disqualify his other favorite kid, Hyodo from the competition. Sengoku’s ultimate goal? To prevent Hyodo from injuring himself further and potentially endangering his future.
And yeah, that situation is loads of dumb and selfish on Sengoku’s part, but the way Tatara responds to it all, is once again, impressive and surprising. I mean, imagine for a second, that you’re someone who’s super new to a particular sport. And now, after having just gotten into it, you meet a guy who’s soo much better than you, and you’re basically asked to fill his shoes, during an actual competition with real stakes?
Not only asked, you’re just kind of flung into it, without even having the option to refuse. Which is exactly what happens to Tatara because Sengoku actually tricks him into it. Before Tatara can come to grips with what’s actually happening, Sengoku dresses him up and then sends him off to dance with Shizuku in order to, as he initially says it: “fool the judges” and keep Hyodo and Shizuku in the competition.
And in this situation, what does Tatara do? He actually dances his heart out, and ends up enjoying the situation while doing a decent job. See, with all the adoration for Hyodo, Tatara has secretly been practicing and mimicking his dance routine. So, Tatara actually performs in this unthinkable situation, and he does it, with a huge grin on his face. And that whole situation? Its just amazing to see.
But, if that weren’t amazing enough, its what the show does next that’s equally impressive. Tatara basically steals Hyodo’s partner and is able to actually fill his shoes, if just for a second. How does Hyodo react? Well, he’s angry, but he’s not angry at Tatara because he took his spot or his partner. No, Hyodo actually is so impressed with Tatara, that it lights a fire in HIM, and he dances his very best and most passionate dance, in the very next part of the competition, all while having a sprained ankle.
Which, really cements the sort of dynamic that Hyodo and Tatara end up having as the series goes on, one of mutual respect and adoration. Despite the impressive performance in the later stages, Hyodo actually not only loses the competition but gets suspended for a good while. Following the competition, Hyodo visits Tatara soon after, and instead of hating on him, recognizes the guy’s talent and suggests that he push forward with dancing itself. Its a surprising moment, but one where Tatara’s own idol kind of recognizes him and welcomes him into this new world that’s already pretty much got its teeth in him.
That sense of welcome, of friendliness that permeates from both Hyodo and Shizuku after they realize Tatara’s potential, is one of the reasons why Ballroom transcends being just your standard shounen story. Here, there’s complexity, there’s adoration, respect, competitiveness, and it all results in this odd, unique dynamic between Shizuku, Hyodo and Tatara. And that’s not even covering the odd dynamic that Shizuku and Hyodo have, which would be an entire essay in itself.
But, I know I’m already running a bit long on this part of the overall analysis, and we’ve only gotten through the first arc of the show. There’s two more, and those arcs, are longer, even more interesting, and ultimately keep on building on the solid foundation that Welcome to the ballroom has. I won’t go everything in quite as much detail as I did with the main trio here, but I do want to highlight a few other character dynamics that are pretty darn interesting.
The next arc, immediately builds off of this weird new dynamic that settles in between the main trio of the show. See, Shizuku is more than a little pissed at Hyodo and even Sengoku. Hyodo, in particular, for not telling her about his injury, and basically not respecting her as a partner. There’s a weird rivalry yet partners dynamic between the two, and its thrown into disarray when Hyodo ultimately decides to not share everything with his partner. And then of course, he’s out of commission thanks to an injury, which in competitive dancing, seems to suggest that Shizuku is now “single” and could pair up with someone else.
Which brings us to the next two important characters, Gaju and Mako, a brother-sister competitive dancing pair that takes center stage. And this is where the show not only continues to establish the unique relationships between all its characters, but it’s also where the show starts to dive deeper into the more complex ideologies and workings of competitive dancing itself. The focus, to start off, falls on the idea of what being a partner actually means with regards to the sport itself.
See, Gaju is apparently the more talented and respected of his particular duo, and as such, has gotten tired of not being able to communicate with his sister. Frustrated, Gaju jumps at the chance to switch partners and goes for pairing with Shizuku. He shows up at the studio and flat out demands that Shizuku be his partner. And, Gaju, well, he’s more of like your typical shounen character, loud, brash, confident and very quick to jump into conflict.
Shizuku, obviously, is Hyodo’s partner, and with him gone, her suddenly joining up with Gaju is pretty upsetting to Tatara. And Shizuku does end up joining with Gaju, mostly because she’s pissed off at Hyodo and acting out as a result. But, this situation causes issues for not only Hyodo and Tatara (who really likes both Hyodo and Shizuku as a pair) but also Gaju’s sister, Mako.
Mako, for her part, is pretty hurt by how Gaju is taking her for granted. And as such, Tatara’s big goal in the arc, is to make Gaju realize his own partner’s value and respect her. Sengoku, seeing an opportunity to both teach Tatara something new and fix the whole Shizuku mess, ends up arranging a unique situation. Tatara and Mako end up coming together and form a bet with Gaju. If they by beat him and Shizuku in a competition, then the new partnership will disband.
This arc, serves to do several things. First, it gives Tatara a chance to pair up with someone other than Shizuku, and it gives him the chance to actually dance against her with someone else. In the process, he also begins to learn what it means to be partnered with someone else. As the arc itself progresses and we jump into the actual competition, Tatara’s role as the “leader” and Mako’s role as the “partner” begin to take center stage.
Its here that ballroom acknowledges the gender dynamics in its sport, and starts to focus in on them. It does this, while of course, having a major competition happening between four of its primary characters. Tatara and Mako have to beat Shizuku, both for themselves and for their own future. And at the same time, its here that the show chooses to hint at the problematic gender dynamics in competitive dancing.
The exploration is done, but its done with a really exciting story. This is the first real battle that Tatara fights and competes in, and so the excitement runs rampant. The show proceeds to amp up the stakes, having Hyodo himself appear in the late stages, and then actually give Tatara some key advice to win. This behavior in turn, lights a fire in Shizuku, and thus the the battle is on.
For someone like myself, who was never interested in dancing itself, the show actually did a remarkable job of making me care about the whole competition. And that’s where I think shows like Welcome to the Ballroom shine, as they give even “normal” people incentives and feelings that result in some real tense moments as the events of a contest play out.
Indeed, as we approached the finale of the competition, I found myself totally rooting for Tatara and Mako. This happened, because I was aware of their situation and what they were fighting for. Which, incidentally is a classic technique of sports anime and manga, one that Welcome to the ballroom used mastefully.
But, while the personal nature of the story can create a sense of investment, its here where shows really need to go the extra mile. See, the audience will want its favorite characters to win, but the win itself has to be believable, lest it become meaningless. See, if Tatara and Mako had won just BECAUSE they were in the right or sympathetic, then the win itself would’ve been cheapened. To its credit, the show keeps a sense of tension till the end of the competition.
There’s a real sense of unease, of unpredictability, with each side putting up a valiant fight. Its really hard to tell who has the advantage, which keeps things nail bitingly exciting. And in the end, Tatara and Mako do some creative things, and ultimately, Tatara is able to succeed in display her talents, almost at the expense of himself.
Which, the show uses to create its resolution, Mako ends up winning the best partner award of the competition, but Tatara and Mako as a pair come in dead last, in terms of the finalists. So Tatara and Mako manage a win (since the competition was all about showing Mako’s worth) but Tatara as a dancer loses against Gaju.
That kind of bittersweet victory, where the main characters get a deserved win, but doesn’t win it all, is an example of how much Welcome to the Ballroom understands the idea of competition, growth and progress. It gives its protagonist a win, but still gives him a lot of room to grow and become better at whatever it is he’s decided to do. A win, and a setback, which make for a pretty believable and ultimately satisfying ending.
So… With Tatara having officially been in a competition, and more or less granted a small victory, the first half of the show ends. Which brings us to the show’s final arc. And boy, is this arc amazing in itself, as it not only takes its central character to places where he’s never been before, but also explores some really dicey and difficult subject matter in the process. Lets move on to…
Part 3: Gender Roles and The perfect partner
So, up till this point we’ve covered and gone over elements from what is primarily the first half of the series. Said first half does some really important stuff in that it establishes Tatara as a main character, it introduces us to the world of dancing AND it shows us multiple different and interesting competitive couples in the ballroom dancing scene itself.
BUT, with the conclusion of the second major story arc, Gaju pairs up with Mako again, which, in turn leaves Tatara in a pretty big lurch. Shizuku is with Hyodo again of course, and its because of that, that a really nagging need for something starts to emerge. Something that we haven’t yet seen, and its something that Tatara perhaps, always needed.
Yeah, its the fact that Tatara needs a partner of his own. Someone to join up with him, to be his equal and to face off against the likes of Gaju, Mako, Shizuku and Hyodo. In a sense, one of the most fascinating parts about Welcome to the Ballroom, is how skillfully it sets up both this need and some really interesting ideas around it, all for the second half to fully use and explore.
The first of those ideas, and one that actually gets introduced in the Mako/Gaju arc, is that of gender roles and dynamics in ballroom dancing. As I mentioned earlier, Tatara does end up winning his bet against Gaju and Shizuku because of how Mako ends up winning the best partner award in that competition. He does that, but as an actual competitive pair, Mako and Tatara actually come dead last in the finals, waay behind Gaju and Shizuku.
Which in turn, is where an interesting problem starts to rear its ugly head. See, the way Tatara actually gets Mako to stand out so much, is by almost completely fading into the background himself. Tatara realizes, right in the competition, that he’s not the best dancer himself, definitely not yet at the level to actually compete with Gaju and Shizuku on equal terms. His solution to the conundrum is to basically give Mako the focus, giving her every opportunity to shine, and playing an entirely supportive role as her dance partner.
The problem here, and its a big one, is that in competitive ballroom dancing, the male and the female have very defined roles. Tatara’s approach to it all, ends up flying in the face of the accepted norms and the rules to win. Simply put, the male is the leader and the female partner, the follower. A male has to not only lead, but is more or less the primary competitor in the competition, with a couple being primarily judged on his performance. Things like couple balance and unity? A secondary concern, at least until the more advanced stages of competition.
The sexism and lack of equality in both genders smells so bad that it almost threatens to undermine the appeal of the show. I myself, as a relative outsider to competitive ballroom dancing, actively recoiled from this fact when I saw various judges in the story basically penalize and reprimand Tatara for his insistence to put his partner above himself.
Indeed, in the minds of many outsiders, what Tatara is doing doesn’t feel wrong. Its simply a bold and interesting way to approach dancing itself. And should conventions really be respected and followed if they’re clearly outdated and pretty darn unfair to one half of a competing pair?
Well, in a lesser show, this idea of gender dynamics would be at the most acknowledged, and then simply swept under the rug as “something that just is”. A lesser show would just move onto things like pushing Tatara forward and having him compete with other characters and trying to gain some kind of foothold in the competitive dance scene. A lesser should would.
As I think is quite evident by now, Welcome to the Ballroom is not a lesser show. Welcome to the Ballroom, doesn’t actually stray away from things it brings up or introduces. And much like before, the show not only tackles the whole idea of gender roles in ballroom dancing, but actively makes it the backbone of its entire second half.
Now… We’ve already mentioned that the show has created a need for Tatara to have his own partner. He’s talented enough, and he’s displayed enough potential and passion to more than warrant a seat at the proverbial big table of ballroom dancers. The show has also gone ahead and laid down the foundation of how Tatara is basically doing something very wrong in how he dances, at least in terms of the established norms of the sport he’s in.
Its amidst all these open questions and needs, that the show introduces a very darn important character; Hiyama Chinatsu. And Chinatsu? Well… She’s the most unconventional (and therefore rather original) main heroine I’ve seen in quite a while.
What makes Chinatsu so darn special, is the fact that when she comes in, she’s basically the anti-thesis to that very need that the show seems to have established for Tatara. See, What Tatara needs is someone who can support HIM, balance him out and basically work with him. Tatara needs an equal, a friendly face, someone he can trust and connect with, and Chinatsu is anything but that.
See, in a stroke of genius, Welcome to the Ballroom presents Chinatsu as a really damaged, difficult to work with girl that can’t stand Tatara (at least, initially). Chinatsu isn’t the golden answer that Tatara’s been seeking, and actually brings with her, a big set of problems and frustrations. At first, Tatara can’t even get her to dance because she flat out proclaims that she finds dancing itself lame.
Think about it, the partner that the show has been building up towards, turns out to be Chinatsu, a girl that could hardly be more interested in the role herself. But the rather impressive thing about this move, is that it actually really mirrors reality, in a rather beautiful way.
Rarely, in real life, do events and situations present themselves as perfectly ideal. Undoubtedly, if everyone were given the best possible circumstances and tools to succeed, then they very much would. Life, would also be horribly dull as a result. Its in the overcoming of hardship, and the resolving of conflict, that some of the best stories in fiction exist, and Welcome to the ballroom really understands that.
Going back to Chinatsu, she’s not only not interested in dancing to begin with, but when she actually does end up dancing with Tatara, the two are horribly out of sync. Its then that the show reveals Chinatsu’s background, and the fact that SHE actually knows how to lead better than Tatara himself.
In a rather strange twist of fate, it turns out that Chinatsu HAS actually been dancing all her life, but in an all girls setting. With no male partners available, it was Chinatsu who ended up taking the role of the leader, and in doing so, basically damned herself to place where she could never really compete professionally in the same vein as say Shizuku or Hyodo. And its because of her failure to break into the competitive dance scene, that Chinatsu abandons competitive ballroom dancing itself, hurt and utterly broken.
So when Tatara comes in and decides to drag her back into the world of ballroom dancing, Chinatsu is not only overly cautious and hesitant, but actively resists it. Not only that, but Chinatsu KNOWS how both sides of the dance couple equation work, and can’t seem to follow the timid and selfless Tatara who is the farthest thing from aggressive and domineering, as can be.
Its also worth noting that, Chinatsu’s whole past and pain, is rooted in those very same gender dynamic issues that the show has briefly touched on before. In essence, Chinatsu is a victim of those gender traditions, and has suffered at the hands of them to the point where she can’t really fit into the world of competitive ballroom dancing itself. The end result of all this, is a girl who’s really talented, tall and very suited for ballroom dancing, but has also got a bit of an ego and a defensive streak because of all that she’s had to face up till this point.
Now, at this point, you’d think the show would go the traditional route of having Tatara peel back the layers of Chinatsu’s pain and “heal” her, basically bringing himself and her towards a point where they can work as a couple and stand against the best of them, right? WRONG.
Again, Welcome to the Ballroom doesn’t take the easy route with anything, but rather the more interesting one. See, instead of making Tatara into some grand savior that can fully “understand his partner” the show actually humanizes him by having him struggle with Chinatsu till the very last episode. Simply put, Tatara, who himself isn’t the most socially keen, confident or smart person simply can never fully come to grips with the enigma that is Chinatsu.
As the two clash, and struggle with each other, something really profound makes itself apparent. Its in this tail end of the series itself, that Chinatsu’s value as Tatara’s partner becomes apparent. See, Chinatsu is almost the anti-thesis of both Shizuku and Mako. Chinatsu is confident, she’s skilled, and she’s pretty broken and damaged as a person. Its in how flawed the girl is, and how difficult she seems to be to work with, that the show draws out both her potential and Tatara’s in turn. Looking back at Shizuku for a second, that girl is just too perfect. Not only is there nothing interesting in seeing her and Tatara pair up, but Tatara would just end up changing himself to support and suit her needs (rather than his own).
In the end, what Tatara actually needs, is someone who will push his buttons. Someone who, will require Tatara to change. To become aggressive and confident so that he can face himself and be a good partner. The whole conflict with Chinatsu? Its basically giving Tatara exactly what he needs, a blessing in disguise.
And Chintasu does all that she’s advertisted for, never letting things get easy for him, or herself. The mismatch, the gender dynamics, the show just does such a beautiful job of pairing the overbearing, powerful Chinatsu with the maleable but hopeful Tatara. As the two struggle, they ultimately begin to make it as a dance team. This is when the show slowly but surely raises the stakes for them. Chinatsu has her own demons and rivals to deal with, while Tatara is constantly egged on by the expectations of his friends (Shizuku, Hyodo, Mako and even Gaju, who’s become a good friend at this point).
As Tatara and Chinatsu begin to compete in actual competitions, the show doubles down on everything its set up, prior. Remember that weird chemistry between Tatara and Shizuku earlier in the series? It makes a return and proceeds to make Chinatsu both insecure and a bit jealous. There’s Hyodo, who transitions into an almost mentor like role, as he eagerly brings Tatara up to a point where his potential is met and the real rivalary can begin. And then there’s Sengoku himself, Tatara’s original teacher that he bids farewell to in order to grow and become a better dancer.
There’s a lot of dynamics and story threads to go over, because Welcome to the Ballroom is that deep and intricately layered of a story and anime series. Given how long this post has already become, however, I’m going to have to cut corners somewhere (Like talking about the whole idea of Dance Coaches and Marissa-sensei). What I will say is that the Tatara and Chinatsu pairing actually completes itself in the final few episodes, where the pair joins a competition to basically reach the same level as the Hyodo/Shizuku and Gaju/Mako pairs. Its at this point that everything gets dialed up to 11.
Tatara and Chinatsu promise to part ways if they don’t win this competition for one. For two, the show introduces a very scary rival in Kugimiya Masami, a veteran in the competitive dance scene who’s making his comeback after a huge injury, and his story itself is super interesting and deep. On top of that we have Shizuku, Gaju, Mako and Hyodo all watching on the sidelines, cheering for Tatara and Chinatsu to win. Meanwhile, in the competition itself, Chinatsu and Tatara’s problems as a couple become front and center, bringing everything to a huge boiling point.
All of that, culminates in a final competition where Tatara and Chinatsu screech through and ultimately find a way to deal with one another. Its a big moment for Tatara and Chinatsu, as both grow throughout the competition and come to appreciate one another, ultimately taking a really hard earned win. The show caps it off with a nice win for the both of them, but there’s a sense that this is just one chapter in their epic story. Finally, Tatara and Chinatsu are officially now on the same level as their friends, Shizuku, Hyodo, Gaju and Mako.
There’s the potential of them actually competing with those friends, which is tantalizing in itself. But there’s also some lingering questions left in the wings, like Tatara’s own past and why he basically keeps his dancing hobby a secret from his rather kind and loving family. Plus, Tatara and Chinatsu, despite working well as a couple now, are still far from being perfectly in synch, and so there’s still tons of untapped potential in that well… As well.
But of course, at the end of the day, the show not only brings Tatara and Chinatsu together, but gives viewers an answer regarding the whole gender dynamics issue its been presenting overall. The answer, one that Chinatsu and Tatara arrive at, is that traditions and competition rules aside, the thing that makes dancing such a powerful and difficult sport is in how both genders clash against and work with one other, creating a symphony of power, emotion grace and tension that captivates all those that watch them dance.
The show argues that, regardless of what people may believe or think, each side has a role to play, and without each person doing their part, equally sharing the burden and confronting one another head on, a successful dance pair is more or less impossible. In doing so, the show both brings to light an inherent problem in competitive ballroom dancing itself, and promptly rejects it, putting its foot down with superb character work and thrilling storytelling.
Wrap up and Final Thoughts
Looking at the show as a whole, I’d say that the show paints a beautiful picture of the world of competitive ballroom dancing. This is ultimately a story about a boy finding his new passion, and coming to meet new friends and comrades, and ultimately forming a partnership with someone truly important (for and to him).
Most importantly, I think its worth noting that, throughout its 24 episode, the show itself never has an uninteresting moment. There’s always an energy, a sense of some emotion or idea being beautifully articulated and depicted by that the show’s masterful blend of animation, art, dialogue, sound and music. Dread, excitement, happiness, awe, its all there, and the show will incite and use all of those emotions to create an experience that’s just deeply riveting and easy to get lost in.
Its that level of engagement, of excitement, that is rare to see in anime these days. Sure, you’ve got your second seasons of Boku no Hero Academia, that will do it in spades, and you’ve got other established franchises doing it every now and then, but.. The fact that Welcome to the Ballroom is able to maintain its momentum and build up to something throughout, all the while being an entirely new story? Well.. THAT alone is what makes it truly something special.
Its shows like Welcome to the Ballroom that keep me invested in the anime medium, and make me hopeful for the future. If something can move you to this degree, and create such excitement, then I think it deserves recognition for that. And honestly, Welcome to the Ballroom isn’t just a really great anime series, its a real great piece of fiction.
That ability, to be great enough to transcend beyond its medium and just be something that I personally would recommend to any friend or person I know, is what makes Welcome to the Ballroom the best anime series of 2017, and something that will be really hard to forget in the many years to come. Do yourself a favor, watch it. And if you kept up with me for this entire novel of a post, then well, Thank You, so very much.
I’d actually love to hear what you thought of this analysis and Welcome to the Ballroom as a whole. Sound off in the comments below, and lets continue this conversation about this fantastic show!
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