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Josh Dunham (@Josh_Dunham)
The production on Welcome to the Ballroom is a passionate one. Sitting in the Production I.G. panel at Anime Expo with Tetsuya Kinoshita (producer), Yoshimi Itazu (director), and Takahiro Chiba (animation director), they made it very clear that they were excited to show us what an amazing show they had created, and proud of what they achieved. The same team that brought us Haikyuu!! was extremely eager to take up the challenge of drawing complicated movements and poses in intricate dance sings. Shinba Tsuchiya, the voice of the protagonist, Tatara Fujita, even recorded his lines while wearing a tuxedo just to get into character! There’s an infectious vibe of jubilance that fueld by how much energy poured into this show. It’s hard not to watch it without a smile on your face!
Animation is anatomically correct. The rules of squash and stretch are aptly applied to give bodies a solid and dense feeling. Because of this, the struggle of moving across the dance floor is really felt; almost vividly. Simple steps are elevated into an artform. It’s majestic. The heavy linework on the character designs makes these movements all the more rewarding. Each line adds a very real sense of weight both physically and emotionally. Poses are immortalized during the dance scenes, chiseling them in the stone of our memories.
The flowing fabric at the end of this cut drives me absolutely wild (as it was intended). Shading and post processing combine for a visceral experience where you can almost reach out and touch the dress! Shadows ripple and flow across the female dancer’s dress, computer effects fill the drawing with the texture of real fabric! This is animation at its most sensual. It invokes a very tangible feeling, as if you were the master dancer, Kaname Sengoku, and the dress of your beautiful dance partner was beneath your very finger tips!
Smears are brilliantly employed to economically depict larger steps and shorter jabs (in some cases, literal jabs).
But nowhere else are these smears so well applied as they are in the dances. A great example of this is Shizuku’s practice at the three second mark in the scene below.
Her turn is immaculate, the slightest smear on her arms adds a sleek speed and grace that pronounces her body’s movements.If dancing is a language, then wide steps and bold movements are the phrases and statements; smears are the punctuation.
Bodies twist and bend into new shapes then lock in visual serenity. Somehow motionless yet still in motion. Each pose creates an interesting shape on screen and they stay there. It’s almost a more refined take on Kanada snapping, but yet feels nothing like Kanada at all.
I found this especially true in the scene were our main character first tries to dance but looses his footing. It’s a one-two-three before he stabilizes, each pose acting like a guidepost along the way. For a moment, the highly detailed character designs are rounded, and add a charm that can;t help but bring a smile to your face. (Imagine the voice actor wearing a tuxedo while he was recording that!)
Since the linework usually is so weighted, characters can’t constantly be in motion. This is where the blocking becomes super important. This scene, for example, really shows Tatara’s head space. Bathtime has always been a moment of reflection, of ‘naked truth’. The cramped walls narrow the frame, and act as physical barriers as the main character is unsure what to do with his life. Movement is minimal, but storytelling is maximized by the background art.
Oppression, Hope, Confidence, Nervousness. Lighting was highly utilized as a storytelling tool as well, controlling the emotional tone of some of the episode’s key scenes. Director Yoshimi Itazu did an amazing job with the blocking of each of these scenes, directing the light exactly were it needed to be to convey the proper emotion. This is something Production I.G. mastered with Haikyuu!!, sincere expression of the character’s emotions through the light around them. Not to mention the reflection in the last frame; this anime is filled with reflections, and liberally uses them as a metaphor. (Not to mention the last shot reminds me of this.)
But what I found most rewarding was that even with such detailed character designs, emotional facial animation didn’t suffer at all. Since dancing is depicted as action in Welcome to the Ballroom, the focus is often times on the movement of the feet or the twists and turns of the body. Yet enough time is devoted to focus on the face, allowing emotions to free flow through character acting. Here the slightest squash and stretch is used to keep the Tatara’s embarrassment young and vibrant. And when an emotion is so strongly felt by the characters it’s hard to to get wrapped up in that emotion yourself as a viewer.
Last week, Josh and I were lucky enough to attend the Welcome to the Ballroom panel at Anime Expo (aka “LineCon”). My biggest impression—besides Takahiro Chiba’s beautiful Dennō Coil drawings—was the extent to which they identified the show as a traditional “sports” series. “Ballroom dancing is a sport. There’s even a world championship,” as a character in the PV declared. Series director Yoshimi Itazu reiterated that it is a sports show that happens to be about dancing.
Judging by Welcome to the Ballroom’s first episode, Itazu wasn’t kidding. The story follows the sports anime/shōnen formula to the letter. Young male protagonist Fujita feels directionless, discovers dancing, and embarks on a journey of self-fulfillment through many struggles and hardships. Of course, “dancing” could be replaced by just about any other activity imaginable: boxing, swordfighting, cooking, Pokémon-training, etc. The topics themselves are usually never the point; they are merely pretexts for character arcs and animation set pieces. These universal traits are part of what make the shōnen formula so successful, hence Welcome to the Ballroom’s stated intent to make ballroom dancing as broadly appealing as possible. However, I wonder if this urge might foreclose other creative opportunities.
So far, the show seems to be very much in the typical shōnen mold. The first few scenes almost feel perfunctory; they provide just enough exposition to move Fujita to the dance studio as efficiently as possible. Fujita’s personality is barely established; he is practically a blank slate (likely by design). Some of the other characters are more distinct, like the swaggering dance instructor and the serious girl student, but they are still familiar archetypes. Production I.G’s more realistic characters and backgrounds provide a slightly different look, but the overall direction and visual style is more or less conservative. It’s left up to the animation to carry the entertainment.
Fortunately, the animation is quite good. The characters—it’s pretty much all character animation—move with solidity and precision throughout, which is impressive considering their complex designs. The drawings are enough to establish the physical reality of the characters, even when the writing doesn’t. However, the acting isn’t particularly expressive. Even in the looser scenes, there aren’t any faces or poses that feel more exciting than those in, say, Pokémon Sun and Moon. Perhaps the animators are constrained by having to work with realistic proportions. There are a few exceptional animators like Hideki Hamasu and Shinji Otsuka who can do great things in a realistic style, but for most it only serves as a liability to the acting. To be fair, seeing tricky character designs doing complex dance moves is a major selling point of the series. Indeed, Takashi Mukouda’s stylized action cuts are sublime (and all too brief). But great action animation on its own is merely a technical exercise. Without other elements to support it, such as character acting, there isn’t much emotional investment.
It’s understandable that the action animation is the focus in Welcome to the Ballroom; it’s a sports show after all. But perhaps because of its unconventional subject matter, it seems to be playing everything else safe, lest it alienate its shōnen audience. I can’t blame the creators for wanting to make their product more marketable, yet I wonder if they could’ve hit on something really successful if they’d taken a more experimental route. For instance, maybe they could’ve used Mukouda’s semi-abstract designs as the whole show’s aesthetic. If you’re going to do something out of the ordinary, why not go all the way?
As an added plus, we recorded the live drawing referenced in the article, and will be releasing it in parts as articles are published. All parts are currently live on the Patreon, so if you don’t want to wait, you can support us there and have access to early and exclusive WMC content. For now, enjoy part 1!