Now that we can get actual sports manga over here, publishers feel more confident about picking sports manga with less-conventional sports as their subject. We've already covered most of the big ones: basketball, volleyball, tennis, etc. So why shouldn't someone try to turn competitive dance into a sport?
WELCOME TO THE BALLROOM (Ballroom o Yokoso), by Tomo Takeuchi. First published in 2011 and first published in North America in 2016.
Tataru Fujita has no real goals...or ambitions...or skills...or anything of note, really. That all changes the day he's strongarmed into a local ballroom dance studio. There, his eyes are open to the thrill and power of both the dancing and the dancers, and in particular to a cute classmate who happens to be one of the best dancers there. Tataru is slow to learn, but his newfound skills are put to the test when his studio's best dancer goes AWOL during a competition.
So how do you turn ballroom dance into something befitting a shonen sport manga? Well, you emphasize all the aggressive elements, throw in a lot of big personalities, and compensate for that by adding a lot of out-of-place humor and a protagonist who's too meek and mild to be believe.
I do think Takeuchi went too far in making Tataru a total schmuck. It's one thing to be aimless and unskilled, but Tataru hasn't a single talent or goal, however small, to his name. The only good qualities he seems to possess are endurance and a monkey-see, monkey-do style of learning. In comparison, almost everyone else around him feels like they had their personalities cranked to 11. I can't tell whether Takeuchi did so out of a need to compensate for Tataru's lack of everything or if he's just that much of a self-loathing weirdo that everyone else looks lively in comparison.
The only good thing he's got going for him is the same thing every earnest shonen protagonist has: sheer cussed endurance. Even then, that quality is stretched to its breaking point, like when Tataru practices a basic move for an entire night until he pukes from exhaustion, his loaner shoes are falling apart, and his feet are a mess of burst blisters. Most of the time, I wish the story was following his classmate Shizuka. She's far more motivated and put-together, having been a competitive dancer since she was young. Sadly, as the story moves on she's relegated more and more to the love interest slot, doomed to be outshone by a doofus.
I can understand why they took the approach they did with the dancing, but it feels like it's missing part of the picture. Takeuchi is frankly trying too hard to make ballroom dance feel manly. He puts all the emphasis on how aggressively and fast the dancers move and how they command an audience's attention. I can see how that would be inspiring to a meek kid like Tataru, but it also feels like it's missing the whole picture. Any form of dance requires some degree of athleticism, but it also requires elegance and expression. It's just as much art as it is sport, and art isn't something that you can build and refine through burning spirit. Ignoring that is ignoring part of what makes ballroom dance unique and it could teach Tatatu just as much as burning spirit. He also tries to make it seem rebellious and forbidden, like ballroom dance is the freaking Lambada. At one point, his teachers tut-tut at the notion that Shizuka could be involved in something so 'indecent' as dance. It's such a ridiculous, out-of-nowhere moment and it never comes up again.
Beyond that, it follows the sports manga formula as much as you can with competitive dance. The hero discovers his sport, joins a team, masters the basics, starts to gain a love interest, gains a rival or two, and is called upon to save the day during a big competition. So add one more issue to the pile here: Welcome To the Ballroom is incredibly predictable. The only novelty it truly has to offer is the sport it focuses on, and even then it doesn't do it any credit.
Takeuchi is a talented artist, but the artwork here only amplifies the problems I had with the story. His characters are a lot more human-looking than most shonen. While he can get kind of goofy with their heads and hairstyles, their bodies look and move like normal bodies do. He does get to show that off from time to time when the cast occasionally strikes a graceful pose. The rest of the time, he tends to obscure the dancing with mad swirls of speed lines. The dancers seem to jut and thrust their way off the page; even their stares are intense and piercing, a fact which is emphasized through many an intense close-up. At least he uses that motion in a more subtle way, to direct the reader's eye from panel to panel and page to page. It's a mildly clever touch.
What's less clever is the way Takeuchi add slapstick and fanservice. There's a lot of literal slapping and kicking going on here, and almost of all it is laid onto Tataru in the name of humor. Meanwhile, poor Shizuka is stuck being the subject of some really clumsily delivered fanservice. It's always at her expense, with someone walking in on her or clutching at a dance costume. It's always inserted in the most unnatural way, as if Takeuchi had to meet a quota, and that unnatural quality only makes it more awkward. It's frustrating because he's not an untalented artist, but just like the story it seems like he's trying too hard to make things intense and manly and it simply doesn't work.
The only interesting thing Welcome to the Ballroom has going for it is its premise. Otherwise it's trying to hard to make itself look intense and masculine. That sort of posturing rings just as false in a book as it does in a person and it does this series absolutely no favors.
This series is published by Kodansha Comics. This series is ongoing in Japan with 8 volumes available. 2 volumes have been released and are currently in print.
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