I kind of knew it going in, but it’s pretty remarkable (and kind of funny) just how SHOUNEN Ballroom e Youkoso makes the subject of ballroom dancing. We can (and will) talk more about identification with Gaju later, but when I was a kid I definitely would have reacted the same way he did to being pressured to dance with Mako – dancing was a “girly” thing to do and no self-respecting bozu would be caught dead doing it for fear of becoming the subject of ridicule (we also played that soccer-baseball hybrid game, funnily enough). But in Welcome to the Ballroom, competitive dance is a sweaty, testosterone-driven battle among men with honor at stake (though happily, the women are having more to say about that as the series progresses).
As to the larger matter of Gaju as a perspective character, though, I confess I’m a bit troubled. I think it would have been more honest with the audience to show us the extended flashback sequence we saw this week three or four episodes ago, when we were still getting to know Gaju and Mako as characters. As is, it feels like a bit of an attempt to humanize someone the series has basically been de-humanizing for his entire arc. Don’t make me hate someone and then try to redeem him – show me his many sides up front and let me view him as a complex and more interesting character because of it.
Still – people are complicated (and so is this relationship diagram). I never thought Gaju didn’t love his sister, even if he was a jerk about it. Knowing he got into dance to make her happy is fine, but the fact is he stuck with it because he’s a perfectionist and because he’s good at it. He liked standing out, and there’s not a thing wrong with that (that’s one of Tatara’s favorite elements of dance, in fact). But the subject of standing out is clearly a big part of both competitive dance and this series, and it too is complicated. We didn’t focus much on “flower and frame” this time, but the concept still hangs in the air, like the perfume a beautiful woman wears lingering after the woman herself has left the room.
The competition itself is a bit of a see-saw here, but in general it’s Gaju and Shizuku who are on the ascendency. The waltz unequivocally belongs to Tatara and Mako, both because Tatara lets Mako shine and because seeing her shine throws off Gaju, and he and Shizuku mess up their footwork so badly that he breaks down in tears afterward. But it’s here that Shizuku – at last – begins to assert herself. She calmly takes control of the situation and brings Gaju back to himself (and maybe punching himself in the face doesn’t hurt either), and the tango – a full-on shounen throwdown – is pretty much a draw.
It’s in the slow foxtrot that Gaju and Shizuku seize control over the room, and don’t let go. It’s made very clear that even if Gaju is the leader, it’s Shizuku who’s guiding this routine – if Gaju is the rudder, she’s the hand on the tiller. And the nature of the slow foxtrot makes it a showcase for technical skill, which gives Shizuku and Gaju a huge advantage over the chibi pairing. This is really Shizuku’s showcase, and she gets a flashback of her own – a very revealing moment when Kiyoharu tells her that he doesn’t consider her his partner, but his rival. Shizuku always seems to believe she was holding Kiyoharu back, but it doesn’t seem as if he shares that assessment.
That leaves only the quickstep as a chance for Tatara and Mako to seize back control of the room, but of course this is the dance Sengoku has prepared them for – and at Tatara’s desperate silent plea, he relents and givens them his blessing to do the variation he’s taught them. Shizuku and Gaju retain the momentum when they pull off a flashy release of contact move to avoid a collision (apparently a rules violation), but we’ve yet to see the full scope of what Sengoku has planned for this moment. And watching it all in restless disquiet is Kiyoharu, clearly itching to be a part of what he’s reduced to just watching.
At some level, I don’t think the desires of the heart can be totally separated from the question of dance partnership. I remain skeptical that sibling partners is a viable long-term situation; thus, I remain skeptical that Mako reuniting with Gaju is the endgame we’re moving towards. It’s not that boys and girls can’t be dance partners without being romantic ones, but there is something deeper to this connection somehow – I think a certain tension is required for a dance partnership to really work. And in any event the math still doesn’t add up here – with three guys and two girls in the mix, someone is going to be left a wallflower when this game of musical chairs comes to a close. Truthfully, in fact, the only person whose desired endgame seems clear is Gaju – we know what he wants, but I’m not sure we know with any of the other four kids involved.