“A Flower in a Frame”
Streaming on Amazon Anime Strike
In the finals of the Tenpei Cup, Tatara begins his path to understanding the Leader’s true role in dance.
Apologies for the inconsistent weekly format, usually this would go in the Roundup, but this week’s episode is too special to be contained in one paragraph. Expanding on Kiyoharu’s advice of, “become the frame,” this week’s episode is special as it is the beginning of our protagonist’s path to mastery. Every sports manga/anime has this point. The one where the protagonist has already started practicing their sport for a while, but this is the moment where they truly begin to understand the context of what true mastery requires.
Ever since I started reading the manga roughly a year ago, I have been waiting to write about this. In many ways, I believe, “A Flower in a Frame,” is one of the strongest narrative sequences ever written in a sports manga/anime. Ballroom is brilliant, using the relationship of Tatara and Mako as its medium. Tatara’s realisation and execution of the importance of his role in enhancing his partner is his version of realising the importance of maintaining stamina in boxing or controlling the pace in ping pong. It’s entering the level beyond technical basics and the start of understanding the overarching concepts that rule the sport. It is his maturation from mere novice to competent amateur. Tatara will continue to grow and improve, but this moment is the first of something greater.
Unlike Tatara, technical skill was never Mako’s problem. Instead, it’s her disposition. Passivity is her greatest weakness and the wedge that separates her and Gaju. While Gaju’s behavior isn’t acceptable, his frustration is understandable. It’s hard to know what to do with a partner so incapable of making her own decisions. And so, her request to Tatara to make her bloom is an important point of growth on her part and it allows her to achieve things that would be impossible under Gaju’s dominant temper. It makes this a moment of triumph for her, a definitive statement on her skill as a dancer.
Overall, I like this segment a lot because it represents Ballroom’s maturation as a whole, transforming from its rough beginnings to the moment it realises that it no longer has to rely on tired and offensive cliches, but instead utilise the unique strengths of its sport to elevate and contextualise the narrative. Ballroom is such a personal story about emotion and relationships, and the use of competitive dance only enhances this. In the way Masaaki Yuasa’s Ping Pong used the inherent back and forth nature of its sport to represent its clash of wills and ideology, Ballroom doesn’t use dance as a cheap excuse for its sports manga trappings, but as a catalyst itself for the growth of its story and characters. For this, it makes Ballroom one of the most special sports stories I’ve ever consumed.
And yet, despite all this praise, this is the episode that has confirmed for me that Ballroom is likely best experienced in its native medium. Sure, there’s the music, the color, the movement, but at the end of the day, the way Ballroom tells its story and informs its viewers were originally designed for manga. Dance-related exposition is acceptable in manga due to its ability to compress time with panels, but when you have to enunciate it all in spoken word for anime, the difference in pacing becomes blatantly apparent.
Additionally, perhaps if it were in the hands of a more capable studio, Ballroom’s dancing sequences would have the opportunity to shine that they so desperately deserve. Production IG’s adaptation has been competent and certainly has its moments. For example, the emotion of our characters. Anxiety, elation, frustration, Ballroom’s characters are so emotional and they all wear it so clearly on their faces. You can practically see their feelings emanating from them. The Ballroom manga is filled with a lot of good faces, and the anime delivers in that regard. But in the grand scheme of things, it lacks the impact and artistry that the original manga was able to achieve. It’s the inevitable situation where the manga accomplishes a level of visual fidelity so high that it would be impossible for most studios to live up to.
This is not Ballroom’s peak. We’re not there yet. We’re not even at the end of the Tenpei Cup. There are even higher highs ahead, some emotional lows too, but this was Ballroom’s proving ground. This is the point that encapsulates what makes it so compelling. It’s where I wish the anime could have lived up to its manga counterpart, but the strengths of the original still manage to shine through. It’s a moment I’ll continue to take with me for a while.