Flex Like No One’s Watching: Dance Dance Danseur First Impressions
It feels like it’s been ages since we’ve had an anime season that has felt this… “normal”. Not low-key or average, mind you, it’s just that spring 2022 feels like a return to the norm, a break from the seemingly never-ending stream of heavy hitters we got throughout 2021. Even last season felt bigger than usual, with Dress-up Darling, Sabikui Bisco, Demon Slayer and Attack on Titan. This season however, there’s maybe half a dozen shows worth watching, and thank god for that. I wasn’t feeling burnt out on anime, but I did start slipping there for a moment trying to keep up with so much goodness. Now though, we have the usual suspects: a well-produced adaptation of a popular shonen manga (Spy x Family). A couple of highly anticipated sequels with varying results (Kaguya and Shield Hero). Love After World Domination is the hot new romantic comedy, The Executioner and Her Way of Life fits the role of edgy isekai, and trashy shows are well represented with A Couple of Cuckoos and Birdie Wing (note to self, shows with titles that reference birds might be a red flag). With all those roles settled, one archetype remains: the ungodly animated hidden gem that no one is noticing. Enter Studio MAPPA…
Oh MAPPA, what are we going to do with you? Part of me knows better, but even after all the reporting about how overworked its staff are, I still like this studio. Despite it getting its claws in what seems like every big shonen adaptation that isn’t already taken, MAPPA is still a studio that goes above and beyond when it can… even though you just know the sakuga that comes out from them was probably made at the cost of an animator working into the night. That being said, I’d like to think the studio might be turning around what’s been a difficult bend. After producing eight shows throughout 2020, last year they “just” worked on six, and now they’ve scaled further back to three for 2022. Sure, Attack on Titan’s still part of that, but there’s also Chainsaw Man (which will remain to be seen if it really will premiere later this year), and the show we’re looking at today: Dance Dance Danseur.
Before all the shonen like Jujutsu Kaisen and becoming a slicker version of Bones (or a Madhouse that actually makes sequels), MAPPA was supposed to be a smaller studio focused on making stuff the usual anime studio didn’t have either the confidence or the resources to tackle. Kids on the Slope, Terror in Resonance, Punch Line; those first three years, there was nothing else like this studio. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, MAPPA eventually found out why studios have to “sell out”. You have to make ends meet, and shonen sells. Which ties into the first thing I noticed about Dance Dance Danseur when I finished the first episode: this feels like early MAPPA in the best way possible. This is a show that not only feels like something from their formative years, but something only they could make.
As you might’ve guessed from the title, Dance Dance Danseur is a show about dancing, specifically a high school boy getting into ballet. Or rather, “back into” ballet. As a child, Junpei Murao was utterly entranced when he saw his first ballet performance, especially the part when a man entered the stage, showing him that this isn’t just an artform solely for women. And that opening scene is where the show’s first two qualities are instantly apparent: the direction and the animation. DDD is being helmed by Munehisa Sakai, who despite not being a big name director, has worked in the industry since the late 90s, and does have one show you might’ve heard of under his belt: Zombie Land Saga. That’s also a MAPPA hit, but it’s one that I’m personally not that into, despite fully recognizing its strengths (I’m just not into idol shows, sorry). Here though, Sakai is not only making sure this show has some of the best editing of the whole season, but DDD’s direction as a whole gives me hope MAPPA is learning from past mistakes in overdoing their animation.
In-between the moments where dancers on stage go all out, there are more than a few moments where there’s no actual animation going on; there’s quite a number of scenes of what’s on screen just being a still shot, and characters talking off screen or thinking to themselves. Now you might think this would work against DDD, but it’s actually so well done thanks to the show’s solid pacing and great voice acting that it’s actually not a problem. And that’s before we get to the CG in this show, which my god might be the first CG in anime that could give studio Orange a run for their money. MAPPA has intelligently invested in CG well before this show, but here is the first time it’s so well animated and “proportioned” in comparison to the rest of the show (extra care has been taken to have characters be at a distance so that you can’t see the obvious computer generated models up close), that you can watch this show and only realize on a careful rewatch that an incredible dance sequence wasn’t animated in traditional 2D. This is the kind of animation that impresses me, stuff that normally should work against a show’s impact, instead being so well thought out and executed that it ends up working to increase said impact.
“But what about the story?” Well, that’s a bit more simple, but in a good way. Junpei’s story follows a formula that should be familiar to shonen or sports fans: a boy had to give up a hobby when he was young, gets back into it thanks to a girl he’s interested in, he starts training with a firm but fair instructor, and even quickly develops a rivalry with a prodigy. It’s straightforward, but what makes DDD’s plot and characters shine is just how much thought has been put into all of them. Junpei himself actually starts out as the typical cool kid, but we quickly realize in the first two episodes that he actively worked to achieve that reputation after his father died, and being told as a kid that he had to be “the man of the house”. As such, he swore off ballet to (as he saw it) protect his family and himself. It’s only until high school when his mother encourages him to rediscover his dream that he’s confident enough to pick up his childhood obsession.
The aforementioned love interest is Miyako Godai, who is fun enough on her own, but is also there to introduce Junpei to the other two key players in DDD: her mother and dance instructor Chizuru Godai, and Miyako’s cousin Ruou Mori. Chizuru is undeniably the most fun character in the whole show, having great chemistry with Junpei, instructing him in the art of ballet while constantly butting heads with him as he’s someone who has loads of physical talent, but knows next to nothing about the details and intricacies of the dance. In a weird way (but probably due to her character design and attitude), she reminds me of another well-known MAPPA character: Maki from Jujutsu Kaisen, only grown up and just as awesome. Ruou on the other hand serves as Junpei’s main rival, while also being possibly the most interesting character in the whole show: he’s got loads of talent and can dance rings around Junpei, but he also represents the “road not taken”. Where Junpei went down the path of someone who gave up ballet to be a cool guy and have friends, Ruou stayed with the dance, and along with a messy family background, is ostracized by everyone at school. This culminates in one of the hardest scenes to watch in the whole show, but it also leads to Junpei going all in on ballet, even as it costs him his so-called “friends”.
The dynamic between the two male leads is another plus point for this show, as this is an anime that clearly wants to cover issues like toxic masculinity, but does so with a light hand, meaning that it weaves the theme into its story, rather than forcing the plot to make it a forefront at the cost of good storytelling. At times, DDD even feels like Stars Align if it were done right; it goes into uncomfortable subject matter that can make you reflect on choices you made in your own life to preserve an image you had for yourself, but overall it “breathes” better here. There’s tons of humor, the soundtrack isn’t overbearing, and it never stays too focused for too long on a character having a heavy moment. This really might be the most subversively intelligent show of the season, if not at least one of the most ambitious.
As I wrap this up, I’d like to bring to attention two of DDD’s best moments: a single scene that made me fall for this show, and episode 5, which is not only Dance Dance Danseur’s best episode yet, but quite possibly the best single episode of anime in the whole of Spring 2022. The first moment is where Junpei starts dancing in the middle of the night as he walks home, with a pop song playing in the background. If you want just a taste of the show, it’s all here: the crisp and fluid animation, with a fun song that perfectly fits the scene. As for episode 5 though, it’s so uniformly great that it’s the episode I recommend people try it out on its own, as it’s incredibly easy to pick up, yet the overall execution of it is a perfect encapsulation of DDD, and the process of making personal, meaningful art as a whole.
Junpei (and we the audience) get a crash course in Swan Lake, a classic ballet that he and the other students at the dancing school are performing for a competition. Initially, Junpei is unimpressed with the ending, although the others note that Swan Lake does have countless interpretations and deviations. Still, the job is to get through it to impress the judges, and maybe have Ruou get enough attention to make it up the ranks to an international dance organization. As the performance starts, all goes according to plan: Junpei and Miyako dance as doomed lovers, Ruou swoops in to destroy them both, and the scene is about to go on… until Junpei’s own real feelings for Miyako, the girl who believed in him enough to make him come back to something he loved years ago, makes him stand back up. Junpei’s own personal experience makes him create a new ending for Swan Lake: the prince who refuses to follow the script and die. This leads to an improvised battle between Junpei and Ruou, with Ruou following the behind the stage order of Chizuru to “Kill. Him. Now!” As the two dance around each other, it is Ruou who is finally pushed to his edge and finally defeats Junpei, but only after becoming someone so raw, so dark and devoted to destroying the hero, that the audience is amazed to see what can only be described as a “demon” on the stage. That’s the magic to Dance Dance Danseur: taking something you think can’t be interesting, and turning it into a frontrunner for one of the best shows of the year.