Dance Dance Dancer isn’t going to work for everyone. The anime does a staggeringly impressive job of adapting the art of manga creator George Asakura, a style characterized by heavy-lidded eyes that give all the characters an almost dreamy-like quality. It’s uncharacteristic of most character designs we see in anime right now and expect viewers will either embrace these long-limbed, sleepy kids or bounce off of it. Then there’s the niche interest of ballet, something I have no professional background to offer other than watching performances with my mom around Christmastime and any residual respect I’ve picked up from knowing a few dancers in my time. Dance Dance Dancer has the hurdle of selling ballet to seinen audience with a male lead. It’s that launching point that infuses the series with its primary conflict, because Jumpei’s denial about his passion for dance is symptomatic of the same environment: there is little considered more strictly feminine than ballet.
Jumpei knows this and it’s why he’s funneled his energy into martial arts and dedicated himself to taking up his father’s career as a stuntman all the while adopting a lackadaisical attitude about dance. His demeanor will likely be off-putting to many. He’s being dishonest with himself, flippant with Miyako Godai when he isn’t disregarding her support as romantic interest, and is otherwise an all-around little shit. In short, Jumpei is a very typical middle school boy. I knew my fair share of guys where everything was a joke and anything resembling genuine honesty or vulnerability was grounds to be mocked. Likewise, Jumpei has adopted a “what’s the big deal?” approach to life as a defense mechanism that is not at all subtle when you recognize it. We see moments when he drops the pretense, but the kid still has a lot of growing to do to reconcile his passion for dance and the expectations of his peers.
Some of that pressure is self-imposed. He’s maintained a façade for so long that it will be difficult for him to change course without risk of upending his social life. His family, mainly his mother and sister, are supportive of his interest and mostly just waiting for him to admit it. By the end of episode two, it’s less about Jumpei being honest about what he wants to do with his time and more masculinity-charged jealousy and one-upmanship that pushes him forward. This is spurred by the introduction of Luou, Miyako’s cousin and a ballet prodigy. Jumpei has caught feelings for Miyako already, so he feels challenged by her familiarity with Luou as well as his dance abilities. It doesn’t help that Luou has the stereotypical “cool savant” personality that makes him aloof and generally disconnected from his peers. Jumpei intends to throw in the towel, because at this point he is still looking for a legitimate excuse to abandon ballet and go back to an interest that won’t potentially subject him to ridicule.
Then episode three happens and it recontextualizes Luou and challenges Jumpei’s simplistic ideas of masculinity. After Luou begins attending classes, his antisocial demeanor and idle gossip perpetuated by Jumpei puts a target on his back and he quickly becomes the punching bag of Jumpei’s social group. The classes quickly learn that Luou’s mother is a former idol who was involved in romantic scandals that included cheating on her spouse. The likely product of an affair, Luou is sent to live with his grandmother but something obviously happened there too, because he currently lives with Miyako and her mom. He seems to have had little to no formal academic education and the physical reflects of a kid who was likely raised in an abusive environment, if not outright abused himself. And now the soccer club is capitalizing on that in what ultimately culminates has one of the worst bullying situations I’ve seen in an anime in a long time.
Throughout all of this Jumpei remains adverse conflict and it becomes ever more apparent that most of his decisions up to this point, flippancy about Ballet, sabotaging his relationship with Miyako, and remaining a bystander to ongoing abuse of a classmate has nothing to do with choosing to be “cool” or “manly” but the exact opposite; like a lot of kids, or really people, Jumpei is a coward. It takes Luou turning a hazing situation into a ballet performance in a girl’s school uniform for Jumpei to reevaluate himself deeply. He’s seen the true nature of his group of fuck-around friends and they’re not empathetic people, hell they aren’t even baseline nice people. The appearance he was keeping up for their sake proves to not be worth it as Jumpei adopts an impossibly dorky means of breaking up with them and finally committing to ballet.
Sticking it through this series with Jumpei is difficult because we’re used to stories where characters do the right thing, if not right away, then nearly immediately. There were many times when I expected Jumpei to finally step in because his friends, not random bullies but people he hung out with every day, were terrorizing another student. Regardless if how I might be disappointed in a character for not rising to the moment when someone else needed it, I do think his actions are, unfortunately, realistic. That doesn’t mean there isn’t hope for him yet, but it seems just as likely that Jumpei rebuking his old friends’ actions will cause them to change targets.
visually, MAPPA is putting out another great show this season. Dance Dance Dancer is consistently gorgeous, especially when it features any kind of dance sequence. The movements are exceptionally fluid in what may often be rotoscoped animation for the ballet sequences. The classroom scenes and character designs look great given that Asakura’s style could be hard to keep consistent from scene to scene. Also, in a season full of amazing OPs, this is one of my top three. There’s a great use of perspective shots as Jumpei, Miyako, and Luou see each other from across campus followed by a kaleidoscope of ballet. Great stuff.
Dance Dance Dancer is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.