The Fall 2020 Preview Guide
The Gymnastics Samurai
How would you rate episode 1 of
The Gymnastics Samurai ?
What is this?
In 2002, the world of Japanese men's gymnastics was still strong. Shotaro Aragaki devoted his entire life to the sport, but it didn't go as he'd planned. His coach Amakusa suggests he retires, and his daughter Rei agrees. But then an encounter comes that changes the fate of the Aragaki family forever.
How was the first episode?
In my entry for our most anticipated fall anime, I remarked on Gymnastics Samurai's potential to be a well-written, compelling character drama with a side of sad muscle dads and elements in common with Tiger and Bunny. Based on the first episode I was mostly right, except for one thing.
I'm not sure this can be accurately described as a drama. This show is surprisingly goofy.
There's still more than enough room for pathos, as Jotaro steadfastly refuses to accept the retirement his coach is trying to push on him. He just loves gymnastics, even if he's slowing down and his shoulder injury is taking longer to heal than it would have in his teens and early twenties. His daughter and late wife have supported him through so much, even though the life of a professional athlete can be unpredictable, with long hours and lots of travel to international competitions. That's the show the trailers promised me, and the show I hope we'll get.
However, as all this is happening, he's also harboring an illegal immigrant pretending to be a ninja and hiding out, and has a giant turquoise talking bird with a big heart on its chest as a pet. It's all very silly, but actually pretty well-integrated with the drama. Jotaro is kind of a clueless goofball, as single anime dads tend to be, and his daughter Rei is obsessed with ninjas, so it meshes together better than you would think. Well, except for the bird. I could live without the bird.
Still, all signs point to the presence of a solid emotional core, which makes the silliness much easier to swallow. Jotaro's relationship with Rei is quite sweet, as he's as attentive a father as possible considering his job, and Rei clearly looks up to him. As he stares the prospect of retirement in the face, he can't stand the idea of giving it up not just because he loves it, but because he's devoted himself to it so entirely, he can't even conceive of what else he'd do with his life. It's a very real feeling.
It's also a pretty good-looking show, if not a total visual fest. It's the kind of show that looks better in motion, since it uses smear in a way that inevitably makes the stills look kind of sloppy. The CG is nowhere near as obtrusive as it could have been, and is usually intercut with hand-drawn shots. Plus, Jotaro is a cutie.
What? I like what I like, and I like muscular anime dads.
If there's one word to describe The Gymnastics Samurai, it's offbeat. That descriptor equally applied to series writer Shigeru Murakoshi's previous original work Zombie Land Saga – an idol anime that endeavored to appeal to the kinds of weirdos and outliers often excluded by the homogeneity of other idol groups. Samurai is still in the middle of making whatever statement it intends to, but that same sense for the alternative is present across a lot of this premiere. The premise sounds like a pretty straightforward sports drama, with the slight twist that our protagonist is a father rather than the typical plucky young gun looking to prove himself. Yet the delivery is anything but conventional, going on odd tangents involving a foreign “ninja” named Leo, or just strange details like the family's pet being a huge talking bird that is possibly sentient. It's hard to say yet where these elements are going, but combined with the quirky OP it paints a portrait decidedly weirder than your typical sports narrative.
That isn't to say it's all just bizarre nonsequitors though. There's a solid, if comparatively understated, emotional backbone to this episode as Jotaro hesitates over telling his daughter he's planning to retire. It's made clear from both their interactions and the small details around their house that Jotaro's job is something the two of them bond over, and along with the disappointment of retiring before he really feels ready to, it seems like he's worried about losing that connection with her even more. To her credit Rei recognizes this too, as even though her dad never works up the courage to tell her his plans, we can see her pushing him forward to do what he needs to do, quietly swallowing some sadness to stay strong by him. It's a super touching relationship that manages to pull more pathos out of a lot of other single-dad setups in anime in far less time, and if that ends up being the foundation of this show, Gymnastics Samurai is in good hands.
The visuals are a little shakier: my first worry going in was the conspicuous 3DCG used for some of the gymnastic routines, and that's still definitely noticeable in the final product. The other, less obvious issue, is some trouble with editing. There's at least a couple punchlines in this premiere that feel weaker than they should be thanks to some wonky timing on the delivery, and while not a critical fault so far that could be a big problem as the series goes on. Thankfully there's also quite a lot to like, particularly the designs of the extended cast. Jotaro's superstar-looking mother-in-law steals the show this episode, but the OP promises a number of other eye-catching and ostentatious designs to add flavor to the trio of handsome athletes at the center.
I don't know with any confidence how the disparate pieces of GymSam (as I will call it for the rest of the season) will fit together, if at all. But for now it's done enough to hook me for at least a few more episodes. Even if it's not as striking (or insane) an opener as Zombie Land Saga, the team behind this has delivered some genuinely surprising things before, and I have faith they'll do it again.
The Gymnastics Samurai is proof that any familiar premise can immediately become ten times more appealing with the addition of a little creative flair, and a willingness to just get weird with it. Jotaro is a professional gymnast and a single father whose recent injury has threatened to cut his career short. His daughter Rei thinks the world of him, though, and he just doesn't know whether he can break her heart and announce to the world that he is giving up. Will Jotaro be forced to sacrifice his dreams, or will he find the strength and resolve to forge a new path forward, all while being the dad that Rei needs him to be?
These are all questions I fully expected the premiere of The Gymnastics Samurai to ask and answer, and to an extent, I was right on the money. To be honest, Jotaro being a single dad was already enough of a spin for me to get excited over, since I've had more than my fill of stories about teenagers, and I love getting to see characters deal with more adult conflicts in my anime. Director Hisatoshi Shimizu and Studio MAPPA are also putting the work in to give the show a bright and appealing style, with character designs and animation that isn't afraid to get a little rough or smeary if it means expressing more motion and personality. If the show had just been the well-produced sports drama I pinned it as before it premiered, it would have been good enough for me. It's that extra dash of unexpected weirdness that really sells me on The Gymnastic Samurai, though. There's the absurdly colorful, alien-looking exotic bird that Jotaro's family keeps for a pet; Jotaro's badass-seeming mother, who doesn't look like she takes anybody's sass; also, did I mention how Jotaro and Rei pick up a vagrant ninja from an Edo Era historical reenactment theme park? His name is Leo, he's completely ridiculous, and he also happens to be an incredibly talented gymnast. You know, on account of being a theme park ninja. and also some kind of international fugitive, maybe?
I don't expect The Gymnastics Samurai to reinvent the wheel or blow any of this season's other blockbuster series out of the water, but for every Jujutsu Kaisen or Akudama Drive, you need something goofy and cozy to balance out all of that noisy spectacle. Since I'd much rather relax with Jotaro and Co. than slime-obsessed isekai heroes and over-sexualized teenaged rock climbers, The Gymnastics Samurai is an easy pick for my Fall 2020 watchlist.
This was definitely less Hikari no Densetsu and more ClassicaLoid than I was expecting, although in all fairness the latter show mostly comes to mind because the Aragaki family keeps a pet spoonbill (I think?) named Bigbird. But regardless of which goofy show I use to counteract the straight gymnastics story I was expecting, The Gymnastics Samurai definitely has a very engaging first episode.
The eponymous samurai gymnast is Jotaro, who in his youth won the nickname for his ponytail and heritage. His glory days are, unfortunately, far behind him at this point, because gymnastics is one of those sports that's really a young person's game in terms of the physical demands. He really, desperately doesn't want to retire, though, for what seems to be two specific reasons – his daughter, who loves to watch him, and the fact that he still loves the sport and is such a garbage teacher that he's not likely to be able to transition into coaching. He spends most of the episode trying and failing to tell Rei that Dad's going to be retiring, although by the end we can see that she's probably figured it out for herself – she's smart enough to see his shoulder injury and put two and two together.
In terms of this more serious content, the episode does a good job of showing Jotaro's reluctance and how much it costs him emotionally to even think about retiring. Not only is it a clear sign that he's aging, but the sport has been part of his identity for so long that it almost looks like he won't be himself any more if he has to stop. I may be projecting a bit here, but that's what I went through when a bad break of my left ankle forced me to stop dancing; it doesn't matter if you've got other things you love doing or if you know that you're more than just that one activity, the emotional toll is real and Jotaro has apparently spent years ignoring his coach Amakusa's attempts to tell him it was time to stop. And a piece of him also seems to equate gymnastics with the birth of his daughter and his late wife, which seems to make the decision even harder.
Then we come to the sillier parts. Most of those that don't involve Bigbird are about Leo, the ninja who follows Jotaro and Rei home from Edo Wonderland (a living history center). Rei doen't word-for-word say, “Daddy, the ninja followed me home, can I keep him?”, but that's basically what happens, and when Grandma, who owns their home in Ikebukuro, says yes, well…pet ninja? But what's interesting about the Leo storyline is that it seems to be drawing a parallel between gymnastics and ninjutsu, which actually makes a lot of sense. Leo is heavily implied to have seen Jotaro in his younger “samurai” days, and all of a sudden he's looking like a way for Jotaro to stay in the game, although I'm not sure how that's going to work. Leo's just odd enough that he might be able to understand Jotaro's garbled instructions, though, so perhaps they'll be a coach-and-athlete duo.
Whatever the outcome, the smoothly animated movements and the combination of out-and-out zaniness with a more serious emotional story make this a premier that's hard to ignore. It's not perfect, but unless you have an aversion to gymnastics, ninja, or weird birds, this is definitely a show worth checking out.
First off, Edo Wonderland (which is featured prominently in the middle of the episode) is an actual theme park along the lines of the historical reenactment venues found in various places around the United States and Europe, located a bit north from Tokyo. Sadly, I was not aware of its existence when I visited Japan last year, but I will be sure to get there if I ever make a return trip. It looks cool. The other comment I will make up front about the episode is that the closer should be checked out even if you don't watch the rest of the episode. Maybe not the catchiest exactly, but still very cool.
Honestly, I am not sure what to make of the episode itself. It seems at first like a serious story about a career gymnast who is faced with the prospect that age and injuries have caught up to him. Given that he has a daughter to look out for in the absence of his deceased wife, it is time for him to retire and think about his next career. (His coach has been trying to convince him of that for a while, but he has remained oblivious.) Then a ninja whom he and his daughter encounter at Edo Wonderland gets involved and follows them home, and then shows up and shows off at Shotaro's gym. Further, the young ninja is both a foreigner and being pursued by Men in Black types. (Shotaro's daughter refers to them as Agent Smiths from The Matrix and also makes a reference to the ninja moving like Keanu Reeves' character in the movie, which makes sense since the series is set in 2002.)
My guess here is that the ninja will turn out to be a gymnast who was once inspired by Shotaro (as well as being a clear Japanophile) and is ultimately engaged in an obtuse attempt to train under Shotaro. For now, his presence is mostly just distracting Shotaro from trying to tell his daughter about his retirement, although it also lends a lighter tone to things. There's also a fellow adult gymnast who seems to be into rap. Factor in a grandmother who's quite the character herself and a large talking bird and this is giving off a dramedy vibe. Naturally it also has careful animation of several gymnastics moves as well, including some first-person perspective shots.
While I don't think the balance of humorous and dramatic elements has quite settled in, everything else in the episode is done well. The characters are appealing, Shotaro's situation is relatable, and the technical merits (courtesy of MAPPA) are remarkably strong. I probably will not follow this, but I can easily see it winning an audience.
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