The Spring 2021 Preview Guide
by The Anime News Network Editorial Team,
How would you rate episode 1 of
Community score: 4.3
What is this?
Shōtarō Futaba, who is fascinated by gymnastics after seeing it in his third year of middle school, and joins the rhythmic gymnastics team of his new high school Sōshūkan High School, nicknamed "Ao High." He makes a friend with his schoolmate Ryōya Misato, who earned fame as a gymnast during middle school.
How was the first episode?
For some reason, even though Backflip!! caught my eye in the seasonal listings, I couldn't bring myself to hope that it would be good. Maybe it was because Wave and Skate-Leading Stars last season were such disappointments, but I found myself leaving it off the list every time I talked about the anime I was looking forward to this season. But then, just a few minutes in, the episode featured a four-minute rhythmic gymnastics sequence, uninterrupted by dialogue or cuts to the stands.
It's a gutsy move and, as I see it, a way to show the audience what the show is all about: showcasing the grace, beauty, and athleticism of rhythmic gymnasts. While the sequence heavily featured CG, the care with which it was rendered to still feature the characters' individual physicalities even as they moved in sync with one another made it so it never looked clunky or lazy. Each motion had a sense of weight behind it, and despite their obviously anime features, it looked like it could easily have been performed by humans. The scene is in some ways a statement: if you were bored or distracted by the routine, you could go ahead and close out of the series; but if you appreciated it, you were welcome to stay.
And oh, how I appreciated it.
It's a beautiful episode, to be sure. It's brimming with motion at every step, as even background characters move around. A simple dinner scene conveys, through both visual language and dialogue, a ton of information about Shotaro and his relationship with his family. Although the episode does include quite a bit of CG for the more demanding gymnastics moves, both the computer-rendered and hand-drawn cuts look great. They look like human bodies with bone and muscle and weight sweating and exerting themselves, Not Simple shapes moving through space.
Plus, the character writing is super endearing, if not earth-shatteringly original. The boys are all sweethearts and want to help Shotaro succeed, without an ounce of hostility or resentment. Even the other new team member, Misato, a middle school champion gymnast with a serious case of resting bitch face, looks at him as having a lot of raw potential. They do come off as a bit stock, and definitely softer around the edges than real teenage boys, but that's okay if you just want to chill out and have a nice time.
Of all the premieres so far, Backflip!! flew by the fastest for me and left me with the biggest smile on my face. I was a fool to dismiss it so early on, and I'm glad I gave it a try regardless.
I've always found rhythmic gymnastics to be rather boring, so the first episode of Backflip!! had a huge hurdle to overcome for gaining my interest. Its big four-man floor routine early in the episode certainly did its best: With a dynamic, sweeping camera and vibrant colors, it pulled out all the stops to make men's rhythmic gymnastics look as cool as possible. Sadly, the scene didn't feel right visually. It was like watching perfectly in-sync computer models instead of people (which, to be fair, they are). It didn't help that there was a clearly visible change whenever the anime went from 2D animation to 3D models. In the end, it just felt fake to me and pulled me out of the action.
As for the rest of the episode, it's sports anime 101. Random teen learns about the sport, is enraptured, and joins the team. Of course the team is filled with pretty, athletic men, each of whom has one of the stereotype personalities we've come to expect—i.e., the enthusiastic one, the quiet one, the strong leader, etc. The main character, likewise, has nothing to make him stand out, making him little more than an audience proxy.
All in all, the point of this episode is to introduce us to the sport while also giving out a helping of pretty-boy eye candy. Unfortunately, the sport itself doesn't grab my attention and I could care less about the characters. In a world with deeply complex sports anime like Yuri!!! on Ice and Megalobox, shows like this simply fall short.
The first thing anyone watching Backflip!! will probably notice is its animation. In a way that makes sense – this is a show attempting to portray rhythmic gymnastics, a full-body sport that involves massive, choreographed three-dimensional movement, which is just about the hardest thing to animate besides horses. So the premise alone requires a certain level of ambition for a TV production. But then, just a scant couple of minutes into this premiere, the entire thing stops for a full-length, four-person floor routine, and my jaw was on the floor for the rest of the premiere.
There's a level of detail and energy here that seems almost insane for a TV anime. Even accounting for the use of 3DCG in group shots, the entire routine is meticulously choreographed and directed, with nary a moment of wasted movement. And in both 2D and 3D there's clear attention to detail in how each character carries themselves on the mat, with individual team members moving ever so slightly out of sync, breathing with differing levels of difficulty between motions, and even occasionally flinching during held poses. It's really impressive stuff, and worth watching on its own even if you have no interest in this show or the central sport.
And that same level of ambition is present throughout this premiere. Characters move with a weight and liveliness that's nowhere near the norm for TV animation, and it brings every one of them to life in a way that elevates their basic (though likable) personalities. There's even a scene with one of the main guys sitting on an exercise ball during dialogue, and the animators take care to show him undulating as he shifts his weight while talking. The overall story isn't anything especially memorable on its own, but it's ridiculously charming to see the earnest energy of our protagonist Shotaro with this much rich character acting.
My only real problem with the premiere is that this just doesn't seem tenable. Yuri!!! on Ice, a similarly ambitious attempt to bring a full-motion sport into the realm of animation, infamously suffered major production woes, and that wasn't even made in the middle of a global pandemic causing intermittent production and work shutdowns. So it's very possible that Backflip!!'s production values won't be able to last through it all, and without that I'm not sure how much I'll be willing to stick around. But at least for the foreseeable future, I'm hooked.
Sports and I have traditionally never been especially chummy, even when the athletics are being delivered via high-quality anime shenanigans, but Backflip!! didn't have to work too hard at all to win me over. A team is only as good as its members after all, and Backflip!! has an incredibly solid crew of characters going for it. Shotaro makes for an endearingly goofy protagonist as the total newbie who stumbles upon the world of boys rhythm gymnastics by accident, and ends up smitten with the scene. He has arrived at Soshukan High as a freshman, alongside Ryoya, a middle-school gymnastics wunderkind who fills the role of the socially awkward perfectionist. Then there's the team of seasoned gymnastics veterans: Masamune, Keisuke, Nagayoshi, and Kotaro. You just know they're good, because they manage to score high marks at competition despite running with only four of the maximum six members. Still, it's up to Shotaro and Ryoya to step up and breathe new life into the squad.
In addition to a collection of talented voice actors, what really makes Backflip!! work is its expressive character animation, courtesy of Studio ZEXCS, which makes all of the boys stand out and make an impression. I especially loved little cuts like where Kotaro gymnastics his way out of the club room and into the hall to greet Shotaro; any time a studio goes above and beyond to animate flourishes like that, it's usually a good sign.
My single biggest reservation, unfortunately, comes from the gymnastics performances themselves. The major set-piece performance we see is well-choreographed, but overlong, and shot with far too many wide, distant angles. Frankly, I'm just not sure that the CG animation can capture the weight and speed of the gymnasts' moves without coming across as more of a video-game cut-scene than anything else. Still, if I were to keep up with Backflip!!, it would be because of its great cast and energizing mood. While I'd like better aesthetics for the actual gymnastics, everything else that this show is doing works well enough that I think I'd be willing to tolerate the visual shortcomings, for a little while at least.
Strictly speaking, what the guys are doing in Backflip!! isn't rhythmic gymnastics. That's not because it's traditionally a female sport (and still is at the international level, although research tells me that Japan and Spain both allow men to compete at the national level), but because in order to be considered rhythmic gymnastics, the gymnasts need to use several apparatuses – the ribbon, the hoop, the ball, the rope, or the clubs. What's going on here is more a combination of modern dance, gymnastics, and cheer, because the participants are just using their bodies.
Now that I'm done being annoyingly picky – wow. The plot of the episode is pretty typical fare for your sports drama: as a middle school third year and indifferent baseball player, Futaba stumbles across a men's “rhythmic” gymnastics competition and is hooked. In fact, Burning Kabbadi takes a similar approach, with the only major difference being that the former soccer player protagonist isn't interested in sports while Futaba is intensely interested. But the dancing – that's incredible. Or at least a lot of fun to watch. Early on we get to see Ao High's performance when Futaba wanders into the gym, and it's a routine that really does combine the elements of dance and gymnastics with the high throws of cheerleading in a very impressive way. I'll grant you that I just really enjoy watching anything dance- adjacent (darn that choreography minor I had in college!), but from the way the team uses the space on the floor to the timing of each movement, it's intense and quite beautiful.
It's also very nice to see that a lot of attention has been paid to the details. I'm not talking about toes being pointed when they leave the floor (although I love that), but that it's clear that a lot of energy is being exerted by the gymnasts, not just in terms of seeing them sweat, but also in the tension of their muscles. The stretches are also well illustrated, although I'm not entirely sure that I buy that Futaba is quite that flexible right off the bat. Shirts rise and flap with movements, and we get a good idea of how these guys are used to moving even from how they bow – it's closer to a toe-touch posture because that's what they've become accustomed to. We even get a decent sense of Futaba's strength when he can hold himself up by his arms at a high window.
The characters I'm less sold on right now, because they do feel like the usual suspects – the slightly snobbish star, the gung-ho captain, the jerk, the newbie, the skirt-chaser, the taciturn club manager…the gang's all here in that sense. Futaba's family is charmingly functional, which is very nice to see, but the rest of the cast feels a bit phoned in. In all honesty, though, I don't think this is going to be a series you watch for the characters, and on the gymnastics front, I'm definitely very happy.
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