The Gymnastics Samurai
by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 11 of
The Gymnastics Samurai ?
Turns out this eleventh episode is the end for The Gymnastics Samurai. Thankfully the episode title being that of the show plus the lack of opening sequence makes that pretty clear from the start, so we as viewers can brace for the show wrapping things up a little early in the season. It makes sense, honestly. The show had laid out pretty much everything it could in its central philosophies regarding performance, competition, and the drive to improve yourself that it didn't need to tread that ground any further. With the final stretch for our characters on the horizon, all that's left is to see if the series can...stick the landing.
(Look, I spent eleven weeks considering how I was going to use that phrase once I got to writing about the end of this show, and with it having given me a strong appreciation for just how integral landing-sticking is in gymnastics, no I will not apologize for being real obvious about it.)
The way The Gymnastics Samurai handles the resolution of everything left is probably the most surprising thing it does here. Sure, Leo's decision to eschew watching Jotaro's gymnastics performance and go back to England was an obvious internal conflict to us viewers, but it's positively precious to find out that Rei really did take him at face value. It's kind of cute to think that in terms of being perceptive, she doesn't fall far from the tree that is her father. The ending is therefore powered by dueling conflicts: Jotaro continuing to strive for victory at his competition, and everyone else scrambling to collect Leo and bring him there in time to watch. One of those plots could have easily pushed the other out, with Jotaro's efforts at the competition being the background element to shifting Leo's heart. But fortunately that's not the case, as the gymnastics interspersed throughout Rei's race to the airport was just as exciting to watch.
Rei is still unmistakably the star here though, as she's been for weeks now. She's the thread connecting Leo and Jotaro in their final battles for this story (with the declared notion that Leo can serve as a motivational replacement for Jotaro's dead wife being a bit more on-the-nose than I'd been expecting). She may not be as sharply perceptive as others (she is still a child), but she's the one corralling everyone and encouraging them to work for the sake of others. Ayu is inspired to send a message to Takizawa because of her, and sympathy for her and Leo motivates one of his bodyguards to continue trying to help Leo follow his heart. Her presence forms a web of personal connections of people encouraging others and themselves, branching out on The Gymnastics Samurai's driving theme that we're better when we're doing things for people.
It's also centered around the idea of performance. That's endemic to the Gymnastics that power the story, as well as Leo's struggles with ballet, but it comes through with some surprising payoff of Rei's recently-resolved acting ambitions. It's her impassioned performance of one of her mother's movie lines that ultimately moves Leo to come back with her, a wonderful demonstration of the two's movie-reenactment games coming dramatically full-circle. And it makes for one final example of that power of performance: doing something for someone need not be a strictly physical or transactional act; putting on a powerful performance specifically for somebody can be a favor as well, and provide them with what they need.
It speaks to the purpose our performances can give us. Jotaro isn't pushing himself in gymnastics simply for the sake of his own abilities, he's doing it because he knows there are people out there who might genuinely benefit from what he's doing. Jotaro is victorious in the end, and the commentary supposes that the limits he pushed in getting there might benefit the whole of the Japanese gymnastics community. It's a positive flip on the weighing expectations that were so distressingly depicted previously: Success shouldn't be demanded of someone because they're perceived as a ‘genius’, but their wins should be celebrated when they have them because they can benefit so many more people than themselves. Jotaro's successful efforts are even shown to have benefitted his direct competitor, Minamino, who's abilities make a comeback on this second day of the competition now that he's not only trying to be better than himself. However, I am unsure about the final revelation that Jotaro was in fact a gymnast that Minamino admired. There were whiffs throughout the story that hint at that possibility, but not enough for it to draw a clear thematic line, in my opinion. That might be down to Minamino receiving less in the way of character definition or an arc compared to others in the show, even as his role still worked as a demonstration of certain angles of its themes.
But that's barely an issue of buildup considering how effectively Jotaro and the show named after him own the gymnastics sequences, especially at the climax here. There were a few misfires throughout, but The Gymnastics Samurai has genuinely become a good sports anime these past couple weeks, so that primes it to go out on a terrific note. Jotaro's final routine is a quintessential big finish, drawing us in with the kind of breathless, heart-in-your-throat tension that makes for these kinds of shows at their best. It weaves in elements and moves we've seen him hone all series and know are connected to all the other characters that have assembled to see him do his thing. And even with some intermittent CGI, it still comes off as beautifully animated. If anything, this episode (and the last one) makes me sad the series didn't lean on the sport more, as Mappa proves here that they can depict the hell out of some gymnastics when they want to.
So where does this all leave The Gymnastics Samurai as a whole? This final episode is one of its best, and ties everything together in ways I wasn't really sure it would be able to partway through the season. It's worth to have faith in offbeat productions like this sometimes, the same way one of the other gymnasts observes that Jotaro's effectiveness comes from just doing whatever he wants. This is a series that a full watch-through will be kind to, I expect, as it manages to say a lot quite well over the course of just eleven episodes. I honestly think The Gymnastics Samurai is admirable simply for being unique in so many of its storytelling choices, but that it turns out to strongly succeed at them in the end makes the whole show an easy recommendation after all.
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