The Gymnastics Samurai
by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 7 of
The Gymnastics Samurai ?
This week's episode of The Gymnastics Samurai cold-opens with Leo the ninja doing a lavishly-animated impromptu ballet routine in a park in the middle of the night while those suspicious agents in suits look on in awe (still wearing their sunglasses) and comment that 'A million words aren't enough to describe this beauty'. This show may have dipped into lower-key takes on the day-to-day lives of its fun family, but every now and then it busts out a sequence to remind us of the inherent weirdness lurking just below its surface that made it so compelling in the first place. This attention-grabbing opening assures us that, yes, we are still going somewhere with all these intersections of samurai, ninjas, and gymnastics, and as we learned from last week, it's on us to just let the show take us there on its own terms.
We are also given some context on Leo at last. Turns out he's not an alien, he's British! He's also seemingly some sort of ballet prodigy in obligation to a demanding dance matriarch, which is pretty much all the formative framing we get on Leo's situation for now. We have no idea how he wound up in performance servitude or why he seems so insistent that he's never gonna dance again, but the core thread of how some people may feel engaging in an activity only trying to be the very best, like no one ever was, works to frame the rest of this episode's ideas. The flashback is also smartly placed at this point in the story; since we already know Leo makes it back to Japan and the Aragaki family (presumably taking two thirteen-hour flights back-to-back), there's no need for us to fret over the possibility of him having left forever when we see him on the other side of the world.
After getting all those explanatory morsels out of the way, this episode of The Gymnastics Samurai settles back in for more of that gymnastics thing we might occasionally remember is in the title. It's time for the training camp that multiple episodes were spent angsting about, leaning more into that contrast between Jotaro and his younger professional peers. It also, almost immediately, leads into a contrast of the show's choices in portraying those gymnastics. I have to laugh at Minamino seeming to pick a competitive fight with any skilled gymnast he walks into a room with, challenging hot new Chinese prodigy Liu to an impromptu gymnastics duel here much the same way he did with Jotaro way back.
But unlike that little competition's deft use of established context to draw us in, or the Cup's idea-illustrating commentary and choices on what was not shown, this one falls into the more typical trap of over-focused activity shows. Gymnastics laypeople in the audience (of which I assume there are many) are left wanting for explication as everyone else gapes around naming the seemingly super-awesome techniques that lead to Minamino and Liu's high scores. They're animated nicely enough, to be sure, but we have no clue what they mean for these people or those in the world of the sport in general, so it comes off more as obligatory filler than anything that advances the show's ideas.
What saves it at the last second is that aforementioned contrast. We wonder, of course, what Jotaro's actual angle in jumping into the gymnastics fray is, and if he really has something he thinks can top the scores of these two. And there's an expertly-deployed flashback just as he gets going, letting us know that his shoulder's better and he's capable of performing his Aragaki move again. Like the effectiveness of the move's debut back in episode 3, the series understands how to lay these things out as effective sports depictions for the general audience, and is making the choice to only do them in Jotaro's cases like this to drive home how fundamentally different his approach is. It works, and even comes with the delightful subversion of him just stopping his performance after pulling off the Aragaki: He wasn't competing with Minamino or Liu, but with himself, which as we know is a fundamental driving element unique to performance sports like gymnastics. And it makes Jotaro's adorable little victory cheer afterwards feel that much more earned.
With the added context of Leo from the beginning of this episode, the show posits an understanding of gymnastics as unique in being both a sport and a performance. It's not simply raw ability in outdoing your opponent; it requires impressing an audience (of judges) with that need to constantly innovate and iterate on yourself. It's perhaps what makes it so suited to a story about progress and self-improvement at the behest of others in our lives that The Gymnastics Samurai is. And it rounds back to the main question that's been teased as defining the characters participating in this element of the story: Why do you do gymnastics? Minamino has it posited to him by Leo after they get themselves lost in the woods, matching up with Leo's own grappling with his obligation to ballet. Is it worth it to continue doing something simply because you're driven by being the best at it, or should you focus purely on the enjoyment you derive from performing, regardless of ability? It's hinted that this is why Leo found himself so enamored with Jotaro's gymnastics in the first place: It's something he was both quite skilled at and seemed to wholly enjoy.
Jotaro tackles another angle of that same driving idea by the episode's end, engaging with Liu on the question of why they're here, pushing themselves in the sport. The idea of the motivating factor in that, whether for victory or for personal enjoyment, is framed with some key caveats for the former. To understand Liu's (and Minamino's) stance of always striving to be the best is to grasp why they're so frustrated by Jotaro's refusal to retire: if you're doing something purely to win at it, then you're likely to quit once it becomes apparent you can't win anymore. But if it's something you simply love, then you'll continue with it as long as you possibly can. Liu's bafflement in the face of Jotaro admitting that he'll probably do gymnastics until the day he dies speaks to this difference in philosophy, and how a self-motivating sport like gymnastics can accommodate these disparate worldviews.
This all makes for an engagingly idea-centric entry of The Gymnastics Samurai, the kind of exploration I've come to greatly appreciate from the show. Some of its depictions of the sport are still imperfect in how they're framed, but the discussions afterward are so compelling that I can overlook elements like that. The Gymnastics Samurai is less a sports show now than a story about performances and passions in general, and its explorations of those make for strong connective tissue through all its disparate elements. This episode is a good example of that, while still being plenty fun and interesting to watch in places.
The Gymnastics Samurai is currently streaming on Funimation.
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