The Gymnastics Samurai
Episode 9

by Christopher Farris,

How would you rate episode 9 of
The Gymnastics Samurai ?

It's interesting to see, this late into its game, how The Gymnastics Samurai is still trying out new additions to its routine. This episode opens with a flashback to Leo watching Jotaro at a 1997 gymnastics competition, which is extremely stylized compared to the previous standards of the show. The black-and-white filter with colored-in eyes, and the fiery aura Leo sees on the man who would become his role-model, are all elements that speak to the momentous nature of this whole scene. It's a contextualization of the events and worldviews that led the principal cast members to where they are in the present, and this helps codify that. It helps cement it in our minds as we return to this late in the episode to see how foundational everything about this event really is to these people.

While that kind of artsy application is successful, The Gymnastics Samurai's other new ambition turns out significantly less so. See, the writing decides it wants to dabble in some serious allegory this episode, introducing the background detail of a lost white owl named Fuku-chan who's here solely to represent Leo's conflict over returning home. It's pretty much the opposite of subtle, and while this series has always happily worn its themes and symbology on its sleeve, this feels like an extra, unnecessary step. We as an audience have already been conditioned to Leo's situation and how it ties in with the themes of the story – the reasons we do things, love of performance, and how those connect us to others – that this extra layer of owl-legory comes off as a writing ambition purely for the sake of itself.

That's a frustrating bit of clumsiness, since the rest of the episode works about as well as I've come to expect from the show this past few weeks. When his current indecisive plight isn't being symbolized by that dang owl, we are given the fullest picture yet of Leo's experience with ballet and why he found himself fleeing from it. It's a pointedly realistic scenario, relatable to anybody who might have found themselves labeled ‘gifted’ as children only to struggle with the expectations that follow as time went on. It's far too easy to assume that someone's ‘genius’ status in their given art form should lead them to consistent success moving forward, but struggles are an inherently human element of this kind of experience. The way Leo's experiences round back to the themes seen in the show so far is the question of love of the game. He clearly was passionate in his enjoyment of ballet when he first started (not unlikely bolstered by the recognition and praise it immediately brought him initially), but as the expectations for him wore on he found it harder to square that circle with the act of doing something simply because he enjoyed it.

There's an interesting question in there about the difference between Leo's love of performance versus what Jotaro has arrived at through the course of this story. The core conflict we finally come around to here arises due to Jotaro sustaining a minor injury (caused by that owl, in case a reason for Leo to blame himself needed to be any more obvious) just a week out from the next competition. Leo's deep-seated concern is eventually revealed as borne out of a fear that Jotaro could become ‘useless’ if his injury is exacerbated and he can no longer perform gymnastics to the same spec. But we as an audience already know that Jotaro has sworn to continue doing gymnastics for as long as his body can move no matter what, and he lays his motivation out even more clearly here, doing it for the sake of his loved ones like Leo and Rei. Unlike this point Jotaro's arrived at, the flashbacks we get indicate that the love Leo received from those around him was itself contingent on his continued improvement and success in ballet. That's unfair, but without him clearly expressing that issue to Jotaro as the reason for his hesitance, the two are at an impasse in their expressed desire to support each other in their chosen arts.

It feels a bit underexplored as a newly-introduced point here, but I like this element so far because of how it lets The Gymnastics Samurai tackle a different angle of its views on performances. It's a relatively simple, grounded explanation that makes clear how what's worked for Jotaro all this time might not necessarily work for others. It's reflected in the take on the injury itself, with Jotaro and Coach Amakusa having a surprisingly measured approach to such a hoary sports-story trope, this being the sort of thing real-world athletes have to deal with all the time anyway. Does that divide speak to how much more career-impacting such damage would be if Leo suffered it? It's unclear, since despite his emphatic protests, there's nothing directly indicating an injury in Leo's own past. As well, I thought the shouldering of such ‘genius’ expectations might lend well to a comparison with the similarly-burdened Minamino, but he's not mentioned at all in this episode. At least it clarifies the connection he and Leo shared a couple of weeks ago.

The clumsy allegory (which continues on in a post-credits scene accompanying Leo departing again) and some awkward pacing in the earlier parts of this episode make it feel not as tightly-constructed as the episodes from the previous few weeks. But I still come away with a lot of praise for this one predicated mostly on the strength of the episode's final scene contextualizing its opening one. It's revealed that the day Jotaro first successfully pulled off The Aragaki was also the day his wife Tomoyo was in her mortal accident, and the same performance his fateful fall occurred in. It's a remarkable bevy of framing revelations that brings things back to that real-world complexity The Gymnastics Samurai speaks well with. Even in doing what he loves for others and his connections to them, Jotaro's efforts are still affected by the emotional ties that temper those relationships. Post-death, we see that Tomoyo's words of wisdom regarding doing what you love continue to motivate Jotaro; there's a clear comparison there with Leo being unaware of that context when he was just a boy watching that performance. No two attachments to an activity are equal, and the series has thus far made clear how sections of that relationship chart are going to be connected differently for each person. That demonstration of individuality could have easily been made without using an owl as a visual aid.

Rating:

The Gymnastics Samurai is currently streaming on Funimation.


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