Who says old dogs can’t learn new tricks?!
What’s the Story?
Jotaro Aragaki was once the pinnacle of gymnastics in Japan. Now he’s older, fighting the physical strain of his training and facing retirement square in the face. Maybe it’s time though, the next generation of gymnasts are swiftly on the rise and they’re only pulling further ahead of anything he can do. With one chance encounter though, Jotaro decides he’s not done yet, far from it. With his adoring daughter, Rei, and their new live-in ninja, Leo, cheering him on how can he possibly fail? The road ahead may be difficult and it may take everything he’s got to walk down it, but there’s a reason they call him ‘Samurai’.
Some stories can only be told by a particular culture. Don’t get me wrong, anyone in the world can tell a story about an ageing sports personality taking one last shot at glory, but would they include ninjas and talking birds of mysterious origin? I think not! I need an ‘Only in Japan’ label for some of the anime I watch because only from Japan would you get a heart-warming drama about gymnastics that also features a runaway ballet dancer disguising himself as a ninja and everyone just going along with it. And, no, I’m not going to drop the ninja thing! The analytical part of my brain wants to argue that things like Leo disguising himself as a ninja is just a distraction, they’re superfluous to the plot outside of bringing in certain iconography. Yet every time it tries the rest of my brain just yells at it to shut up because Leo is cool and we won’t have a word said against him. Indeed.
I got sucked into this series hard. I know next to nothing about gymnastics and I’m not in any way, shape or form interested in it outside of how to apply it to fight scenes. This show made me care though. Watching Jotaro struggle to get back into fighting shape, seeing the realisation dawn on him as he finally gets what people have been trying to tell him for so long, I was rooting for him every step of the way.
You have to love Jotaro, even though at times he’s made me want to pull my hair out. He’s one of those loveable idiots who are just singularly focused, not because they don’t care about other things, but because they’ve found the thing that makes them truly happy and they just want to go out and do it. Yes, sometimes he misses social cues and it takes a while for things to filter through his thick skull but I can’t help but get wrapped up in his quiet enthusiasm. He doesn’t shout or scream or make a big show of what he’s doing, he just keeps doing what he likes until he’s satisfied and I find that admirable, though obviously he’d be nothing without his support structure.
It’s the characters that make this show so let’s talk about some of the others. We’ll start with Rei and she really is the most adorable daughter. She’s supportive, somewhat obsessed with ninjas, likes acting out roles from films and sometimes she can be a bit oblivious too. I like that she has her own quirks because it stops her being too saccharin and sweet. My favourite moment of hers might just be the episode where she learns to not to keep bottling things up and just blow her lid every once in a while, whether at her dunce of a father or her school friends. It was an important moment for her, also the moment when it finally clicks in her head that, yeah, she wants to be an actress when she grows up.
That brings me to Leo, ah Leo, how do I love thee, let me count the ways. Leo is a lot of fun from the moment he turns up. Yes it takes a moment to parse the fact that he’s claiming to be a ninja and everyone is just so accepting of that, so much so that he moves in with Jotaro without anyone really questioning it. Leo is a gentle soul though, always there to help out and you can kind of understand why this eclectic bunch of people would just let him be. It’d be tempting to wonder if Leo is some new form of the ‘mainc pixie girl’ trope (manic pixie boy? No, manic pixie ninja!) but Leo isn’t just there to help everyone else out of their funks, he’s got his own funk to get out of and by the end of the series it’s Jotaro’s turn to be the inspiration. Seeing the look of awe on Leo’s face as he watches Jotaro perform was worth all the build up.
In the end this is a series about an odd bunch of people helping one another out, in their own unique ways. Not that the show skimps on the sports side of the drama, it’s just that the focus is on Jotaro, his training and his eventual performance rather than any competition. We do get glimpses of other gymnasts and their performances, though the only one with any substantial screen time is the character that slots into the ‘rival’ role, even if Jotaro doesn’t see him that way. The only thing I’ll say about the performances themselves is that while a lot of them are really well animated, there are quite a few times when the characters are swapped out for 3D models and while, I get it, it is noticeable and that brings things down a notch for me.
All in all, the Gymnastics Samurai is a lot of fun. It features an eccentric but loveable cast, heartfelt drama and lots of spins and flips, what more could you ask for from a gymnastics drama? I’ve fallen for each and every one of these characters, but watching Jotaro build himself back up and prove that he’s still the samurai of the gymnastics world has been a special pleasure. This show isn’t going to change the world, but I thoroughly recommend it. Indeed.
Chris Joynson, aka the Infallible Fish, is a writer, blogger and lover of animation living in Sheffield. The blog updates every Friday or you can follow me on Twitter @ChrisGJoynson.