What’s it about? Aragaki Jotaro is a father, a widower, and a professional gymnast, but his career has been struggling since a bad injury. When Jotaro agrees to retire on the advice of his coach, he worries about breaking the news to his daughter, Rei. He takes her to an Edo-themed amusement park to help soften the blow, but a bizarre encounter with a ninja actor and a group of Men (and Women) in Black interrupts their plans—and sets off a strange chain of events that lead to Jotaro deciding he doesn’t want to retire after all.
The Gymnastics Samurai is not quite the Dad Sports Anime it appears to be, and I don’t yet know if that’s a good thing or not.
I almost just want to say “go watch GymSam” and leave it at that, because this first episode is such an unexpected progression of plot points and character beats that I suspect everyone is going to have a different reaction to it. Perhaps you will be delighted, intrigued, annoyed, bored (well, probably not bored), or—like me—too baffled to quite know how to feel.
At the outset, this premiere looks and feels like a grounded grown-up sports series, as Jotaro struggles with the disconnect between his passion for gymnastics and his aging body (a struggle I feel deep in my bones, as multiple painkillers are about the only reason I can type this review right now). His priority is to be a good dad to his daughter—a ninja-loving kid I’m guessing is around eight years old—and his worries are tangled up in both practical needs (finding a second career) and emotional ones (Rei loves watching him perform and will likely be heartbroken when she learns he’s retiring).
Like most anime daughters, Rei leans a little too hard into “well-behaved cuteness,” though she’s a marked step up from the one-dimensional so-sweet-they’ll-give-you-cavities girls that often populate the father/daughter subgenre. Her unbridled enthusiasm for her interests is an endearingly realistic trait in her favor, and the ease with which she adapts to the weirdness that happens in the latter half of the episode feels very on-point for her age.
…Well, I say the series seems grounded in realism at the start, but that’s not exactly true. Really, I should have known something was off from the moment they introduced us to “Bigbird,” the talking family pet who looks like he wandered out of the Forest of Feelings after a particularly intense care-bender.
By the time the ninja/acrobat/actor named Leo shows up at Jotaro’s house, saying he’s an immigrant and begging to hide out with Jotaro’s family so the mysterious agents won’t deport him… and then Cool Grandma tells Jotaro they should help the guy out… and then Jotaro reluctantly agrees… I was no longer quite sure what I was watching. Or how it fit with what had come before. Or how it was going to tie together going forward, either.
The script and staging handle all of this with a comfortable, confident eccentricity bordering on deadpan absurdity, with only Jotaro ever stopping to point out that this sequence of events is a lot stranger than everyone is treating it. It’s as if this premiere is preparing the audience for even more meet-ups between the realistic and the fantastical in the coming weeks.
The end result is a sort of patchwork quilt of bright squares lovingly but haphazardly sewn together: sports drama next to family iyashikei next to odd-couple comedy next to international action flick (or sci-fi, even?). It’s a bit disjointed, the colors don’t quite match, and there are definitely some gaps in the stitching, but there’s also something kind of endearing about its commitment to its own concept. I’m perplexed, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t charmed, too.
From a feminist perspective, there’s nothing to really warn folks about but not a ton to dig into yet, either. The only female characters who get any lines are Rei and Cool Grandma, both of whom are treated with the same general sense of affection as the male characters. The two female agents are wearing impractical cleavage-showing tops, but they’re only in like two shots and the camera never ogles, so that could go either way.
Leo’s status as an undocumented immigrant has potential, especially as a topic that’s basically never explored in anime. That said, he’s also somewhat cartoonishly depicted as a chipper, oblivious goober, and I’m not sure the series tends to explore his situation in particularly nuanced or grounded ways. And, honestly, with the mysterious agents and general sense of unreality that permeates his scenes, I’m fully prepared to learn that Leo is a literal alien.
It may also be worth noting that Leo’s ninja costume falls off during a gymnastics routine, showing him wearing gender-neutral boxer-briefs and a sports bra or compression vest. The moment happens without comment (the kids are amused at seeing someone in their undies, but that’s about it), so it may just be a practical decision to protect his chest and prevent chafing.
Still, the fact that the series went out of its way to have his clothes fall off led to a moment where I excitedly thought, “Wait, is Leo genderqueer?!” To which I then answered myself, “Probably not”—but hey, both GymSam‘s director (Hisatoshi Shimizu) and series composer (Shigeru Murakoshi) also worked on Zombie Land Saga (including Lily’s focus episode), so who knows? We could be pleasantly surprised.
Speaking purely from a production perspective, GymSam is mostly a workmanlike effort with a few flashes of clever storyboarding and awkward-but-dynamic CG action animation. MAPPA is pretty clearly throwing the majority of their resources at Jujutsu Kaisen this season, so I doubt we’re going to get dazzling, lengthy gymnastics sequences out of this series. Still, if it maintains the quality of this premiere then it should be a perfectly watchable experience.
Oh, and did I mention that GymSam is technically a period piece? Set in the early 2000s, there are multiple references to turn-of-the-millennium pop culture that got me to smile. Rei’s obsession with The Matrix is the most obvious, but the moment that had me nearly falling out of my chair was the inspired cover of Orange Range’s “Shanghai Honey” that served as the ending theme. Hopefully we’ll get more amusing little nods like that as the series continues.
I’ve spent a lot of words on this premiere and still haven’t given you a proper understanding of its eclectic tone, style, and characters. Sometimes words fail even us fancy-pants professional reviewers. So, I guess we’re back to square one: Go watch Gymnastics Samurai. At worst, it won’t make you angry, and at best, it may just charm the leotard off of you.