The Gymnastics Samurai ‒ Episode 4

4 weeks ago 17

After last week's near-total focus on Jotaro the Samurai and his gymnastics in The Gymnastics Samurai, this episode does indeed shift over to following Leo. However, it's not really the resumption of his madcap secret-agent-avoiding antics from the first episode. Instead, this one sees Leo attempting to really do something with the odd role of domestic ninja he's assigned himself, specifically focused on what he can do for Rei. That means this is also the first episode to really give us any insight into Rei's character, so in theory there's a lot of compelling new ground for the show to cover with this entry.

Unfortunately, I ended up feeling let down by this episode. The central issue, I think, is how The Gymnastics Samurai chooses to frame Rei's situation, particularly elements it doesn't address. Rei is of course an extremely good girl, and I absolutely understand Leo's desire to protect her smile at all costs. But there's almost a willful ignorance of how she came to act and assume her current role in the family. Sure it's funny that the elementary schoolgirl is the only one currently in the Aragaki household with a brain cell, but being thrust into that kind of caretaking responsibility by her mother's death and her father's singular-focus himbo-tude comes off unfair. Her stern shouldering of any difficulties at school and refusal to ask for help make it clear that, of all the things to deal with, the simple issue of needing to grow up too fast has negatively impacted how this child takes on all comers in her life.

In this episode, Leo (and to a lesser extent, Grandma Mari) is motivated by a well-intentioned desire to make things happier for Rei, but while seeing a goofy character fumble their way through failed attempts of that sort can work as entertainment, here it never really works, with the reasons being twofold. The first is made clear by the end, that Leo's intrusions on Rei's life, including attending Parents' Day at her school, only exacerbate the feelings of isolation Rei contends with her peer leading to a complete lack of understanding between her and the other children. The raw embarrassment she experiences is downright painful to watch in a couple of moments. The second issue – which is not called attention to, to the point that I have to wonder if the writing was even aware of it – lies in the fact that no one even asks Rei herself what she wants to do about any of the intersecting stressful situations she's being put through.

It's absolutely unfair for the narrative to spell out the responsibilities that are being placed on a child like Rei, only to have all the adults in her life discuss without her the things they could or could not choose to do about those issues. Sure, Leo's a dope, but that still doesn't make it a good look when he talks to everyone else around him about what he can do for Rei, only to make a decision that winds up the exact opposite of what she wanted. It makes for a storytelling misfire, not endearing or entertaining but feeling like time and characterization potential wasted on exhaustingly poor choices.

Another point that I don't know whether the show itself is aware of is how central to so many of the issues here Jotaro himself is. Bizarrely, he's barely present in an episode focused on the issues his daughter experiences stemming directly from her relationship with him; there's the somewhat intriguing question of why Leo is so fixated on his gymnastics teased, but hardly any mention of Rei by him. It's a very odd shift, given the connection shared between the father and daughter via his gymnastics which led to the plot of this whole show kicking off in the first place. Instead, large swaths of Rei's dialogue, including some supposedly-pivotal declarative moments, are given over to her gushing about how proud she is of her dad and how she wants to support him, informing only her side of the relationship and seeming to codify and justify the burdens of responsibility she's shouldering. It reaches exasperating heights given the final inciting incident of the Parents' Day visit, conspicuous that it is that we haven't heard anything from Jotaro about why he could never take one afternoon off from training to go or how aware he even was of the event. Genuine communication between Jotaro and Rei has been a motivating issue of this show's plot from the beginning, and I can only hope that's an arc that will see progress as the characters grow, but for now it's a jarring element that makes it seem like father and daughter aren't even living in the same universe.

In short, this whole episode is predicated on drama that only exists to pile more burden of stress on Rei herself, simply to let her then be the one to release herself from it via venting at her classmates and Leo (satisfying as that scene is to see) and realizing that Leo's good intentions must be valid even if he completely faceplanted on carrying them out in a way that wouldn't cause her more trouble. It's frustrating, because I can clearly see the places where the show wants me to understand and sympathize, then be happy at what's portrayed as incremental emotional growth, but I can't bring myself to really do that on account of how strongly I disagree with how Rei was pushed here, let alone the fact that she should have to at this terribly early stage in her life.

There's obviously plenty of show to go for The Gymnastics Samurai, so it's entirely possible this episode was mostly meant to establish the emotional places these characters occupy before even more sports and family drama could push them closer together to grow. Absolute wonders could be worked just by putting Jotaro and Rei in the same room and letting them talk out their wants and feelings. Incidentally, that was also a key roadblock that they detoured around to wind up in this show's plot back in the first episode. So there's a fear that these kinds of character-centric contrivances will continue throughout the series in place of more genuine growth and breakthroughs. That means I'm now feeling a bit more trepidation about The Gymnastics Samurai's future prospects.

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The Gymnastics Samurai is currently streaming on Funimation.

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