Last week's episode of The Gymnastics Samurai definitely felt like a detour where little happened, meaning this one comes in to aggressively compensate for that. Not only is there progression on the fronts of multiple plot-lines and characters, but in doing so the story reveals that we've time-skipped ahead a whole six months! This is to facilitate following the gymnastics cup that was set to be the next official place where Jotaro and Minamino would meet. This means a lot of on-screen gymnastics again, though the choices made in depicting the story of this competition turn out to be some odd ones. It's not so much that the episode turns out ‘bad’, it's simply odd, and not necessarily along the lines of the more outspoken quirkiness I came to know the show for at first.
Most crucial to address is that we don't actually see Jotaro perform any gymnastics in the competition! All points he scores are off-screen, and instead we see action from the crop of new, young competitors that Minamino belongs to. These guys all get intros establishing them and we see them performing in their specialties. They're rendered with an even mix of strong animation cuts and less-impressive CGI filling in places, but mostly I took issue with the lack of investment I had in the characters themselves. Jotaro's performance back in episode 3 had that intense, nail-biting effect to it because we understood the personal stakes involved, and the ways it could go wrong specifically for him had been so effectively illustrated beforehand. For these new guys, we get a few pointers on how solid their performances supposedly are, but there's little tension because I have no idea what winning or losing means for Jotaro's own situation.
Still, I'm actually not seeing these storytelling decisions as a negative, since doing things this way shined a light for me on the unique aspects of ‘competition’ in a sport like gymnastics. Because of the distinct lack of direct competition against other players (unless there's some sort of full-contact ‘Versus Mode’ version of the sport I'm unaware of), it comes entirely down to your own singular skills and constant improvement to succeed, outside any strategizing or counters you could think to deploy against your opponents. That means that succeeding in gymnastics is as much about competing against yourself as it is others, and that focusing entirely on said self-improvement is a viable path to victory.
This concept features heavily in the thematic and character arcs on display this episode. The point is made that Minamino seemingly has no awareness of the other gymnasts he's against in this competition, instead focusing singularly on his own path in the event. The snippets of characterization we do get from these other participants indicate that this attitude is a mark of his elite status, that Minamino being the best means he can only try to catch up with himself, as opposed to any ‘rivals’ who could challenge him. It leads to amusing dynamics like the one he has with Okamachi, a competitive air between them entirely separate from Jotaro's own uphill battle, which doesn't even get to be the focus of this competition for us or the fictional world watching.
But then that aspect of competition with the self versus competition with others also informs the role Jotaro seems set to play here. He's notably the only gymnast in the competition not rattled by Minamino's abilities on display, in fact improving his scores where others falter to finish on a respectable sixth place after being fifteenth the previous day. In his case it signals his own self-focus, his realization that he needs to improve apart from trying to be better than Minamino, and this in turn actually catches Minamino's attention outside of his own self. It offers some tantalizing hints into the inner workings of Minamino's character we've not been privy to thus far, and makes me think back to their competition in episode 3, where Minamino used Jotaro's own technique. That's now marked as an odd choice for someone seemingly so self-dedicated, and brings up some effective questions about the real reason for his seeming fixation on Jotaro.
Telling all that story simply through scores and reactions by gymnasts and commentators is, like I said, an odd choice, but an effective one that arguably makes its point better than showing off Jotaro's moves to a presumably gymnastics-illiterate audience might. Regardless, it must work if it gets my analytical juices flowing as much as those past three paragraphs indicate. The Gymnastics Samurai is clearly a show that can tell stories with simple interactions between people when it really wants to, and that's on display in other areas this episode. Seeing Jotaro and Rei happily hang out at home and sing Wild Thing together warms my heart and reinforces my belief that the series would do better to actually lean on depicting their dynamic more.
Similarly, we seem to finally be gearing up to move forward on Leo's plot-line. The trio of shadowy (and oddly sexily-dressed) government agent types are apparently some slow workers, taking six months to track down the world's loudest, most visible ninja, but they are on the scene again in this one. Leo's role with them and his mysterious disappearance by the end of the episode will likely be addressed next week, but it was nice to see the show juggle multiple plots while utilizing Leo in ways apart from just making Rei's life miserable like he did last week. That six-month time jump and how he fits in makes it clear he's grown into a genuine member of the family, and if Rei's explanation of the importance of her upcoming birthday isn't just an obvious drama-flag for both him and Jotaro, it lays believable stakes for the connections of this family apart from the high-level gymnastics competitions and international refugee intrigue. It all makes this an episode of The Gymnastics Samurai that's a bit better in hindsight than when you first watch it, given time to settle and reflect on what it did confidently, if in its own decidedly offbeat ways.
The Gymnastics Samurai is currently streaming on Funimation.