Part of me wishes I could codify the odd appeal of The Gymnastics Samurai so far into one easy, catchy reference point. To be able to say “In order to understand The Gymnastics Samurai, you just need to understand…” and then insert reference to whatever esoteric elements propel this show's ambitions. But thus far, it's not really apparent what, if anything, this series is meant to be a take-off on. The throwback elements are suspect at least, dropped as we are into an early-2000's period piece complete with the OP being a boppin' cover of Orange Range's legendary "Shanghai Honey," but the significance of that hasn't made itself apparent yet. Instead it really seems, for all the world, like Shigeru Murakoshi simply wanted to write an exceedingly quirky, offbeat story about gymnastics.
Whatever it's doing, it's quite good at it so far, mind. I was well into the heartwarming story of Jotaro grappling with the twilight of his gymnastics career and what it would mean for his relationship with his daughter Rei that the first episode initially presented. That's a sharp source for strong character drama, and the direction presented it with the right amount of melancholy. Of course, what that actually does is prime us for some grade-A tonal whiplash once the ninja shows up and things get...eccentric. But even through all the secret-agent chases and clothes-ripping impromptu gymnastics displays, the first episode maintains its strengths, weaving Leo's presence in Jotaro's life well with his continuing struggles with his potential retirement. It makes that first episode, bizarre as it is at times, compelling to follow in an “I have to see where this goes” sort of way.
Thankfully, the second episode keeps up that strong execution. I believe the key so far is that The Gymnastics Samurai doesn't lean on its inherent weirdness as its most focal point, rather letting it speak for itself to compliment the character drama it's centering and succeeding at. This second episode focuses on Jotaro's efforts to actually follow through on his abrupt not-retirement, and just by propelling him into this situation, reveals new character elements that fit with what we'd already seen but now get more clarity on. The first episode made a quick joke about Jotaro's obliviousness to what his coach was actually trying to tell him, while this one shows that such communication issues were endemic to more genuine problems with their relationship. As well, it spins out to demonstrate how, cute characterization as it is, Jotaro's status as a himbo who is only skilled at performing gymnastics hampers his abilities to do anything else in the sport's circle on his own, as well as cluing him in that he may be more lacking in other aspects of his life than he'd considered.
That's a pretty impressive evolution of understanding a character in just half an hour that we get in between asides introducing still-more quirky characters and one-liners from that dang talking bird. While there was a pointed disconnect between the tones in the first episode, something I feel was intentional in order to draw in an unsuspecting audience, I like how the second feels more confident presenting the serious sports-family drama of Jotaro while not letting it feel interrupted or offset by the weirder sitcom sidebars. It draws you in; For a moment I found myself somewhat-disappointedly thinking the second episode wasn't inserting as much endearing weirdness as the first, but then the ninja started working at a bar with a gyaru where he meets a gay acupuncturist, and I was relieved that I was still, in fact, watching The Gymnastics Samurai.
And the main reason bits like that work well here is because the show actually does end up integrating them. Said acupuncturist (who really didn't need to be introduced copping a feel on poor Leo, in one of the only major criticisms I have) turns out to be a Chekov's gun in resolving Jotaro's character arc for this episode. It's an appropriately odd spin, as we at first wonder if this seemingly-unscrupulous medical practitioner is really giving sound advice to Jotaro, but then that prompts him to flashback and finally understand the things his coach was trying to tell him. So it's a moment of clarity for both the character and the audience, and it prompts a very sweet turnaround between Jotaro and his coach that serves as that marker of character development.
The Gymnastics Samurai carrying that kind of lovable feeling amongst all its eccentricities is definitely a feature, not a bug, of its particular presentation. This is the same writer who gave us Zombie Land Saga after all, there's experience with lovable weirdness. And for me, it makes it easy to be drawn into the appeal of the characters themselves more than I usually like to do with shows. I really appreciate the way they've framed Jotaro realizing his flaws while willing to be able to grow past them, and he's a lovable dope throughout all of that so far. So there's a cheering affect to watching he and Leo draw more passersby into their Tai Chi routine, or realize his coach's intentions and reconcile with him. Putting Jotaro on the upswing at the end means the process of the second episode is actually much closer to the show I thought I was getting in the first episode, yet still spurred on by the inherent weirdness we were introduced to. So really, the simplest way I can actually codify this series is as a feel-good show. A very, very strange feel-good show.
The Gymnastics Samurai is currently streaming on Funimation.