Title: Taisou Zamurai / Taiso Samurai / Gymnastics Samurai
Length: 11 x 24 minute episodes
Genre: Sports, drama, comedy
Year of release: 2020
I want to say that it’s a good thing being unconventional, but it rarely is. Convention in storytelling has arisen from thousands of thousands of years of storytelling, where ‘generally good’ ways to tell the tale have become common-place and the norm – yes, especially amongst awful anime. And yet, here’s Taisou Zamurai, a show with no regard for the rules. I can’t even put a finger on who the main character is.
Yet, it’s also quite good. Not just in that it occasionlly fields an episode by luck or chance. No, overall, it builds a compelling story, even if it’s ultimately… not the one you’d expect going in.
Episode 1 made me think ‘the Yuri on Ice crew wanted to try and recapture the magic’. That would be a fair assumption throughout a lot of the series, but it’s also not the whole picture. They occasionally manage on animation, which is the best thing I can say about this comparison. But I digress; the setup – before it’s broken, trodden on by the show’s systemic lack of focus – is about the titular Gymnastics Samurai, Joutarou Aragaki (henceforth, Jo), a former Olympic gymnast whose success (a Silver), his ballsy bar routines (that even ended up with a move being named after him) and even his hairstyle made him a popular figure in Japan. He was heralded as ‘the next generation of Japanese gymnastics’, but due to an injury, he eventually found himself in 2003 floundering, unsuccessful, and in the first episode, his coach convinces him to retire. Relatively similar to Yuri on Ice, then, especially when he ultimately doesn’t retire. That is, in part, because he’s inspired by his elementary school age daughter, Rei, and Leo, a new housemate he… adopts?
You think you get an idea of how the show’s going to go, following Jo on his journey back into the sport following a smarter regime, taking into account his injury and past-prime-form – and then you get a Rei episode at number four. And when you think it’ll get back on track with Jo, she gets another, and then another, and then another, and even when it goes back to Jo, she’s a major emotional proponent of the series.
Rei’s arc comes out of nowhere, sure, but it’s so successfully emotional that I can give this midseries takeover a pass. She has to shoulder the Aragaki household, as her mother passed away several years earlier, and she also has to deal with being a kid with a celebrity father who is almost never there. There’s this push-and-pull of her feelings towards Jo, as she loves him dearly, but she also resents him sometimes, and the way she grows up across the series – and, even, finds the will to follow her dreams! – makes her such an endearing child character. Every episode is self-contained, each with a start-and-finish, and it gives Rei’s midseries’ odd direction constant additions of depth and development. It adds and adds and piles atop to make her one of the strongest sparks of the series. She becomes the beating heart of the series, and, unconventional, perhaps, but it works! Really well, even.
Leo, on the other hand, is not given episodes or arcs. It toys with us, showing us little bits here and there. He’s an enigma, and the series throws his development a bone every now and again. Leo’s a self-proclaimed ninja, despite being a foreigner in Japan. This makes his characterisation really bizarre, and he comes across like a comic relief character who eventually is shown to be the farce we all thought it was. But the show’s ongoing weirdness, makes us unsure…
Indeed, the whole cast is weird. Jo’s mother-in-law runs a shady bar that Rei goes to and chats to the bartender, a high-school gyaru who also quotes military strategy off-the-cuff in her inspirational speeches. There’s also an extremely camp acupuncturist there, who ends up treating Jo. Jo’s coach is perhaps a bit more ordinary, though the show can laugh at his hairstyle and his 2003-era phone rings in silly tones. You think there’s a major character being made out of Minamino, a 17 year old gymnastic prodigy who even challenges Jo to a duel at one point, but he doesn’t get nearly enough screentime for all his spunky attitude. The show’s odd-sense of humour is best presented with Big Bird, the talking, giant blue-bird that walks around the Aragaki household and gets punchy attempts at comedy.
Taisou Zamurai does find its way back to Jotarou, who has developed an even ballsier move to show off with. The show holds its cards to its chest, but even shows a flashback to his early life in a particularly moving episode, before he goes on to surprise everybody with his focused performance – he doesn’t go in to compete against anybody but himself, a man who chases his dreams, not victory or success. It’s an inspirational finale, but let’s go back a second:
I found Leo a hard pill to swallow at first, though we learned just a little bit more about him over time and his real ambitions – and it did so with gorgeous ballet animations like this one. The way characters find inspiration, and overcome obstacles to chase their dreams, is Taisou Zamurai’s greatest skill.
Many of the best scenes of 2020 were Taisou Zamurai at its best, and that’s because Taisou Zamurai has mastery over its emotional beats – showing different character chasing their dreams, even if they’re apart. Look away for five minutes; one of the many sportsy montage is gone and you find yourself in a beautifully orchestrated dramatic sequence, building on every bit of Taisou Zamurai’s threads, creating tremendous, intimate crescendos. It’s incredibly effective as a drama, and it dodges and dives around before actually cementing its place as one. The show’s weird, but it’s like a puzzle – it scatters its pieces around, and it all comes together in the end.