The anime The Gymnastics Samurai is set in the year 2003, and nothing makes me feel older than having a fictional story ask “Remember back in the day?” about a time period that still in many ways feels like yesterday. But as the story of a veteran gymnast whose years are starting to catch up to him, it’s all too appropriate. The Gymnastics Samurai is not an altogether unique take on the trope of an old fighter trying to recapture glory, but it does stand out in a couple ways: its avoidance of faint and damning praise for its protagonist, and (for better or worse) the bizarreness of its setting details.
Protagonist Aragaki Jotaro, nicknamed “Samurai,” was once a former silver medalist in gymnastics who started a “Samurai boom” in Japan and around the world. Now, he finds himself a widowed father of one, unable to even approach his past success and considering retirement. However, a chance meeting with Leo, a foreigner dressed like a ninja, changes all that. Jotaro begins to wonder if there’s a chance he can keep doing what he loves, despite the fact that gymnastics is a young man’s game. In addition to the encouragement he gets from family and friends, he’s also egged on by a much younger rival who treats Jotaro as a dinosaur who should leave the spotlight for those with potential to fulfill.
The immediate comparison that came to mind watching The Gymnastics Samurai is 2006’s Rocky Balboa, the 6th movie in the Rocky franchise. In it, the famous Italian Stallion comes out of retirement for a boxing exhibition match against the current champion of the world, but has to re-invent his style once again (a recurring theme throughout the films) to make up for the fact that his body can’t move like it used to. Jotaro is in a similar position as Rocky, with a few key differences. First, Jotaro is nowhere near as old as Rocky in Rocky Balboa (29 vs. early 60s—almost a joke, in a way), and doesn’t have to deal with calcium deposits on his bones. Second, rather than Rocky’s approach of building muscle so that every punch he can land counts for more, Jotaro’s re-invention involves a return to fundamentals, and the muscle he does gain is to compensate for his old injury.
That second point is one of the most notable aspects of the story the anime is telling, because it’s in part a criticism of the notion that “spirit” and “hard work” can make up for anything. As the anime explains, Jotaro tried to work through his injury by just throwing himself further and further into gymnastics, only to end up aggravating his shoulder further. The fire of perseverance is not inherently a bad thing, but Jotaro has to learn how to work smarter instead of hoping to gain results from a mindless grind. Over-the-top training bordering on abuse is a classic (albeit dated) trope of sports anime and manga, so it stands out when a series like The Gymnastics Samurai puts it in stark relief with a more conscientious regimen.
There’s no doubt that it does get harder to keep up one’s physical peak as time passes, but the training Jotaro goes through is also not necessarily about abandoning what used to work for him. Instead, it’s a way to let him do what he was known for by providing a more stable structure. It reminds me of how Umehara Daigo, the most famous fighting game player in the world, trained to improve his reaction time rather than leaving it to his younger opponents because he didn’t want to limit himself by thinking like an old man (Daigo ended up winning a major online tournament). Note that Daigo is also older than Jotaro, being 39.
As for the bizarreness of The Gymnastics Samurai, although the anime is centered around a fairly straightforward sports narrative, there are a lot of little aspects of the show that seem like they come out of left field. Jotaro’s action movie-loving daughter, Rei, has a gigantic tropical bird (named Big Bird) who tells people to smile more. Leo appears to be a ninja-obsessed Japanophile whose use of theatrically archaic Japanese (de gozaru) is more a Japanese person’s idea of how a weeb would speak than any reflection of reality. Especially due to the bird, it reminds me of Tamako Market, which also has an avian creature providing comedy. These details make for a jarring tonal shift at times, which ultimately don’t remove the emotional impact of key moments in The Gymnastic Samurai but can still leave a sense of bewilderment.
The Gymnastics Samurai is one of the latest instances of a story that asks whether an old dog can indeed learn new tricks. While it’s not entirely a criticism of ageism due to its hero still being a reasonably spry 29, the series does give credence to the notion that re-invention and restoration are possible, especially where passion meets wisdom. In a genre of anime and manga dominated by stories about high school athletics—and where graduating at 18 is seen as the first step into mythology—Jotaro gives at least some hope to those who still want to compete.