We are now into the second anime I managed to complete in Winter 2020. The subject of course, is my beloved sports anime but with a bit of a twist. We’re in the big leagues with Olympic level competitors! But our protagonist is past his prime for the sport, and a dad of all things? Well, let me elaborate….
The year of 2002, Japan’s gymnastics is in a transitional state, with Joutarou (Jo) Aragaki, the gymnast samurai still clinging on. At 29, he’s somewhat past his prime and his coach Amakusa is encouraging Jo to hang up the towel. Focus on his young daughter Rei, and find a new passion outside of gymnastics perhaps. Jo struggles with this realization until his destiny changes when he and Rei encounter a ninja?!
I have to admit that I didn’t know what to expect with Taisou Samurai. I had a small dabbling of gymnastics as a child in local classes, and one unit in high school. I’ve always been one of those who always was fascinated with the sport during the Olympics but don’t keep up much with it outside of that. Despite that, I know most Olympic athlete’s don’t have long careers as younger, more impressive competitors knock them out of competition rather quickly.
Which is the initial point of Taiso Samurai. Jotaro at 29 is considered fairly old for the sport. Not quite retiring age, as men are in their prime for the sport until their 30’s if they’re in good condition physically. But, with Tetsuo Minamino a 17 year old already making a splash before even hitting his stride the writing appears on the wall for Jo. And that’s what makes the story intriguing for sports anime fans.
There’s not a lot of stories about ‘older’ athletes. They’re usually side characters, or flash backs to teach the new generation a lesson. Perseverance, overcoming adversity, etc. They guide the new generation into the spotlight and fade into the background with a tear stained face, proud of ushering in this new generation.
Jotaro doesn’t do that. He might have grace in gymnastics, but as an actual man; he’s thick as a brick. He has no practical thoughts, just the mighty need to do gymnastics. To his friends and family’s credit, they honor his wishes to keep going despite it all. It’s oddly endearing if not somewhat bewildering, everyone respecting Jo’s rather selfish wishes. There’s an odd array of supporters, his nine year old daughter Rei (whose a bit too adult-like to be a convincing 9 year old), Leo the European family ninja, Bigbird the family pet, the various patrons of Mari’s bar, Mari herself being Rei’s grandmother and main caretaker, and the fellow gymnasts at Amakusa’s space are all just very accepting of Jo’s final bout with the sport.
For a story about the world’s most dense gymnastic samurai, there’s a lot of asides to other characters. The cast is incredibly colorful and engaging, almost to the point where Jo feels secondary. Ayu is a gyaru who not only works at Mari’s bar, but apparently is also a Russian special agent? Then there’s Leo, an eccentric samurai that follows the Aragaki’s home, becoming their family ninja while running from his own competitions.
Luckily, we’re given the time to explore beyond Jo’s hyper-focused world while he’s training. How does a nine year old with a famous actress mother, and Olympic level gymnast father handle school? Friends? The ever so average event such as Parent’s Day with an absentee parent? Same with Leo, being that as a character he’s with us from episode 1, but truly we don’t know anything aside from a handful of vague allusions until mid-series.
At first, I felt these explorations detracted from the core character, Jo, and his struggles. I wouldn’t be surprised if other’s got bored by these digressions and gave up. It’s Taiso Samurai, not Taiso Samurai and friends after all. But then I realized this was actually refreshing especially since the characters were not only vibrant in design, but vibrant as people. I wanted to know their thoughts and struggles, since I already knew Jo’s routine. Why rinse and repeat a training montage for every episode, when you can show the progress and passage of time in a more interesting manner.
It’s hard to argue the value of certain episodes where Jo was barely mentioned, given the small 11 episode timeframe for the series. Not every single episode was perfect, or contributed in a huge manner, but they were all pleasent to the eye and fit the storyline well enough. The animation was stunning as always, given that MAPPA animated it. There was a blend of 2D and 3D animation for the routines. I’m not surprised since gymnastics is a technical and quick paced event. The cuts between 2D and 3D were smartly done, and fairly smooth.
The focus was on the horizontal bar, Jo and Tetsuo’s speciality. During the training montages for either character were 2D which were striking. I was a little underwhelmed that their full routines were 3D rendered. The combination of moves on their final performances alone would probably take 80% of the animation budget alone, if they had been animated in 2D. I will concede for budgetary and for audience reactions, the 3D animation was the better choice. I can still be a little disappointed it wasn’t all the glorious 2D that I crave. They did blend 2D and 3D with different scenes being cut together in a slick manner, where it wasn’t too jarring. Seeing the routines from the angle they chose was really accurate to the real life, and conveyed the routine really well to my limited knowledge.
About the only big complaint I have is that Tetsuo, the rising star, doesn’t get enough focus. Don’t get me wrong, I love that Jo the older athlete had his second wave. However, Taiso Samurai does set Tetsuo up as the new golden boy on the scene, and he makes it abundantly clear that Jo is overstaying his welcome. Yet, Tetsuo’s motivations and passion for the sport seems largely inhuman, especially for a 17 year old. I would have liked to see him fleshed out just a bit more, although the ‘twist’ to his character was rewarding.
Taisou Samurai doesn’t get a perfect score for all it’s routines. There were plenty of small errors, and missed opportunities within the series. However, even with it’s imperfections it still manages to stick the ending, and get a recommendation from me. Of the all the sports anime released in 2020, Taisou Samurai is easily my highest recommended and most approachable for anime fans to watch. Let me know if you’ve seen this series, I would love to meet kindred souls about this anime, even if we disagree!