WARNING: This article contains spoilers for The Gymnastics Samurai Episode 1, "Retiring Samurai," now streaming on Funimation.
Based on the trailers and the promotional plot summaries, you'd probably go into The Gymnastics Samurai (Taiso Samurai) expecting a fairly realistic sports drama. The story of an aging single father facing pressure to retire from his career as a gymnast doesn't sound a wacky comedy, and the trailers emphasized inspiration and stunning athletic feats above all else. The only hint of any strangeness in advance came in the form of the crew list, sharing a director and much of a creative team with Zombie Land Saga.
Now the first episode is out, and it's clear there's a lot more Zombie Land Saga DNA in this show than it looked like. At first, the episode plays as you'd basically expect it to as it introduces 29-year-old Jotaro Aragaki, once one of Japan's most celebrated athletes (nicknamed "The Gymnastics Samurai" for his old hairstyle) but now a widower in weakening physical condition, forced to consider the possibility of retirement after an accident. The show follows him home to his daughter Rei, and it's here the show reveals its first big deviation from realism: their pet "Bigbird," who resembles a magical girl mascot more than any real species.
Jotaro takes Rei to Edo Wonderland, a real-life theme park designed as a recreation of 17th century Edo. Rei is very excited to see ninja. Her interest seems to stem from her mother's work in action movies -- Rei describes her mom's moves dodging bullets in films as "better than Keanu." The Matrix references (the one cultural reference point other than the opening title card clearly positioning this story in the year 2002) continue at the park itself, where a live show gets interrupted by a group of Agent Smith types pursuing one particular ninja.
The wackiness escalates when Leo, the "ninja," follows the Aragaki family home, claiming to be an actual ninja. They actually have a good reason to let him stay, since he's a foreigner and the Agent Smith guys were trying to deport him. Leo also has serious gymnastics skills, which are so impressive they cause his clothes to pop off when he completes his routine (his binder-esque undergarment might be a hint this show is following Zombie Land Saga's lead in showcasing a prominent canonically transgender character). The combination of competition from the ninja and wanting to make his kid happy prompts Jotaro to cancel his retirement announcement at the last minute.
The Gymnastics Samurai is not what anyone expected, but is it good? The answer is a big "maybe?" From an animation standpoint, this premiere episode is kind of underwhelming, especially in comparison to the premiere episodes of past MAPPA shows like Yuri!!! on ICE. The two gymnastics sequences are animated well aside from some minor CGI integration issues, but everything else feels rather stiff and cheap. Even the chase in the theme park, which should be an animation showcase, regularly cuts to still reaction frames.
The mix of tones is also strange, and Bigbird is simply annoying. Despite all this, the characters are compelling, and it does manage to get some laughs. Perhaps the best reason to keep watching The Gymnastics Samurai is that nobody has any idea where it's going. This could be one crazy and potentially rewarding ride.
New episodes of The Gymnastics Samurai premiere Saturdays at 1:30 PM ET on Funimation.