(WARNING: Post may contain spoilers for some plot points, but let’s be real its Gintama)
With Gintama entering the final supposed chapters in it’s manga and anime, I’d like to take the time to write about one of the longer running shows still around because of it’s loyal fan base, but not as highly regarded as the other big names such as Naruto, One Piece, and Dragon Ball.
Premiering in 2003, it currently has it’s 67th volume in circulation and still selling strong with over 50 million copies sold and counting. The anime, is now entering it’s dubbed “4th” season, for lack for a better classifying term. It’s hard for me to call it’s first 265 batch of episodes it’s first season due to the sheer size of the material. I recently spent the better part of six months watching all 316 episodes available, most of the Jump Festa exclusives, and the first movie. I’m saving the rest for when I really run out of things to watch for this series, I love it that much.
Before starting on one of the first long running series I’ve committed to since Bleach, I had to do my due diligence and check out the fan base. My first thought was what fillers did I want to avoid. With an episode list boasting over 300, an action/comedy hybrid with no meta story line that I wasn’t aware of before hand, there had to be fillers throughout it’s run on air. The short answer: Yes & No.
It really depends on your definition of “filler”. If you need every episode to drive the plot or story line forward, then this is not the show for you. Although, each episode plays into one of the shows biggest strengths, which might also be one of its glaring flaws to some, it’s large cast. Each episode will have one of it’s many hilarious characters have a moment in the sun. This happens often and in ways you would never expect. In contrast, there are SO MANY CHARACTERS that I say that it takes about 60 episodes just to build the world and become familiar with the characters and their relationship to our MC and his crew. Dedicated episodes and arcs containing back story and exposition on a character, which is fine if you have time to spend like that, and especially if you’ve picked a favorite character or ship. To me, most of the introduction episodes are enjoyable and are filled with hilarious situations that Gintoki and company have to use the whole air-time to muscle their way out of it. There are moments of drama or solemnity, blood-soaked memories of flashbacks to an a fore-mentioned war or a tragic betrayal, but it is the comedy and the on-the-dime reactions of the voice actors that are the heart of this anime. They are handled with the same care and attention as some of the more serious and larger arcs in the latter parts of the series. Yet, with the cast being so large, once you get to know all personalities and figure out who has chemistry on screen, or who are volatile, you start to pick out the gems in the episodes you dig through.
Alright, so I decided I’m watchin’ everything there is. Would sacrifice some of the current seasonal anime of the year to make room for the Yorozuya crew. A quick overview of the plot itself without spoiling would be: based in an Edo-era Japan, in a world where aliens invaded, inhabited, and thus coexisted with the population, bringing technology, culture, and most importantly, currency. Our SILVER-haired (Yes, Silver. Not baby blue or whatever you think it is right now) hero Sakata Gintoki and his hired crew of Kagura, an adolescent girl from an alien-warrior race from the stars; and Shimura Shinpachi, the last disciple of a fallen dojo run by his family. The self-proclaimed Yorozuya, or Odd-Jobs crew in English, doing whatever any client requests of them for cold hard cash. Complicated situations ensue, to say the least.
Imagine if the writers of Futurama had a drunk night out with the staff of Shounen Jump, that is essentially Gintama in a nutshell. The standard Jump motivations for the majority of the cast are all present: Value of friendship, protecting a loved one, true strength, and sacrifice. Although, it is that drive and pure ambition that gets our main cast caught up in hilarious and often cringe-worthy situations. These may seem like noble and respectable causes yet a lot of the characters exhibit selfishness and greed in some of the funniest ways possible. The most tried and true formula for laughs in Gintama are the roles of the Funny man and the Straight man.
Also known as the tsukkomi and the boke in Japanese, these quick interactions between two characters are filled with back handed comments, insults, anime references, or cold logic. What is so good about about these roles in this show, is that every single character does it so well. In no small part, thanks to their voice acting staff. Their timing and size of their reactions for all situations can be some of the most enjoyable parts of an episode. This hold true for our titular character Gintoki and his right hand man Shinpachi. Usually followed by Gintoki’s child-like reasoning or selfish motivations, is Shinpachi’s deft and often hilarious reaction that either brings the moment down to earth or sends it rocketing past the point of no return. And on a dime, have them swap their roles with perfect precision.
The comedy side of this anime is also very much a parody on main stream anime tropes and poking fun at it’s Shounen Jump peers, so anyone who has watched any of the popular animes recently will be able to catch the references that come lighting quick from the entire cast. No one is safe from Sorachi and his writing team, whether it be the blatant rip offs of One Piece or Dragon ball outfits, or subtle jabs at infamous villains. It’s more of a tip of the hat to his fellow creators, more so than a slap in the face. Video games also become a major reference point for Gintama. JRPGs, like some of the older Final Fantasy titles or Dragon Quest, and their cliches within gaming become running jokes for whole episodes. Finally, it completely disrespects the existence of a 4th wall and a viewing audience. Whether it be mentions of the dwindling budget, rotating management, killing screen time, and much more; the characters are also aware they are inside of a show when they acknowledge each others tropes. It’s a tactic unique only to Gintama, to my knowledge, but it works perfectly every time.
Now with this being within the pages of Shounen jump, we come to this show’s biggest strengths: It’s action. And I must say, it’s absolutely worth wading through all of the episodes of jokes on bodily functions or the touching one-shots. The show hints at the depth of a lot of these characters in some of these episodes, by revealing their inherent skill for for combat. Quickly solving situations through brute force, you get the feeling that when faced with a real challenge, the mystery would quickly be revealed. I’d like to leave some of the more recent story lines out, only because they are seriously some of the best in the whole series. The one specific arc I would love to shine the spotlight on is ‘Yoshiwara in Flames’ in the first season. From start to finish, starting with palpable drama concerning a young boy and his lost mother, till the THREE huge jaw-dropping battles that’ll leave you on your feet. The art and productions definitely doesn’t slouch either, sprawling backdrops of the city of Yoshiwara or more detailed red-light district alleyways within are wonderfully drawn and cared for. The action scenes, especially the fight between Gintoki and the villain for the moment, are incredible. As weapons swing and land, or maneuvers barely escaping danger, the animation never takes its foot off the pedal and rewards viewers with some of the best fights the first season has to offer. It only goes up from this point on.
The arcs to follow only increase in seriousness which adds to the gravity of all the fights. It really has to be seen to be believed. But it never takes it self too seriously, every once in a while they’ll throw in a usual poop joke, or someone will hurl profanities at another. They know their formula well and are adding to it all the time. Perhaps the last 5 serious arcs in the series makes up for the time spent getting to know everyone. They weave deep and intricate stories for everyone involved and commit to getting everyone their 15 minutes, whether it be comedic or dramatic. Easily changing gears and tones in a heartbeat. Gintama balances their two strengths in harmony in a way that I haven’t seen an anime quite like it. I encourage anyone looking for something that’s a bigger commitment and looking for something unexpected in the action or comedy genre. You will not be disappointed.