As you are likely well-aware, anime is no stranger to long-running series. There’s the Big Three, Bleach, Naruto and One Piece, clocking in at about 370, 680 and 740 episodes, respectively. All the Dragon Balls combined are well over 500, Fairy Tail’s got like 270, even Hunter x Hunter and (soon enough) JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure are at least 100 episodes. But the thing about all of these series is that, while they may have plentiful comedic elements, they are not, in the end, comedies. They are most remembered for their moments of importance; the dramatic, serious scenes where battles are fought with lives on the line. Gintama flips this around. Sure, it has its moments of drama, scenes of real danger for the characters, but that’s not what you remember at the end of the day. What you’ll remember of Gintama is giving the shogun a bad haircut, the cast turning into s**t, going crazy over anpan, the construction of the Neo Armstrong Cyclone Jet Armstrong Cannon, convincing children that two boxes of tissue paper on the end of a stick is actually a worthwhile invention - that’s what you’ll remember of Gintama. Let us begin!
As always, the review is provided in video format and transcribed directly below. I would like to note that my reviews are written first and foremost to be experienced as videos (that is, read aloud), so no guarantees that jokes, grammar, or anything else will transition entirely smoothly to text.
Japan, the land of the samurai. There was a time, long ago, when their country was known by that name. With the arrival of the “Amanto” from outer space and the subsequent ban on swords twenty years ago, the samurai class fell into decline. In such hard times, there was only one man left with the spirit of the samurai: Sakata Gintoki, a reckless jack of all trades with a sweet tooth, and the founder of Yorozuya, or Odd Jobs, a small outfit that takes up, well, odd jobs.
After a series of unexpected events, Gin is joined by Shimura Shinpachi, a bespectacled young dojo owner, and Kagura, a member of the alien Yato tribe, a species which boasts super-strength but an adversity to natural sunlight (which is why she carries an umbrella at all times). Together, the Odd Jobs team, with the help of many, many more, makes all sorts of mayhem in their city of Edo, though they can occasionally be bothered to stop some mayhem too.
The Trio, And All The Rest
90% of the time, Gintama is a comedy, and good comedies will often live or die on their characters, which is one of the main reasons Gintama has found such success, because its cast is not only wide and varied, but absolutely hilarious. For starters, the Odd Jobs trio of Gin, Shinpachi and Kagura has the perfect chemistry between each member, that of good friends that give each other a hard time precisely because they are such good friends. Shinpachi’s role is that of the classic straight man, pointing out the frequent logical or rational fallacies of the world and actions that surround him, particularly those taken by his two compatriots, Kagura being a crude, playful and even somewhat violent young girl, while Gin is just kind of a bum, low on cash and happy to spend his days drinking and reading manga.
And as I said, the rest of the cast is wide and varied, including the Shinsengumi police force, anti-establishment Joi Rebels, a number of government ninja, vengeful forgotten samurai, and Shinpachi’s sister. Many of these characters are admittedly somewhat one-note, in personality or jokes (or both), but the series knows how to use them in moderation to remain effective. There’s far too many people for me to give a detailed explanation of each, but here’s a short list: incompetent terrorist, down-on-his-luck homeless man, bird costume, stalker police officer, stalker ninja, murderous police officer, demonic police officer, evil mastermind, hemorrhoid ninja, maid robot, deadly courtesan, the shogun himself and the author of the manga.
It’s Really Funny (Naturally)
Yes, the author of the Gintama manga is an actual minor character in the Gintama anime, from which you could (correctly) infer that this is a series which pays no heed to the fourth wall. Characters will directly usher in the modern aspect ratio, or comment on the fact that the credits rolled too early and they still have a couple minutes of airtime to fill. Shinpachi will joke about Gin being unable to move because the animators are on vacation, or Gin will question why they’re bothering to introduce a new character when it’s already Episode 294. You’ll have fake final episodes, dismissive fanmail, an entire arc centered on the results of a character popularity poll, and fights using dialogue boxes or even Gintama DVDs as weapons.
It’s a special kind of show where even the recap episodes are incredibly entertaining, because when Gin uses them as an opportunity to slam the shounen industry practice of producing filler episodes or lament that they don’t have the budget of Haikyuu, you can’t help but crack a grin.
Of course, Gintama’s comedy is not solely derived from decimating the fourth wall. In fact, if I had to wager a guess, I’d say only about a quarter to a third of the episodes actually break the fourth wall at all... if we’re not counting references or parodies, because Gintama loves its references and parodies. They’ll parody other anime, whether it’s shounen like Bleach or simply well-known franchises like Lupin, video games like Mother or Dragon Quest, history, pop culture, you name it. They’ll even make snide jokes about the voice actors if the opportunity presents itself. For instance, one character wears sunglasses, and shares a voice actor with Gendo Ikari. So naturally, they make a Gendo joke.
Parodies are all well and good, but things would get stale if they and fourth wall breaks were the only worthwhile joke. You still need actual clever writing to keep audiences coming back, the sense of humor and comedic timing to write jokes that work just as jokes, without being in on the reference. I’m sure you can guess from how I phrased that, that this is not a problem for Gintama, because yes, it is very funny. It makes use of a wide variety of humor, be it toilet jokes, running gags, or sheer absurdity. Most of the cast does have a joke or two that is their usual joke or two, but it’s spread out over long enough spans of episodes and in varied enough situations to avoid monotony.
And then of course, there are the moments when things just go off-the-rails completely, in so many different ways, an infamous highlight being Episode 25, a mind game of wits and deception over sharing food in a hot pot. Sometimes, such episodes would simply end and I’d sit there in stunned silence, before bursting out laughing. Gintama embraces any form of comedy, at any time, whenever it feels it will be effective, and the great thing about that, having such a strong comedy focus, is that it circumvents potential problems with filler, since the show was never plot or action driven to begin with.
Good Drama, Too
After that, you might be surprised to hear that Gintama is not always so light-hearted. Several fairly serious, dramatic arcs of any number of episodes (though always less than ten) are scattered about here and there. You might think that that would clash with the usual tone of the series, but it actually doesn’t, because the most serious moments stem from an ever-present intricacy of the premise. Remember when I briefly mentioned that one incompetent terrorist? Well, that wasn’t a funny label, he is a terrorist, or more accurately a rebel against the government, which implies that there is something he finds strongly disagreeable and worth rebelling against. Now recall the Amanto I mentioned during “The Premise”, outer space invaders that attacked Japan, banned swords and pushed the country’s technology decades forward. Well (if you didn’t know), when a group takes over a sovereign nation, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows, and a war unsurprisingly broke out against the invaders.
This war, taking place years before the show itself, is a centerpiece of Gintama’s backstory. It’s what caused the Amanto to demand a ban on swords in the first place, forcing the native government to go through with the measure and essentially destroy the samurai way of life. Thus, we have the existence of the rebels, essentially remnants of that original faction that fought the aliens when they first arrived, and a group which Gin in fact formerly belonged to. So now you see how it all ties in.
Plotlines involving Gin’s former comrades, and their moderate or radical takes on rebellion, are responsible for what the show becomes when it is at its most serious. It will delve into the toll this war took on the combatants, the struggle of dealing with the fact that they essentially lost, and the best way to keep up the fight when society at large has given up and moved on. It’s surprising how well this works, and it’s almost tremendously worthy of respect, the fact that a series can make dick jokes in one episode and kill someone off only a few hours later, without managing to feel forced or jarring.
OPs and EDs. All of ‘em.
It’s equally impressive that this balancing act was maintained for so long, because Gintama is a very long series, with hundreds of episodes and dozens of opening or ending themes. Speaking of that, I have no idea how they did it, but nearly every one of those themes is really, really good. There’s too many for me to be able to make broad, sweeping statements that apply to all of them, but the song was almost always worth a listen, and the visuals anywhere from solid if unremarkable to creative and hype, usually playing around with and reorganizing a number of key recurring visual motifs, including Gin’s dark, war-torn past and the Odd Jobs team on a cliff, facing the horizon or the city.
And even putting aside the relative quality of the openings and endings, since this is Gintama, the show plays with the format and presentation of these themes to a hilarious degree. Sometimes characters will demand the opening theme starts, because it’s eight minutes into the episode and it’s about damn time, or the visuals will fall apart because someone killed the mangaka, or they’ll switch the order of the two just ‘cause.
I should probably also mention that, in addition to the TV series, there exist two Gintama movies, released after Episodes 201 and 265 respectively (and as such, I would recommend watching them at those points in the series). The first film is a remake of one of the show’s best dramatic story arcs, spruced up with film-quality animation, and is definitely worth the watch for any Gintama fan.
The second is an original story, and pretty much the most perfect Gintama movie imaginable, in every meaningful regard, from the jokes to the story to even the music (I mean, it has a song by Spyair, guys). Unfortunately, you can’t really watch it on its own. It requires knowledge of the entire cast and setting to get the most out of it, so just know that you’re in for a treat if and when you get to that point in the series.
Somewhat Low Budget
As much as I would like to pretend otherwise, Gintama is not perfect. The biggest thing you’ll probably notice when you start the show is that it’s kind of low budget. The first season, of 201 episodes, despite airing from 2006 to 2010, is in a 4:3 aspect ratio, presumably to cut costs. They can make as many jokes as they like about the staff getting lazy, but that only glosses over the fact that the animation is often fairly unremarkable.
It’s harder to notice this when the series is its usual comedic self, since comedies don’t often rely on intricate animation work, but on the rare occasion when things get serious, then yeah, you might pick up on it. To my memory, several action scenes, particularly any less-than-climactic fights, make frequent use of still or near-still frames. Thankfully, with each passing season, the production and aesthetic work improves, but those first 201 episodes are still a noteworthy, massive chunk of the series that frankly feels like they cut corners wherever they could.
It’s Frickin’ Long
That makes this as good a time as any to reiterate that, yes, Gintama is long. The series proves that too much of a good thing can be time-consuming, if nothing else. At the time of this writing, clocking in at 316 episodes, plus the two movies and some specials, Gintama is by far the longest anime I have ever seen. Was it worth it? Yes, eventually, but as many may tell you, the start is slow. Not bad, I enjoyed the show from the very beginning, but it takes more than 3 or 4 episodes to hit its stride and its peaks.
In addition, Gintama’s sheer length does manifest in some problems if you look at the series from a pure story or character perspective. I realize that the show is primarily an episodic comedy, but after dozens of episodes with no meaningful change to the status quo, I started wanting to see the characters’ relationships evolve and expand beyond the norm. Sure, it might’ve spelled the death of some long-running gags, but it was annoying whenever the series would repeatedly feign some kind of growth or change, then almost invariably pull a fake-out to return things to normal by the end of the episode or arc.
On that note, with some very notable exceptions (especially near the end of the latest season), most dramatic arcs don’t even allow an opportunity for progression, and spend time fleshing out a new addition to the cast rather than developing or changing the role of a pre-established one. What’s worse is that these new introductions are often fun or entertaining characters, that you just might not see again for 40, 50, even 60 episodes, and while the show does poke fun at these long absences when the person in question eventually pops up again, it doesn’t lessen the blow.
On top of that, the whole story of Gintama is technically unfinished. As the show goes on, the dramatic plotlines occur with increasing prevalence, to the point that, at Episode 300, as if a switch is flipped, things start to get very dire. And then it stops. It stops at a relative endpoint, but doesn’t come even close to tying everything up. Now the manga is in its final stages, and they end with a strong implication that the anime will return, but at this time there has been no official announcement, so I have to stick Gintama with the “watch out, it’s a ‘read the manga’ ending” warning label. However, do not take that as a massive black mark against the series, because the journey throughout is so often divorced from those inklings of overarching plot that you really won’t care if the ending leaves a few loose ends.
Hit or Miss Humor
And of course, being as long as it is, it’s natural that not every episode of Gintama will be a winner. An extraordinarily high proportion of them are, but sometimes the jokes just miss the mark, partially because we are Westerners watching a Japanese production. Remember, Gintama loves parody, and while much of its parody does make sense to global anime viewers, some scenes or references assume familiarity with Japanese history or famous figures that I just don’t have.
For Gintama’s first season, Crunchyroll does supply footnotes that explain the many references, but this helpful service was abruptly discontinued afterwards, occasionally leaving me in the dark as to a joke’s punchline. I’m sure such jokes were often funny enough, but if I don’t get the reference that a five minute scene is built around, then chances are I won’t walk away thinking much of that episode. I don’t think many would fault me for that.
You may have noticed that the Gintama series swallows up a full half of MyAnimeList’s Top 10, including the #1 spot, beating out things like Fullmetal Alchemist, Steins;Gate and Legend of the Galactic Heroes. Whether or not it’s that good is somewhat up for debate, but if I said I didn’t see the argument, I’d be lying. Gintama is really remarkable, it feels like something that everyone involved just had a ton of fun with, and carried that energy through straight to the audience. There’s so many great jokes, scenes and characters, that I feel I’ve only managed to capture a sliver of them here, but hopefully the essence of the show still came across.
So, after taking everything into account (as well as my own subjective enjoyment), on a scale from F to S… I could’ve prattled on about how there are some rough patches, how not every joke nails the landing, how the dramatic arcs are sometimes maybe a little too shounen, but you know what? F**k it. S. Gintama is a blast, and if you stick with it, I can almost guarantee that you’ll think the same.
All 316 episodes of Gintama (plus a special or two) are currently available for legal streaming from Crunchyroll. Additionally, the first film is available from Hulu and The Anime Network. Sadly, the second film is not available anywhere, which is a real shame, because I love that second film.
For a second opinion, you can check out the AniTAY review of a middle chunk of the series.
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