By duration and premise, Gintama could easily be mistaken as part of the anime Big Three, and it often presents itself beside those shonen standbys, often as parody, sometimes aspiring to become one itself. But the series is so reliant on gag humor of variant taste, the action threatening to fully detach from the plot all the while, that it can feel like a situation comedy stretched to preposterous lengths. After watching the whole thing, it feels strange not feeling more passionately drawn to or turned off by Gintama.
There is certainly no shortage of material to weigh on. Space and attention spans prevent a long inventory, but suffice it to say that viewers of the anime adaptation of the Hideaki Sorachi’s Gintama manga should begin with the 2005 OVA shown at that year’s Jump Festa, and proceed chronologically through over 350 episodes until they reach Gintama: The Very Final, the movie-length conclusion that only capped off the series in 2021. Completionists, be aware that there are a few obscure specials you might have to check 9anime to see.
So what is Gintama about? There is an intro narrated by Shinpachi Shimura, but be sure to memorize it quickly, because after the first few episodes he gets interrputed every time he tries to repeat it. Japan, once the Land of the Samurai, has been overrun by the Amanto, a group of extraterrestrials who have settled or do business on Earth. The Japanese government is now a puppet regime of the Amanto, the streets crawling with many species of aliens, and native Japanese routinely mistreated by the haughty new arrivals. Characters commonly wear period kimonos or uniforms, yet the technology is part modern-day, part space age, making Gintama an interesting example of what a highly advanced state with a largely traditional culture might look like… albeit, with constant references to contemporary pop culture, this alternative history of the Meiji Era is not too convincing.
Which brings us to our lead, Gintoki Sakata, from whom the show gets its name. At first glance, Gintoki is like a retired shonen protagonist whose warrior days are already long behind him when the double length first episode starts rolling. A veteran of the Joi Rebellion, a last stand of the samurai against the Amanto, he was known as the shiroyasha (‘white demon’) of the battlefield for his fierceness, but is now such an indolent, improvident layabout that the character’s evolution is hard to fathom. He now runs a none-too-busy business, Odd Jobs Gin-chan, from the second floor of the bar Snacks Otose, and fosters La bohème-level drama from his chronic inability to pay the rent. At the outset he recruits Shinpachi Shimura, who with his sister Otae is heir to a dojo they hope to revive. Don’t let that fool you though: despite being the comedic straight man, Shinpachi is a scrawny otaku who often gets called out as a virgin, and unlike Ranma Saotome is virtually never seen practicing his martial arts. Rounding out the Odd Jobs trio is Kagura, who looks like a human ginger in a Chinese dress but is actually an Amanto. She is a Yato, an incredibly strong species but vulnerable to sunlight, and she normally carries an umbrella, though this plot point gets ignored often enough (as in my Gintama ending 10, my favorite) that the characters feel need to explain it away in one of the frequent breakings of the fourth wall. Kagura comes to be portrayed as and often acts childlike, even getting called a loli, and in contrast to Shinpachi often takes zany, absurd situations as normal. She in turn adopts one of the most adorable characters, the giant white dog Sadaharu, a fellow Amanto. Just as lazy as Gin-chan, he becomes a furry mascot of Odd Jobs.
Given this setup, reminiscent of the Mouri Detective Agency which is also located above a restaurant, I expected most of the episode plots to stem from clients in need of help showing up at the Odd Jobs. Yet that isn’t how Gintama works most of the time. Instead, the anime relies on a bewildering array of characters to stir up trouble that Gintoki and friends wade into, and despite his low energy and preference to spend days eating parfaits, he proves again and again the only person who can straighten things out. After a while, this can feel strained. Nevertheless, through both the comedic and more serious arcs (they are distinct enough that online encyclopedias class them differently), this leads to Gintama becoming surprisingly sentimental, and like many a series before and since, the Kabuki District, as the neighborhood demarcated by arching entranceways, becomes a quirky but lovable hometown par excellence. Unlikely a leader as Gin-chan is, he is often arranging for the defense of the community. This will be easy for viewers to recognize as the way things should be, versus our less rooted, individualistic settlements comprised of transients.
The supporting cast is expansive, but often features Katsura Kotaro. A former comrade in arms of Gintoki, Katsura remains unreconciled to the new government, and leads a continuing faction of underground Joi rebels. Oddly, his sidekick, Elizabeth, is an Amanto, with a bedsheet draped over, his/her real body sometimes visible through a duck bill or when a pair of hairy legs is revealed over webbed feet. Conflicting accounts of who Elizabeth REALLY is are given, even including a producer of Gintama from the anime studio, and by the end I was still confused. Katsura’s Joi rebels are, though, mostly a sad and inept faction, constantly getting infiltrated by government agents, and an excuse for needless vigilance and overreach by another docket of supporting characters, the Shinsengumi—among whom favorites are the “gorilla”-like commander Kondo, who has a major crush on Otae, and the vice commander Hijikata. Where Gintoki is obsessed with sweets, Hijikata is a mayonnaise fanatic, even topping his coffee with the stuff and Mayoboro his brand of cigarettes. Many of the Shinsengumi characters, in particular, are based on notables from the Meiji Restoration, though non-Japanese fans will likely not catch the references.
Broadly speaking, Gintama can be great comedy, but it doesn’t always hit. Usually the laughs land when the show presents itself as poorly produced, even a ripoff to viewers, such as the minutes-long static shots of the Odd Jobs balcony. But sometimes the humor becomes wearisomely crude or disrespectful. Strangely, the hot springs arc, normally a slam dunk that is easy to make a hit in an anime series, is needlessly disrespectful to Japanese historical figures, to the point where I honestly think it shouldn’t have aired. While assassin Sarutobi has a major, unrequited crush on Gintoki, and Shinpachi is one of many otakus passionate for idol Otsu, Gintama doesn’t really have fanservice.
The ‘serious’ parts are much less satisfying. Save for the early Benizakura arc and subsequent compilation film, they come near the tail end of Gintama, and fit poorly with what had developed into over hundreds of episodes. Some of the late-revealed backstory they rely on, in patricular, seems too tragic to have really happened in the formative years of such carefree characters. In terms of over-heavy drama plot it is hard to feel attached to, they miss Dragonball Z, which gets so many references, and out-Naruto Naruto.
The episode plots are too many to address more than a few highlights. In an anime largely made before the COVID-19 pandemic, there are multiple suspiciously prescient plots were things seem to be spinning further and further away from reality, only for it to be revealed that it’s all the result of a new disease brought from outer space by the Amanto. Thus the downsides of mass immigration are often touched upon. Misbehavior by the Amanto toward native Earthlings, while a major problem at first, also drops off for much of the series until near the conclusion, to such an extent that the characters notice it at one point. In many episodes (given how human Kagura looks, and how dog Sadaharu) it’s easy to forget contact has been made with aliens at all. Is this the result of Joi rebels, many of them more violent than Katsura’s tame faction, teaching bad actors to stay clear of Earth? We are left to guess.
A favorite staple are Justaways, a character good-style commodity that the Odd Jobs even get blue collar jobs manufacturing in one episode. They are chiefly explosives, but are often also seen as alarm clocks or cell phone straps.
My favorite plot is an artistic half episode, the latter half of 111, focused on Kagura and her relationship with the rain. Were there need to point out a reason to save Gintama from oblivion, that would be my reason to. It is not to be missed.