Anime Worth Watching: Gintama

Gintama is a 367-episodes comedy and action anime started in 2006 which ended (?) in 2018, based on the manga by Hideaki Sorachi.

Synopsis

In Edo era Japan, everything was turned upside down twenty years before when aliens invaded and forced the country to open. Skyscrapers and flying ships are now everywhere. A veteran of one of the civil wars that followed, Gintoki Sakata lazily earns a living with his “Odd Jobs” agency. Along with his two unpaid interns Shinpachi, a teenager from the recently fallen samurai class, and Kagura, a 14 year old alien girl with stupendous strength, he has adventures that range from fierce battles over who’ll get the most meat from a fondue to saving the universe. In those adventures a whole gallery of other characters feature prominently: the Shinsengumi and its real life members, especially Kondo, Hijikata and Okita, Gin’s old rebel comrades, and the colourful denizens of the popular neighbourhood they live in, from cabaret girls to male escorts and yakuzas.

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Appeal

It’s a comedy anime to begin with, and it can indeed be quite funny. But what is most noteworthy about it is how versatile it is. Not two episodes have the same tone, which could be rather jarring but works very well most of the time. This very versatility alas makes it difficult for me to organize my thoughts, so here’s a list of what I think sets the show apart:

  • It’s very meta; the characters are aware they’re in an anime. Which leads to some nice stuff. For example, when they need to fill up the running time of the episode, instead of starting at about the middle point of the previous episode, as many animes tend to do, they just have the three main characters shoot the shit and going on about how they’re trying to waste time. The show is also often playing with shonen codes to often hilarious results (the aforementioned fight over who’ll get more to eat from a fondue is played like a final fight in a shonen, with the characters elaborating strategies in their heads and so on)
  • The fact that a huge number of characters are based on their historical counterparts is a lot of fun. The mix between Edo-era Japan and science-fiction stuff is well done and there are a lot of amusing details.
  • It’s often funny. I’ve laughed out loud at quite a number of jokes. The humour is hit or miss, as we’ll see below, but when it works, it really does.
  • There are many slice of life episodes which are downright charming. Some manage to be real tearjerkers, others are simply delightful. It’s often really heartwarming.
  • There are sweet character moments. The relationship between Gin and Kagura, is especially sweet. She seems to see him as a surrogate big brother/father.
  • The show also has a number of serious arcs. Most of those are really good (the Courtesan of a nation arc, the Reaper arc, the Shogun assassination and Farewell Shinsengumi arcs are all beautiful in my opinion). These arcs can forego comedy completely and be truly poignant. There are fights in them, which are very well made. However, the show has an approach to violence that sets it apart from other shonens. It is made clear from the beginning, even as the show is mostly comedy, that Gin’s slacker attitude, drinking, gambling and “dead fish eyes” come from trauma (a trauma that is slowly revealed over the course of the series). It is a show that explicitly states that fighting only leads to loss and heartache. And the show mostly lives up to this: the characters do not aim to be better fighters, which is due in part that most of the main characters are already well into their 20s and 30s ; when the long awaited fight between the hero and his archenemy, there’s nothing “cool” in it; there’s no soundtrack at all to emphasize it, the characters have thrown away their swords and are just punching each other, sobbing. Some of these arcs manage to be truly poignant at times.

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Downside

Of course, as it is a comedy anime, this also comes with a downside: the humour is VERY hit or miss. Some episodes are just too much. The good thing is you can skip them, as most of them are standalones. The humour is also very broad, and definitely NOT tasteful. No delicate wit there, so if that puts you off, you’re better off not watching this. Most characters have kinks and some stuff is definitely icky. There’s no subtlety at all. There’s also the fact that among over 350 episodes that are tonally and thematically all over the place there was bound to be quite a number of duds. It is worth noting that it took me quite a while to get into it, and the first few episodes can make for some rough watching.

Conclusion

This show is perfect comfort food. You can always find something that you like as there’s about every type of episode you can find. It’s crass and lovely, delicate and rude, poignant and heartwarming.

Weeb level: 8/10. It’s a very meta show, so it keeps alluding to other anime and manga. A basic knowledge of the history of Japan is often necessary, since the show is a uchronia. However, my own anime knowledge isn’t that wide, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. It’s worth noting that the Crunchyroll subtitles add footnotes whenever it’s deemed necessary.

Fanservice: 3/10. This one is hard to quantify, because of the meta aspect of the show. Most of the fanservice there is parody. For a show that has many a prostitute among its characters, there’s almost no nudity (female, at any rate). Male nudity is used for laughs. I especially liked that one of the main characters, Kagura, a 14 y/o girl, is treated just as that; she is never sexualized, and behaves like a girl. Tellingly, when she tries to go undercover as an cabaret girl, her disguise isn’t made to make her sexy or anything: like a small girl pilfering her mum’s make up, she puts way too much on and it just ends up looking funny.

Quality: 7/10 Perfect comfort food, with a lot of heart.

Where to Watch: Crunchyroll, which has all episodes, but only a few of them dubbed.