While watching a comedy, have you ever thought that the characters in it are some of the worst people ever, but you can’t stop yourself from laughing along with them? This is what goes through my mind whenever I watch Gintama, one of my favorite animes of all time.
Gintama is, for the lack of a better word, outrageous. The premise of the show is wacky in itself: an alternate universe in which isolationist Japan is not visited by Westerners, but rather, invaded by aliens that samurai must fight off. However, once the Shogun (the military leader) betrays the samurai, Japan falls under the rule of a puppet government, resulting in the ban of swords.
Enter Gintoki Sakata, a veteran warrior who once fought the aliens, but now runs an odd-jobs freelance agency. Working with him at the agency is amateur swordfighter Shinpachi and alien girl Kagura. Together, the trio goes through various misadventures throughout the city of Edo, meeting new characters and completing various tasks.
Gintama’s strength is its cast of memorable characters. Gintoki is not your typical anime hero; he is lazy, immoral, childish and demonstrates no desire to get stronger. Despite this — or perhaps because of it — Gintoki remains a relatable protagonist. His flaws mirror our self-centered desires in a way that may seem unprincipled due to his often crude and lazy attitude. However, because he relishes his freedom and never seems too malicious about his trolling, the way he interacts with other characters is reminiscent of everyday people and the relationships that they form in real life.
Through building a comfortable, familiar atmosphere in the show, Gintama creates the feeling of watching close friends hang out with each other. Every character seems comfortable with one another and shows little restraint, leading to the kind of constant teasing and unfiltered conversation that we’d expect from a tight knit family.
Gintama stands out because each character’s quirks are often their most defining trait. As viewers watch the episodes, these attributes become endearing, especially as we continue to find out more about the characters’ personalities and backgrounds. In addition, supporting characters are fully developed, with plots that explore new progressions in character arcs and the relationships we see between the most unlikely pairings that become unexpectedly hilarious.
Another strength is the show’s lack of restraint. Gintama, at its heart, is a gag-story anime, which means there’s a lot of comedy. Even the setting assists with this; Edo represents an amalgam of the cultures from different timelines of the past, present and future. It has the older Japanese culture, modern Japanese pop culture with references to popular anime and games, and finally, futuristic sci-fi elements with spaceships and lightsabers. Blending the cultures from different timelines together offers a wide variety of comedic opportunities.
Now, while most people might be turned off by such a hectic premise, the show is surprisingly complex in terms of dialogue, especially for anime newcomers. Gintama is a gag anime, yes, but it also celebrates pop culture in general. It not only references and parodies famous Japanese animes, but also includes Western films and actors.
The frequency of fourth-wall breaking wisecracks that mock the various cliches that we see in other mediums is indicative of how aware the characters are that they are characters in an anime. This isn’t the most original concept, but Gintama’s way of doing so is uniquely irreverent — the characters make fun of their own author by representing him as a gorilla.
Admittedly, Gintama is not a series that has a lot of high brow humor; a lot of the humor is irreverent and childish. However, because the standards of what is considered appropriate differs in Japan and United States, viewers who try Gintama will often be surprised by how much the show gets away with its innuendos.
The animation of the show by studio Sunrise Inc. is fluid and smooth and the soundtracks are superb. The voice cast is also talented; thanks to the overreactions and vocal outbursts in the show, the versatility of the voice actors is clearly exemplified. Their ability to demonstrate both comedic and emotional moments is commendable, especially in a show where the mood transitions can occur so unexpectedly.
The only problem that viewers might have with Gintama is its raunchy comedy. Gintama is a show that anime newcomers might not understand or even be particularly drawn to, since the premise of the show isn’t flashy and action-filled — not that it is meant to be.
The beginning episodes are relatively slow, but that’s mainly because they are used to set up character introductions. Those who are apprehensive about the surplus of comedy do not have to worry, because Gintama has an emotional core, featuring tear-jerking moments and heart wrenching stories with a definite end game, albeit through a roundabout plot progression. However, the mix of comedy and plot arcs is much appreciated, with the comedy arcs giving viewers a breath of fresh air after the emotional upheavals and heart pounding action.
Of course, comedy is subjective so Gintama might not be your cup of tea. However, my suggestion is that you should not pass on this anime simply because of its silly premise. When the epic moments come, they hit hard. In a culture where heroism and character archetypes seem to be firmly established, Gintama is an anime that breaks through such uninspired tropes and encompasses the most absurd, yet relatable characters who make this show great.