Reviewby Theron Martin, May 1st 2010
DVD - Collection 1
In 1853, Edo was visited by a diverse alien race called the Amanto, who forcibly opened Japan to outside commerce (in much the same way that the U.S.'s Commodore Perry and his black ships did in the real world). Over time they settled into all levels of Japanese life, which caused the samurai to rebel and ultimately be defeated. After 20 years the alien presence has brought early 21st century-level technology to the citizens of Edo in addition to all of the alien trappings, and the Shinsengumi are still doing their rounds, but not everyone is happy about the situation. Through this setting walks Gin, a wavy-silver-haired ex-samurai who operates the jack-of-all-trades business Odd Jobs Gin and spends his plentiful downtime laconically obsessing over the latest issue of Weekly Shonen Jump. Co-workers include Shinpachi, one of two siblings desperately trying to keep their father's dojo open, and Kagura, a cute, immensely strong alien girl who comes from a clan with a reputation for combat prowess. Eventually joining them as pet/mascot/mount is Sadaharu, a fluffy white pup the size of a horse who seems to enjoy biting people and playing rough (though he can't get away with it with Kagura, who quickly becomes attached to him). Amidst various encounters with the Shinsengumi, the main trio tries to scrape by while muddling their way through various odd situations, including catching wayward pets, unwittingly consorting with anti-Amanto elements, tracking down a dying man's first love, and rescuing a man's daughter from a drug addiction.
That a series with more than 200 episodes which regularly ranks amongst the Top Ten in Japanese sales failed to get licensed until Section 23 picked it up, and that it is coming out with a sub-only release, may surprise some given its evident popularity, but that is a testament to how mainstream Gintama isn't as long-running series go. It likely got passed over by other companies for one simple reason: it is too specifically Japanese to have a realistic chance of garnering an American fan base beyond the otaku crowd.
That nature comes from the series' intensive use of parodies, puns, and pop culture references specific to anime, manga, Japan in general, and the Japanese language in particular, including some unlikely to be familiar to anyone beyond hard-core Japanophiles; Sentai Filmworks' decision to include numerous on-screen explanatory notes is a godsend, even if they do often fly by so fast that a quick finger on the Pause button is required to read them. Scattered amongst the first thirteen episodes are frequent references to prominent shonen titles like Bleach, Naruto, and Dragonball Z, references to series such as Queen Emeraldas and Captain Herlock (really, who else would you dress up as if you were pretending to be a pirate so you could infiltrate a pirate ship?), and allusions to other cultural elements such as famous Japanese wrestlers and performers. Some of the wordplay can be more than a bit naughty if interpreted a certain way, such as the addressing of a news reporter who pops up about every other episode. Characters also frequently refer to common anime/manga tropes and stereotypes. Basic test: if you do not know what Shonen Jump is without looking it up (it comes up virtually every episode), then you are unlikely to appreciate a large chunk of this series' humor.
That is far from the series' only eccentricity, too. The core characters are very self-aware about being in an anime, as they make frequent references to the structure of their show and/or whether or not particular elements are appropriate for an anime. The content can be rather crude at times, such as one sequence where Gin lays out the timeline for the anti-Amanto resistance based on the status of his pubic hair growth, though no sexy fan service will be found in any of these episodes. Many of the humanoid and animal alien designs are also silly to the point of ridiculousness.
Then there is, of course, the weird blending of Edo period, early 21st century, and sci fi elements; imagine three entirely different trains having a massive wreck and someone assembling a new one out of parts randomly salvaged from each and you have a good feel for how this series plays. Characters walk around with samurai hairdos and sporting mid-19th century clothing while talking on cell phones, riding on scooters, and watching TV (and the TV sets have peaked roofs reminiscent of period housing, by the way), while dogheaded aliens stroll down the middle of the street. Given the time period and setting, the Shinsengumi make their expected appearances and even use their historical names, but amongst this lot is one sporting a rocket launcher who “accidentally” nearly kills his boss more than once, another who stalks Shinpachi's sister, and others who obsess over the equivalent of afternoon soaps. Manga-ka Hideaki Sorachi (who occasionally uses a nose-picking monkey as his avatar in the series and voices the character himself) supposedly once claimed that this is the result of his own spin on a period piece about the Shinsengumi that he was asked to do by his editor, and if the anime content is at least relatively faithful then it certainly looks like he went off the deep end – which is fine, as long as the content works as a gag series.
At the outset that looks questionable. The first few episodes, which start with a two-episode special showing off the full cast before switching to a more episodic approach to gradually introduce the cast, struggle to be funny, in part because they try to force the laughs in rather than let them play out naturally. Once the series settles down into a smoother routine, though, then the humor start to have more effect and genuinely laugh-worthy moments come more frequently. Given that the series derives much of its humor from parodies of other anime and manga, it is almost ironic that the series is actually funniest when parodying itself, such as in the occasional end-of-episode bits featuring Gin as a modern-day teacher and other prominent cast members as his students. (The “it's not really a cigarette” gag in particular is priceless.) The storytelling does, on a few brief occasions, turn completely serious, too, and carries itself surprisingly well during those moments. History buffs may also appreciate the way the storytelling uses the Amanto as stand-ins for the Americans who forcibly reopened Japan to the outside world and the way it mixes in actual historical elements, such as the dying off of the samurai tradition and the 1876 ban on samurai carrying swords.
Though the artistry and animation has a Sunrise pedigree, this is far from being one of their sterling efforts; in fact, any of the lengthy shonen series which have come out in the U.S. in the past decade outclass this one on both fronts. The visuals are much more notable for the hodgepodge of elements they must mix together than they are for any degree of quality in the designs and rendering. Kagura gets a cute look to go with her Chinese-themed apparel and hairdo, Shinpachi's sister is satisfyingly pretty without being a knock-out, samurai Katsura is a satisfyingly bishonen, and the Shinsengumi uniforms are passable, but Gin just looks sloppy and none of the other designs make an impression – although some of the yakuza in 19th century dress having to hike up their robes to run is rather amusing. The animation is remarkably limited, even by series standards, with some respectable CG effects hardly being enough to balance that out, and the foreground animation often does not smoothly integrate with the backgrounds.
The musical score does much better, often being more responsible for the effectiveness of the comedy or drama than any other element. It uses several creative little ditties for its comedic moments and delights in using heavily dramatic themes in situations that are not particularly dramatic. Opener “Pray” is a strong J-rock number, while closer “Fuusen Gamu” does not shame itself and an insert song in one episode is suitably amusing.
Sentai Filmworks' release of the first 13 episodes, which come on two disks, offers only clean opener and closer for regular Extras. As noted above, though, they do have the extensive on-screen notes (which are automatically on) and do include all of the after-episode comedy bits.
Despite a weak start, Gintama does eventually get its act together and churn out some worthwhile entertainment, both in its regular gags and much less frequent dramatic moments. Its odd mix of widely disparate genres can certainly catch a viewer's attention and it has just enough other merits to keep that attention. Its intensive use of parodies and topical humor and references makes it less accessible than most other long-term shows, but it may definitely stand a chance with veteran anime fans.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B-
Animation : C+
Art : B-
Music : B+
+ Interesting twist on historical events, occasionally very funny.
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