Reviewby Carlo Santos,
Edo-period Japan is in a state of culture shock: aliens have invaded, taken all the jobs, and made the samurai powerless by confiscating their swords. Amidst this collision of technology and tradition stands Gin Sakata, an odd-jobs man trying to make ends meet. As usual, Gin and his mismatched group of friends are taking on all sorts of challenges: a sea monster in need of slaying, a ghost that's haunting the Shinsengumi headquarters, a mad warrior in search of the strongest sword, a friend-of-a-friend who needs to be saved from a biker gang , a drag queen's son with an inferiority complex, and a nearsighted ninja on an assassination mission. Can Gin and friends survive yet another round of anachronistic misadventures?
Are you ready to laugh? Then switch your brains on, because the culturally literate humor of Gintama operates on a different level. On the surface, it may look like just another one of those "Ha ha look at silly people do silly things" comedies, but observant readers will laugh all the more because of the series' satirical edge. Volume 5's objects of ridicule include the following: beach episodes, J-horror clichés, Shonen Jump's obsession with powerful weapons, home shopping TV channels, yanki biker gangs, geisha culture, gay culture, kunoichi, and—in the author's notes—irritating readers who nitpick historical facts. But while there are plenty of laughs to be found, there really isn't a whole lot of plot, and the artwork can look stiff and confusing at times. Well, there's no such thing as perfect, right?
Even the gags in this volume suffer from imperfections—the make-fun-of-everything style of humor is a hit-or-miss affair, and the hits and misses often depend on personal taste. Chapter 4, for example, is about Gin's personal weapon being "the most powerful sword"—but readers will need to know the fantasy/adventure genre pretty well to get the joke. A couple of other comedic situations also require at least a basic knowledge of Japanese culture: the okama (drag queen) who runs a transvestite geisha house, for example, or the long-haired, toilet-dwelling ghost girl who goes around terrorizing the Shinsengumi. They say that knowledge is power, and in this case, cultural knowledge gives one the power to laugh at Gintama.
At other times, though, the series earns its laughs with slapstick and character-based humor, which of course is universally appealing. The race against the biker gang in Chapter 6 is a classic example, as Gin and company rely on wacky tactics to win; the nearsighted ninja in the last chapter is another timeless gag carried to perfection (the poor girl keeps trying to talk to random objects because she can't see without her glasses). And who can forget the stereotypical Americans in the TV infomercials? Gin's hot-headed arrogance is also the source of laughter—like when his boastful words belie his fear of ghosts, or when he thinks he can run a convenience store by sassing all the customers. Only when the series tries to do "normal" Shonen Jump-style adventure does it fail, like when Gin and a friend have to rescue a little boy (a yawn-inducing chapter that takes entirely too long). Readers may also be irked at the lack of plot continuity—nothing ever connects to anything else, except for some storylines that span two chapters.
At first glance, the art in this series might look just as sharp as the humor—fine lines, plenty of detail and hatching—but it falls short when it comes to actual storytelling. The level of detail ends up obscuring a lot of the physical and visual gags; for example, we can't see that Gin is comically running away from a ghost because there's so much else going on in the panel. In addition, the artwork often lacks the action that's needed to make slapstick comedy work—the characters look more like they're doing static freeze-frame poses rather than actually moving. (Imagine how awkward this must look during the biker gang race scene.) But there are still some visual strong points, like the well-developed backgrounds and buildings that bring historical Japan to life, inaccurate as it may be. Character designs are also another source of enjoyment, with this volume's highlights being Gin in drag and a "cute animal" that hides a fearsome face.
Sarcastic, in-your-face dialogue is the final key to unlocking this series' sense of humor—in fact, even the creator himself gets in on the action. "Dear Mr. Sorachi, are you aware that so-and-so wasn't born during the Bakumatsu era?" "Dear reader, are you also aware that there were no alien invasions during the Bakumatsu era?" Talk about putting a guy in his place. Trash-talk and bravado are all a part of Gin and company's vocabulary, and it's delightful to read a translation that "gets it" and captures that attitude. On the downside, the dialogue does take up a lot of room, making the already crowded layouts even more eyestrain-inducing. Sound effects are also kind of a mess: all the sounds have been removed and replaced with English equivalents, but instead of blending into the artwork, they just look even more visually jarring. And for a series that's so heavily dependent on Japanese culture, they don't give you any footnotes or glossary—good luck kids, you're on your own with this one!
For those who do have the right background knowledge, though, Gintama's fifth volume is another hilarious stream-of-consciousness trip through the social issues of today and 150 years ago. No topic is safe from Hideaki Sorachi's lampooning, whether it's historical drag queens or rowdy biker gangs, and the zany cast of characters injects fun into every scene. It's a shame that there's no ongoing story to follow, and that the pages can be eye-crossingly difficult to read at times, but it's a small price to pay for a good hearty laugh.
Overall : B
Story : B+
Art : C
+ Hilarious characters, sarcastic dialogue, and a culturally informed sense of humor make this a one-of-a-kind comedy.
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