A Quick, Easy Guide to the Gintama Drama

by Cameron Sherber,

Because Hideaki Sorachi's popular revisionist history comedy is so very wacky, it's easy to forget that Gintama has an overarching plot. With the vast majority of the series devoted to ham-fisted parody, sophomoric gross-out humor, and general zaniness, the “bigger picture” receives very little focus. This isn't necessarily a bad thing – tickling the audience's funny bone has always been Sorachi's primary concern, and the incorporation of more serious elements often seems like an afterthought. Still, there is a cohesive story buried beneath all those layers of silly. However, given how infrequently this story is addressed, keeping all the pertinent details fresh in mind from one important arc to the next can be a tall order. With the anime adaptation of the ominous-sounding Shogun Assassination Arc beginning on December 2nd, now seems as good a time as any to review the story thus far and bring fans up to speed.

In the Gintama-verse, Japan was never attacked by Commodore Matthew Perry and his American fleet. Instead, the country was overrun with extraterrestrial beings, or “Amanto,” in the mid-19th century. This invasion was led by a mysterious group of humanoid aliens known as the Tendoshu. Although initially resistant to the invasion, the Bakufu soon realized its samurai retainers were no match for the Tendoshu's advanced weaponry. Overcome by the stresses of fighting an unwinnable war, the 12th Shogun of Edo collapsed from exhaustion and was replaced by his more pragmatic brother Tokugawa Sadasada, who became the 13th Shogun and brokered a deal with the invaders. Under this arrangement, the Tokugawa family would retain control of the Bakufu, which would essentially function as a puppet government for the Tendoshu.

Needless to say, not everyone was happy with this decision – particularly the samurai class, who felt Japan was being sold to the Amanto. Determined to take their country back from the Tendoshu, brave warriors from across the land came together and fought against the invaders, kicking off a years-long conflict known as the Joi War. Although Gintama isn't much for exact dates, it can be inferred that this campaign began roughly twenty years prior to the start of the series. Protagonist Sakata Gintoki's claim that he had “not yet gotten his pubic hair” when the war commenced would suggest that the conflict lasted over a decade, as he appeared to be in his late teens when it finally came to a close. While it's generally assumed that Gintoki is currently in his late 20s, his age has never been explicitly stated, so working out an airtight timeline is kind of tricky.

Several years into the war, soldiers started spreading tales of a “corpse-eating demon” who prowled blood-soaked battlefields and devoured the bodies of fallen combatants. As it turns out, this “demon” was none other than a prepubescent Gintoki, and instead of eating corpses, he feverishly searched dead bodies for food and assorted valuables. (Although he once stated matter-of-fact that both his parents are dead, the circumstances through which he became an orphan have never been revealed.) One day, while sitting atop a fallen samurai and ravenously devouring a stale onigiri, young Gintoki was approached by Yoshida Shoyo, a mysterious soft-spoken man who became amused by just how “cute” this supposed monster was. Assuming Shoyo meant him harm, Gintoki attempted to defend himself with a katana he had taken from a dead soldier. After seeing the fierce determination in the young man's eyes – and how poorly he handled a weapon – Shoyo invited Gintoki to accompany him on his travels and offered to teach him about “true strength.”

Shortly thereafter, Gintoki and Shoyo settled down in a quiet village, where the latter opened a temple school that was free to any child who wished to attend. In addition to teaching his students composition, arithmetic, and other basic subjects, Shoyo offered lessons in swordsmanship – the one subject his adoptive son truly excelled in. Among Shoyo's other star pupils were Katsura Kotaro and Takasugi Shinsuke, two figures who would go on to play pivotal roles in Gintoki's life.

As the Joi War raged on, the Tendoshu grew increasingly impatient with Sadasada's inability to stamp out the rebel forces. Not wanting to lose his comfortable position in the new order, Sadasada acted on his overlords' advice and set the Kansei Purge into motion. Per this act, any party suspected of conspiring against the government would be arrested and summarily executed. After the purge went into effect, arrests were made one after another, and the severed heads of suspected Joi patriots were prominently displayed in town squares across the country. So it should come as no surprise that Shoyo soon found his way onto the Bakufu's long list of suspected rebels. Not only was he influencing young minds through his teachings, he was even showing them how to fight!

One fateful evening, the kindly teacher was apprehended by the Tenshoin Naraku, an elite group of assassins under the direct command of Sadasada and the Tendoshu. When he realized that resisting arrest would place his pupils in danger, Shoyo agreed to go quietly, instructing Gintoki to “take care of things” in his absence. Restrained by several Naraku guards and sobbing profusely, Gintoki watched helplessly as his father figure and mentor was carried off into the night.

Although Shoyo had no intention of fostering rebels, his arrest proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy for the Bakufu. Following their teacher's imprisonment, Gintoki, Katsura, and Takasugi began organizing rebellion efforts, and within several years, the tide of battle was steadily turning in the Joi patriots' favor. Not only could these boys plan attacks and rally the troops, they were unbelievably strong – particularly Gintoki, whose battlefield exploits earned him the nickname “Shiro Yaksha,” or “White Knight.” Sakamoto Tatsuma, the bumbling (but surprisingly shrewd) heir to a prominent merchant family, soon joined up with the group and provided their forces with much-needed provisions and weaponry. Together, these men came to be known as the Four Heavenly Kings, although Katsura insists that their group was called the “Generation of Miracles.” Unfortunately, the Bakufu soon redoubled its efforts to crush the rebellion, and with the Naraku's help, they once again gained the upper hand.

The closing days of this war have yet to be explored at length. While it's been revealed that Shoyo remained imprisoned for years after his initial arrest, we've yet to learn why. Perhaps his captors felt he could be used as a bargaining chip? Furthermore, we know that Shoyo was eventually executed, but the exact details surrounding his death are hazy. However, one important point is crystal-clear: after seeing the severed head of their teacher, each of Shoyo's former disciples withdrew from the war and went their separate ways.

Despondent and grief-stricken, Gintoki was briefly imprisoned before receiving an unexpected pardon from the man tasked with carrying out his execution. Soon after, he met his long-suffering landlady Terada Ayano (“Otose”), and opened the all-purpose freelance business Odd Jobs Gin-chan. Sakamoto decided to hawk his wares across the galaxy and formed the Kaientai, a sprawling intergalactic merchant fleet. Still determined to drive the Amanto out of Japan, Katsura formed a low-level (and comically incompetent) terrorist organization with a group of remaining Joi patriots. In their own way, each of these men came to terms with Shoyo's death and the outcome of the war – with the notable exception of Takasugi. Getting rid of the Amanto is no longer enough for him; he now seeks to destroy the country that took his teacher through any means necessary. Takasugi currently heads the Kiheitai, a group of extremist rebels who share his intense appetite for destruction. His organization has also partnered with the Harusame, the universe's largest crime syndicate. Despite detesting Amanto, he has no qualms about working with them to advance his quest for vengeance.

Despite being billed as the series' primary antagonist, Takasugi is only an active participant in a handful of stories. Of course, he's still caused his fair share of trouble. In his first appearance, he orchestrated a failed assassination attempt on the current Shogun and chided Gintoki for abandoning his ideals. When trying to cement the Kiheitai's partnership with the Harusame, he was all too happy to offer Gintoki and Katsura's heads as a show of good faith. Under his command, two of the Kiheitai's chief officers started a rebellion within the Shinsegumi, Edo's top police force. Most recently, Takasugi has been seen conspiring with Sasaki Isaboro (captain of the Mimawarigumi, the Shinsegumi's chief rivals) and Hitotsubashi Nobunobu (the current head of a political family seeking to control the Bakufu). Regardless, his brief exchanges with these figures have been incredibly vague and open-ended, leaving viewers in the dark about the nature of their alliances.

Joi patriots aren't the only ones who have a problem with the country's current state of affairs. Tokugawa Shigeshige, the 14th Shogun of Edo and Sadasada's nephew, is deeply troubled by how much influence the Tendoshu hold over the government. Unlike his predecessor, Shigeshige isn't content to act as a political puppet in exchange for a comfortable life and a little bit of power. After learning the true extent of Sadasada's corruption, Shigeshige enlisted the aid of the Shinsengumi, the Mimawarigumi, and Odd Jobs Gin-chan in an effort to bring his uncle to justice. In order to make amends for his uncle's deplorable actions, the young ruler was even willing to step down as Shogun. However, Sadasada wasn't about to go quietly, and our heroes soon found themselves locked in combat with a battalion of palace guards and Oboro, the Naraku's current leader.

During the ensuing melee, the usually laid-back Gintoki became enraged upon learning of Sadasada and the Naraku's role in Shoyo's arrest. This led him to attack Oboro, one of the silver-haired samurai's toughest opponents to date. The ghostly pale assassin was not only proficient in hand-to-hand combat, he was also able to shoot concentrated energy beams from his hands. Despite his opponent's incredible strength and resilience, Gintoki ultimately emerged victorious, exclaiming “Say hello to Sensei!” as he impaled Oboro on a jagged piece of his Lake Toya bokuto.

With his plan foiled, Sadasada was apprehended and jailed. Soon after, he was cut to ribbons by Takasugi, who entered the detention area disguised as a Naraku assassin. While cutting down the disgraced former Shogun, Takasugi vowed to “drag every person on this planet down to Hell.” With Sadasada dead, the Tendoshu had no one left to take Shigeshige's place, prompting them to reject the 14th Shogun's resignation. However, they deeply resent Shigeshige's refusal to fall in line, and the Tokugawa family has no shortage of political enemies. Couple this with the revelation that Oboro somehow survived his encounter with Gintoki, and all signs point to the story being far from over.

Whether or not the upcoming Shogun Assassination Arc brings lasting change to the world of Gintama is anyone's guess. Although the series' trademark silliness is occasionally interrupted by more dramatic fare, very few of these stories have had lasting effects on the way things operate. Still, with the manga's 12th anniversary and the anime adaptation's 300th episode on the horizon, it may finally be time for this Shonen Jump mainstay to start playing for keeps.

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