The Mike Toole Show
Where to Be-GIN with Gintama

by Mike Toole,

Earlier this week-- actually yesterday, if you go by column publication date—it was Anime Day at the video games retailer GameStop. This wasn't a major event; honestly, it was just an excuse to hawk some anime-related games and terrible, awful Funko Pop figures, and to hand out Boruto posters to folks who strolled into their local store in cosplay. Also, declaring a specific date to be Anime Day seems ridiculous to me. Every day is Anime Day, dammit!

The promotion was part of a larger trend, though—not just GameStop, but Best Buy, Microsoft, Amazon, and several other physical and online retailers seemed to have reached some sort of unspoken consensus and declared February “Anime Month,” dishing out free TV episode collections and discounted anime video games and goodies. The mostly-games angle bums me out a little, since I'm more of a DVD and Blu-Ray guy, but hey, video games are things that you can still go out and impulse-buy at the store. I ended up buying one of these games, J-Stars Victory Vs+, with visions of spending a merry, chaotic few hours playing as hard-luck constable Ryotsu from KochiKame. When I started the game, the default hero struck a commanding pose and declared that his name was Son Goku. Typical, right? Then, an outraged Goku piped up, demanding to know who this stranger was . Turns out that the game starts off not by saddling the player with Goku, but with Gintoki Sakata. Let's talk about Gintama!

In Japan's anime landscape, Gintama's long since become omnipresent, just another part of the furniture. Hideaki Sorachi's manga mainstay has, over the years, led to a firehose of hundreds of TV episodes, a fistful of OVAs and movies, and an upcoming big-deal live action movie. Interestingly, it got off to a slow start, because its creator wasn't really sure what he wanted it to be. Sorachi envisioned some sort of spin on the Warring States era or the Edo bafuku, with silly versions of historical figures. His editor was a little more particular; he asked the artist for a comic about the Shinsen Gumi, because there sure as hell isn't enough anime and manga about those guys. Sorachi would settle on a gag-laden version of Edo where historical figures mix it up with alien technology and contemporary stuff. At the center of it is Gintoki, a silver-haired, retired samurai who occasionally gets mixed up with the Shinsen Gumi but spends most of his time doing dumb temp jobs to pay the rent. Years later, Sorachi would talk about how elated he was when the first Gintama volume's initial shipment sold out—he finally had a hit!—only to learn that this was because Shueisha, fearing a bomb, had ordered a small print run.

But Sorachi's idea, coupled with his editor's prodding to include the Shinsen Gumi as recurring characters, turned out to be the right formula. The series hung in there. For my money, it finds its stride not simply by presenting funny twists on historical figures—plenty of anime does that-- but by giving the reader a distinctly fun set of main characters—Gin is joined by Shinpachi (the ultimate tsukkomi, to use a Japanese comedy term that I tend to overuse instead of just saying "straight man"), Kagura (kinda cute, inhumanly strong alien girl), and Sadaharu, an extremely large dog that gives the group a distinctly Scooby Doo vibe (he prefers biting Gintoki on the head to eating Sadaharu Snacks, though).

Gintoki is an accomplished swordsman with a rich past, but these days he's cynical and lazy, traits that Kagura is quick to pick up. Shinpachi is initially impressed by Gintoki's swordsmanship and vows to become his apprentice, but he's perpetually mortified by his comrades' antics. Still, he can't bring himself to stay away from Gin's shop, Odd Jobs. (The shop is called “Yorozura” in Japanese, but I like Odd Jobs, which makes it sound like a family restaurant run by a James Bond villain.) The trio (and their large dog) have an easy familiarity with each other that is surprisingly compelling—their friendship seems real enough that, after reading some chapters or watching some episodes, you'll start to think of them as your friends, too. The ultimate result is a weirdly pleasant, side-splitting hybrid of sword-swinging chambara, sketch comedy show, and nutty sci-fi yarn.

My first exposure to Gintama was the 2006 TV series, which Sentai Filmworks released in 2010, about a year after they'd come stumbling, bleary-eyed, out of the crypt of ADV Films. I quit after five or six episodes, simply because I thought I had it pegged – it was like Rurouni Kenshin, only with alien comedy stuff in the mix, right? I was selling the series short, but it'd take me years to figure this out. Sentai eventually experimented with dubbing and releasing the first movie. A second movie followed, which transparently lampooned the title of not one but two Space Battleship Yamato movies. I haven't gotten to see that movie yet, but I do remember chatting with its planning producer, Sunrise's Masayuki Ozaki, at Anime Boston in 2013. He revealed, in a weirdly boastful way, that they'd just wrapped up production of the film—one day before its theatrical debut. That's the anime business for you.

That brings me up to last month, when I decided to try out the 2015 season of Gintama because, for some strange reason, Crunchyroll were backing an all-new dubbed version. I'm not averse to dubs, and I figured if the dub was good I'd have another show to watch while I cleaned or did other tasks that involved not looking at the subtitles constantly. The season's first episode opens with a hushed press conference. Gintoki, arriving late to the reporters' disapproving scrutiny, starts ugly-crying and screaming an incoherent series of apologies: he is very sorry that the series was continuing, it clearly should have ended after the last movie. He is sorry that the series would no longer be animated by Sunrise! I found this spectacle hilarious, and was immediately hooked. Later on, I'd describe the scene to a friend, who promptly reminded me of a certain 2014 viral video involving a member of the Diet ugly-crying and screaming a series of bizarre apologies about misusing public money. Sure enough…

The series is loaded with subversive humor like this, jokes that tweak both celebrities and politicians. When Gintoki isn't aping scandal-plagued politicians, he spends a lot of time arguing about Shonen Jump, with which he is obsessed. (Yes, Shonen Jump exists in Gintama's world, right alongside charming Edo-era buildings, modern motor scooters, and UFOs.) This is a masterstroke—the manga churns out jokes about classic manga, about page layout and drawing style, and the anime finds ways to keep you thinking about Shonen Jump. An entire episode is all about Gintoki instructing Shinpachi on the various ways to conceal dirty manga from your family, using a barely-altered stack of To-LOVE-ru tankoban as his example.

Later episodes concern ninja fart jokes, what happens when the characters get mysteriously gender-swapped (hint: jokes, including flipping the genders in the stock ending credits sequence!), and a touching reunion between Gintoki and his old battlefield comrades, where they're forced to confront their great shared horror – the one time they pooled money to buy drinks from the vending machine and Gin totally shortchanged them. The show's unceasing barrages of slapstick and verbal arguing really scratch that Mr. Osomatsu itch.

Occasionally I get emails from folks who ask me to cover a certain title, because it's their favorite and they simply like reading about it. On several occasions, the subject of this request has been Gintama. Now, I understand where that loyalty comes from. The series is sharp, inventive, and wicked funny. For me, the dub was just the shot in the arm the show needed to get me interested enough to look past the fact that there were literally hundreds of episodes,, and now I'm bull-rushing through the 51 dubbed episodes. I particularly like Michael Daingerfield as Gintoki, who puts up a quality approximation of Tomokazu Sugita's seen-it-all deadpan.(Fun fact: Daingerfield was the guy they got to voice Sesshomaru in Inuyasha: The Final Act, after David Kaye left to be the ingratiating “MEET BOB!” voice in those sketchy Enzyte commercials.)

The only real question with Gintama is—where do you begin? The 2015 series isn't a bad starting point. But one thing I've learned from watching this particular show is that you don't even need to really worry about where to begin. A lot of the episodes are engineered so the side characters' quirks are obvious and no special knowledge is needed. I don't think this really works for an action series, but it's fine for comedy—just make sure you start your Gintama experience with a funny episode, rather than a STORY!! episode. In my experience, Gintama starts to sputter a bit when it concentrates on longer story arcs. The pure sitcom episodes are the best – they're full of clever tricks and an abundance of jokes. Maybe the narrative threads are a little harder to pick up in the manga, but unfortunately, that hasn't been a going concern in these parts for a few years, as Viz quit publishing the Gintama manga about a third of the way into its 60+ volume run.

But on TV, Gintama's jokes keep coming. A Miss Machiko joke. A Dragonball Z joke, where the dub producers at Ocean adroitly book Scott McNeill to return to his old role as Piccolo. A Miniskirt Police joke. (Was there a Miniskirt Police TV series, or was that just a video game and a sexy Halloween costume? I know there was an Office Lady Police series, and I bet it got parodied on Gintama at some point, too.) Jokes that are mostly just references can get tiresome, but Gintama finds a way to keep 'em funny.

I just have one last big, burning question about Gintama: How come they don't include Super Jump and Business Jump characters in the J-Stars Versus games?! I personally believe that these games would be greatly helped, and their heroes like Gintoki and Naruto and Goku buoyed on by the addition of the title characters from Fund Manager and Bartender, not to mention Kintaro “Golden Boy” Oe and that one mountain climber dude from Jiro Taniguchi's Summit of the Gods. I'm sure Gintoki himself has thoughts about which of his fellow Shonen Jump characters (besides Kinnikuman) should get more time in the game

Is Gintama too long for you, or are Gintoki and his Odd Jobs buddies part of your crew? Is there another long series that you just can't muster up the courage to check out? Talk it up in the comments! Also, I have a personal request for you Gintama-heads: I'm going to catch up with the current series, but I don't want to watch all 250+ of the older episodes. What are some of the best ones from the Sunrise era?

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