I’m taking some time out of my busy(?) schedule of binge-watching Gintama° (note the ‘ ° ‘, it’s important) to make a public service announcement: if you’re a fan of anime, or just a fan of comedy in general, then you really, really, really should be watching/reading the Gintama franchise.
With almost 400 episodes aired, it was a bit imposing getting into it, especially with several warnings I got that it takes some time to get going, and that I should absolutely NOT drop it based on my impression of the early episodes. However, I liked it from the start; while not side-splitting, I appreciated the humor from the jump. As I get farther into it, it’s becoming dangerously close to being my favorite anime series ever.
For me it was hard to ignore the amount of acclaim and popularity this series gets. The first thing I noticed was that there are no less than eight Gintama entries on MyAnimeList’s Top 50 Anime Page, three of them in the Top 10. Also it was impossible for me not to already have a passing familiarity with the instantly iconic characters that I’d already seen on just about any anime-related website, page or message board on the internet; Gintoki, the white/silver-haired samurai character; Kagura, the cute girl in red riding a giant white furry animal (for the longest while, I thought Sadaharu was a cat, lol); I don’t really recall seeing Shinpachi before watching the series (no surprise there).
However, while the series is supposedly wildly popular in Japan, it never really caught on like it should have with western audiences. This may well have to do with the fact that there are a lot of confusing things concerning Gintama, at least to uninitiated or casual fans.
What’s with the seasons?
The first thing to mention about this is the varied partitioning of the series, which varies according to the source; on IMDb, for instance, the show is separated into 11 seasons, partitioning according to every year it was broadcast. This is very different from what are assigned as seasons by, say, MAL, which, for example, has the first 201 episodes as just one season, which would comprise the first four seasons as defined by IMDb (amounting approximately to 50 episodes per season). Making it even more complicated is the seemingly random naming of the different seasons. The previously mentioned first 201 episodes are referred to Gintama. After a hiatus, the series returned as Gintama’ (note the punctuations in the title, it becomes a running theme from here on), with a run of 51 episodes. Then there’s a short 13-episode run called Gintama’: Enchousen, which I just completed (up to this point, there are also two very good movies that were released). I’m now watching Gintama°, which runs for 51 episodes. After this are a series of short 12-14 episode runs, going, in chronological order, by the following names: Gintama. , Gintama.: Porori-hen, Gintama.: Shirogane no Tamashii-hen and Gintama.: Shirogane no Tamashii-hen – Kouhan-sen. Told you it was confusing.
What’s with the Japanese references?
Now on to the series content itself, which relies quite a bit on reference-heavy humor, those references usually being to Japanese culture and history, and Japanese popular culture in particular. Gintama has quite a habit of doing parodies of other popular anime ( Gundam, Dragon Ball, etc.), so getting into these jokes shouldn’t be a problem if you’re a seasoned anime/manga fan. However, much of the references will go over the heads of casual fans, and might be a bit off-putting. Imagine watching a western show like Family Guy, and having little to no knowledge of western popular culture, and you might see what the issue is. Even with this in mind, most of the humor is absurdist and/or slapstick in nature, so anyone, regardless of cultural background, should be able to understand and appreciate most of the jokes.
What sets Gintama apart
It’s very difficult for long-running anime series with hundreds of episodes to not get stale, and actually improve over time. Gintama actually pulls it off. It’s primarily a comedy series, but also incorporates action and drama, and does so in a way that doesn’t feel forced, which is no small feat in itself.
What also makes it unique are the lack of long story arcs, which are par for the course in long-running shows like this. While there are multiple-episode arcs, most of them only run 2-3 episodes; the longest ones I can recall so far go for no more then 5-6 episodes. However, being just shy of 300 episodes in, I’m not sure if the show bucks the trend somewhere along the line. I suppose I’ll find out, but so far I find this creative decision to be refreshing.
Which brings up the one-episode stories, or ‘filler’ episodes. This is the other thing that stands out with this series; while filler in most other anime is usually mediocre and regarded by fans with derision, most of the filler in Gintama is actually awesome, and has some of the funniest, most entertaining moments in the entire series.
Then there are the characters, and how the way they are handled is fundamentally different than just about any other long-running shounen, in that they don’t grow or change much, if at all. The main character, Sakata Gintoki, for instance, is a samurai, but most of his character growth (if any) remains in the past and is kept mysterious; in the present, he’s an impertinent drunk who picks his nose, but also happens to care deeply about his friends and his community. All his character development has already happened. This is just about true about all the other main and recurring characters (there are way too many of them to get into all of them in just one post), who, for the purpose of some glorious running jokes, have weird character tics, traits and flaws that absolutely do not change. In spite of this, there isn’t even one of them that feels like a one-note, cardboard cutout character.