Your sound is haphazard, willful, and vague. It’s akin to jazz. . . . I can’t see your swings or your rhythm!
Gintama: Can’t handle this jazz
Original creator: Sorachi Hideaki
Original music: Audio Highs (Bakuman, Daily Lives of High School Boys)
Music producer: Kamagata Eiichi (D.Gray-Man)
Bonus points if you can spot the anthropological jargon!
The music. Early on, before I knew the characters well enough to come back for them, just wanting to hear a minute and a half of “Pray” again was enough to keep me clicking on that next episode. It’s my MO to skip anime credits, but I happily sit through most of them for Gintama because its themes are among the catchiest I’ve heard. (Especially if DOES is involved. Damn that shit’s good.)
To sweeten the deal, the OST is far better than I originally gave it credit for. I went looking for this track in particular because it always means some badass shit is about to happen—but in the hunt I discovered that all the music is really, really good—not only at setting the scenes, but in contrasting them, adding different tonal layers to the action, and even character building.
Allow me to explicate Katsura’s theme. It takes about a season to fully kick in, but once he’s been established as a “gag character”, if he makes an appearance in the episode/arc, then so will this theme. It is notable for doing double-duty as an iconic worldbuilding piece on top of informing us about the character it represents. I’ve now listened to four OSTs (over 100 tracks) and this is one of few that actually makes an attempt at an “alien” sound. What makes it especially odd in this respect: it’s the theme of the man leading the anti-alien rebels. His sonic signature also codes for the thing he fights against. Which indicates that he is out of his fucking mind.
Which regardless of whether Elizabeth is an alien or just a hairy man in a fursuit, indicates that Katsura is CRAZY. SAY IT WITH ME, CRAZY. Like possibly the craziest in the series. Or at least among the Joui war vets—
Okay, maybe they’re all equally touched, in their own special ways. But damn, Katsura tho. He is at least the most embarrassing to watch.
On the whole the music is based in the ring species of rockabilly, punk, and ska (with the occasional reggae). But much of the Gintama OST is a musical tour of historic Americana, with shades of country, western, Dixieland, disco, funk, flamenco. . . .
And if you think about it, this makes perfect sense. Historically it was the US Navy under Commodore Perry that forcibly opened Japan to the world; and in the post-World War II occupation of Japan, American culture unleashed its reign of influence in full. (Yes, that’s why tough guys in anime still have pompadours.) If the music is any indication, then in the Gintama universe these things simply happened simultaneously. Just sub in “space alien” for “American”. Fucking. Brilliant.
Disregard for gender. The Gintama universe is primarily modeled after the real world, so there do seem to be gender roles and signifiers resembling those of the real world. But that doesn’t mean the recurring characters respect those prescribed gender roles. While there are far fewer women in the cast than men, they all kick just as much ass (and often more). There are female firefighters and blacksmiths, countless female assassins—and let’s not forget that the Yorozuya’s tank is a teenaged girl. The anime has yet to depict a formidable female arc villain—the closest they come is more a political figurehead commanding some kind of alien PMC—but it’s not over yet, so there’s always a chance.
While the men are frequently pantsed and mosaicked and otherwise humiliated, the female characters are almost never sexualized. (Sacchan is a strange exception, but it’s kind of her own personal mission to make everything sexual.) Tsukuyo’s typical mode of dress is the most revealing of the recurring women, but even that’s not obscene. She also sports fierce facial scarring, a black kimono (typically reserved for married women but here meant to indicate that she is off-limits), and a stoic “touch me and you lose your dick” aura, so it’s clear that her purpose as a character was not simply to add sex appeal (which Sacchan obviously does not have—not because she’s a fetishist, but because she’s frighteningly clingy and just generally so, so annoying).
Many kinds of lifestyles are depicted in this series, both common and uncommon; there is gendered work, but there is gendered work representing more than two gender identities. There are courtesans and cabaret girls, fabulous trannies and flashy male hosts. Some of the workers at a transvestite hostess bar adopt feminine mannerisms and speech forms while making zero attempt to remain clean-shaven, disguise their gravelled voices, or hide their rippling muscles. Mademoiselle Saigo, the proprietor, doesn’t even seem to really identify as a woman, but he doesn’t give a shit about masculinity either. When things get rowdy he has no compunction about wearing his makeup and geisha wig (is it a wig? maybe it’s just his hair . . .) with only a loincloth.
He is secure in this respect, but struggles with his competence as a parent and the effect his identity has on his young son. The kid, for his part, is wonderfully accepting of his father’s lifestyle, defending him even in the face of bullies and happily obliging in calling him any title he demands—dad, mom, whatever. Their introductory episode is, in my opinion, one of the most important of the series socially, especially considering that its intended demographic is teenaged boys. It’s incredibly important that kids observe different kinds of relationships free of criticism, and Gintama handles this beautifully. No judgements are made on sexuality, nor are any character’s sexual orientation or gender identity explicitly defined. People just like who they like, or act how they act, dress how they dress. Even the husky badass protagonist occasionally dons makeup and women’s kimono, no bones about it; and with the exception of some punk kids (who get immediately trolled), nobody gives the slightest fuck.
And I’m pretty convinced Katsura is gender fluid. Now I know I just spent a bunch of time talking about how he’s mentally unsound; I do not mean to imply that this aspect of his character is what makes him crazy. In fact that might be one of his most admirable (and stable) qualities. His usual style is basically androgynous (when I first started the series I had one hell of a time believing he was supposed to be biologically male, which I can’t prove but does in fact seem to be the case); sometimes he is dressed as a pirate, and sometimes he is dressed as a woman, seemingly for no reason. You can tell me it’s in the name of disguise all you want, but shut the fuck up, he wants to be a Takarazuka star. He’s gorgeous.
Also, gay sex happens. I cannot elaborate but gay sex totally happens between some of the most recurrent characters. Confirmed. Beyond that there’s plenty of innuendo and fanservice . . . for women. Null sexualization of the female characters means pretty much no fanservice for straight men.
One final note, because I’m not sure where else to mention this: there is similarly a disregard for age. Youth does not guarantee wins in physical fights, and age does not automatically confer weakness. In fact almost every arc boss is a greying middle-aged man. And as they are still at peak physical condition and have the advantages of wisdom, experience, and broad social influence—they are not to be taken lightly.
I’m going to spend a little more page-space on the soundtrack since, as a series with 265 episodes and counting, the music is one of the easiest things to share, other than my gratuitous screencaps. So! Here are some of the stand-out pieces that frequent my playlists. Without embedded audio we’ll have to make do with the youtubes I have prepared. For obvious reasons I haven’t embedded them, but the links will open to new windows, so do listen!
Temee Raaaa!! Soredemo Gintama Tsuiten no Kaaaa!
What it is: standard rockabilly; the type specimen for the earliest seasons’ music.
Iconic scene: the summary narration with spaceships flying over Edo.
Jinsei wa Belt Conveyor no Youni Nagareru
What it is: a tense rock interlude.
Iconic scene: any of its appearances in the amnesia arc, where it is first heard and which the title references. Proves that even in a comedy series, forgetting who you are is not funny.
What it is: playful keyboard instruments, woodblock, and bassoon.
Iconic scene: also its inceptive scene, in which Hijikata fantasizes about hosting his own cooking show.
Watashi to Shigoto Docchi ga Daijinano Toka iu Onna ni wa German Suplex
What it is: a lamentation on classical guitar.
Iconic scene: its most poignant appearance in the Mitsuba arc. You’ll know it when you see it.
Ore Tachi no Shiro Takamagahara
What it is: a waltz on harpsichord (seriously) with accordion and string bass working as percussion.
Iconic scene: male hosts doing their thing.
Zura Janai Katsura daaa!!
What it is: smooth rock with spacey effects and a vague tick of Mission: Impossible. (The 8-bit version is also a must-hear.)
Iconic scene: this piece is its own icon . . . but it does have an iconic image rather than a scene: Katsura standing smugly with arms crossed, flanked by Elizabeth. Whatever he’s saying is unrelated or otherwise inappropriate for the situation.
Doukou ga Hirai Tenzo
What it is: marching-style percussion, leading into rock guitars.
Iconic scene: Hijikata and Shinpachi shirtlessly beating the crap out of each other. And they look freaking sexy. Yes, Shinpachi too. It’s a long story. Or anytime someone is kicking hell of ass, or about to.
Oi Oi, Seishun Desuka?
What it is: a sweet melody on marimba.
Iconic scene: Sorachi-sensei as a gorilla, lazing around and grumbling about manga pens.
Ore mo, Mou Jump Sotsugyou Shi Nakya Ike nee Toshi da yo naa
What it is: um. A half-assed version of the primary theme (first on this list), like the guitarists are falling asleep, plus percussive accessories (toys, for those in the biz).
Iconic scene: anytime the main trio is talking over a static exterior of Yorozuya Gin-chan. Usually about ratings and budget and how they almost got pulled off the air for indecency. Multiple times. (I don’t know if any of that shit is ever true but either way I love this meta throughline on production.) The lack of animation also allows one to imagine the seiyū at their mics instead of the characters themselves (and, to be clear, they are in character); the naturally timid Kugimiya Rie is especially entertaining to picture voicing Kagura.
Haruyasumi-ake wa Minna Chotto Otona ni Mieru
What it is: the smoothest of grooves, cool and slightly sneaky.
Iconic scene: Yamazaki mid-surveillance, or losing his shit. Either way, anpan is invoked.
I didn’t mean for this one to turn out so long but I felt that the gender discussion was too important not to have. (For fans: yes, I know I left someone out of the gender discussion. But spoilers, you guys. Take it easy.) So finally, that’s all for today. Yes, there is a part III because I’ve still hardly scratched the surface. I love this thing so much I’d rather be shouting at you about it in person. While there’s only one more “official” post to come, this series is so extensive and has so much to offer that I’m sure it won’t be the last time I write about it.