Series: Gintama, part III

Original creator: Sorachi Hideaki

So by the time this goes up I’ve definitely already gotten up early for the simulcast of the premiere, I loved it, I’m pissed off that there aren’t a hundred more new ones right now, etc etc, merry Christmas to me, etc.

I’ve now basically got the seeds of a graduate thesis on my hands here, but I have really enjoyed putting my love for this thing into words. I hope all this work has at least made someone curious. To assist, sometime in the future (probably soon, let’s be honest) I’ll post a guide to getting into this tremendous series. For today, however, I have just a couple more reasons why I love Gintama and then you all will be freed of this nightmare. You’re welcome.

The humor. As you might have gathered, things get pretty blue—sexual innuendo, overt sexual references, scatological humor with distinctly grown-up sensibilities. (There’s a whole episode—mid-battle—devoted to the strategy necessitated by four men, four stalls, two factions, no paper.) There’s also the occasional dope slap, usually coming at just about the time you’d want to do it yourself.

These things, of course, only go so far. But unsurprisingly the humor in Gintama isn’t supported solely by the script. Much of what’s funny is visual—what happens in the background, what goes unacknowledged, what isn’t being said.

Some of it is how it’s said, often with repeated clipped, matter-of-fact phrases; Sugita, Nakai, and Sakaguchi are masters at this, performing gag lines with such perfunctory cadence that just the sound can induce giggle fits, whether or not you understand Japanese at all.

And I don’t. If there’s any fault to be found with Gintama, it’s in its translation. In the course of my studies I learned the basic paradigms of Japanese grammar, and since I’ve gotten into anime again I’ve passively picked up some stock phrases and even verbs just by listening—but I can understand maybe 10% of what I hear. As such, the English subtitles are an integral part of how I consume the series, creating an additional layer of cultural baggage not present in the original. (How I would love to adapt this for a dub. They say it can’t be done, but I have ideas. I am so not kidding. Get @ me, Sentai.) And as a dialogue-heavy comedy, translating is an especially tricky business. Many of the bits are culturally-focused, and most of the time the sub on crunchyroll does a decent job of explaining references; sometimes the note is just as funny as the joke itself.

inari zushi

He’s explaining soccer, by the way.

But sometimes it’s more effective just not to bother with translating at all. A half-episode leaves “electric fan” untranslated as senpuki in-text (more accurately, senpūki), defining it once in a note at the beginning. Gin is sent out on the impossible mission of procuring a new one in the dead heat of a humid Japanese summer and he’s peeved that nobody seems to make them anymore but when he finds a lead at a pawn shop people start getting weird and possessive and warn about the destruction of human souls and he’s so fucking miserable can he just have the senpūki please and the episode culminates in a grand pun that treats senpūki as an acronym for some kind of alchemical superdevice that synthesizes gold ryō and ALL I WANTED WAS A FAN YOU SAID THERE WAS A FAN HERE WHY ISN’T THIS A GODDAMN FAN. FUCK.


This technique—using notes to circumnavigate wordplay—is somewhat underutilized, and the ensuing language gymnastics can cause some real headscratching. The subtitles waffle between using the original MADAO for Hasegawa’s nickname, short for marude damena ossan (“totally useless old man”), and DORK, a heavy-handed attempt at equivalency which they define as “dumb old retarded kook”. The English adaptation has intrinsic problems in its flippant use of distasteful terminology, which I find out of character for a series that treats other spurned groups with great respect. It also puts the translators in self-inflicted linguistic beartraps when the source material starts defining the MADAO acronym in other ways. Some of the results can be clever, but it’s somehow more distracting than the alternative.

Poor translations have also caused some dissonance that nearly put me off the series early on. Anytime Shinpachi starts acting mopey or airheaded or dull, Gin or Kagura are likely to chastise him for shirking his prescribed comedic duties.


Initially his duty as the “straight man” didn’t make sense to me; a traditional (Western) Straight Man is quite serious and isn’t himself all that funny, as his role is to set up jokes for the “funny man“. But they didn’t want Shinpachi to be dull? I thought, okay, wow, this show clearly has a sense of humor I just won’t understand. However, “straight man” here is a rather imprecise translation of tsukkomi, implying a greater emphasis on repartee, while Gin (or basically anyone else in the cast) plays the boke. Both roles can be quite funny; while the boke is a dope that gets things wrong (or a smartass that does so intentionally), the tsukkomi is a designated quipster who gets laughs because he tries his damnedest to correct the boke but ends up losing his temper in the process. Shinpachi does exactly this at almost every turn.


Even the ways he and Gin dress exemplify this trope (yes of course it’s a trope, which I’m now seeing EVERYWHERE in anime), with Shinpachi in his prim, sharp hakama and Gin in his . . . whatever the hell he’s got going on. So once that nuance clicked, the humor became much less mysterious and it was much easier to enjoy. It might have been more effective to have left tsukkomi alone, integrating it into the series’ jargon along with senpūki and (occasionally) MADAO, so that it could retain its nuance without misunderstanding.

Then there are things the sub outright misses—for example, upon Hijikata’s approach, Okita hiding evidence of having nailed a straw doll to a tree. The dialogue does the heavy lifting here:

wara ningyou

yet misrepresents the situation as a superstitious or childish prank. But the thing is actually a wara ningyō, a centuries-old Japanese curse distantly comparable to a voodoo doll, which must be ceremonially affixed to a sacred tree (check) . . . with hair or a photo of the target (check) . . . in the middle of the night (check) . . . with a horrifyingly gnarly nail, might I add (check and check), to complete the curse. In other words, Okita is really, honestly, seriously making an attempt on Hijikata’s life. Suzumura’s casual delivery betrays no direct indication that his character’s actions are less than innocent. But knowing that he is performing established folklore makes his playful demeanor and lackadaisical inflection terrifying, to the point that I was laughing simply out of fear. (To clarify, I only know about this curse doll because I read a novel in which the mechanics are a major factor.)


Not to mention, crunchyroll can get it so so wrong in other ways.

A more media-centric example of culture-bound humor is an omake that references Bleach, Death Note, and Hello Kitty in pretty much the same breath (Shinigami Zukan Silver!: this is a shinigami, his favorite food is apples, also he weighs seven apples) . . . and none of it is explained.

shinigami zukan silver

To clarify, I only know this because I am an epic nerd.

I’m sure there are countless other little things like this that I’m missing just by being American. But that does not make the show impenetrable. I’ve been doing a lot of nitpicking, but the majority of the humor can transcend cultural boundaries, often hinging on the embarrassing being taken for granted, the absurd being taken as normal, the regular as extraordinary. Like, anytime Shinpachi and Yamazaki are in the same place for any amount of time, they end up bonding/arguing over which of them is more ordinary.

It's a point of pride for them both.

It’s a point of pride for them both.

Hijikata occasionally defeats enemies by simply eating in front of them (as, if you’ll recall, everything he consumes is either cigarette smoke or swimming in mayonnaise). . . .

And both Gin and Hijikata appear to have a single fear: ghosts. If you think about it, it’s actually a pretty profound insight on the writer’s part, since these two have undoubtedly, uh, made a shit ton of ghosts, if you get me. (Remember Metal Gear Solid III? Gintoki did not stealth his way through the war.) But the relative validity of this fear doesn’t make the screams of panic from the two top badasses any less entertaining (cf. part I’s featured image, and this clip).

Most notable, however, is that the show knows it’s a show, regularly demolishing the fourth wall by referencing demographics, time slots, ratings, budget, peripheral sales. . . .

Sorachi knows what’s up.

And they aren’t afraid to disrespect play around with their obligations, which are often subject to meddling. One episode begins like this:


so while he’s zonked out the episode becomes a “documentary” on the Shinsengumi characters. Partway through Gin realizes he hasn’t been in the show yet and what the hell’s with that, it’s his show, damn it!


He orders the theme song be played at this point just so we all know it’s still about him. In another episode, no credits played until the very end, when they rolled twice consecutively. And one of the openers features Gintoki & co. skidding to a stop on his scooter . . . except for once when they crash.


“I thought the opening was reused every time. . . .”

Also, this is pretty typical for an episode title card. Better finish reading it by the time the music stops and they get into the show proper, too. It’ll just be one of the little eyecatch riffs so at most you’re going to have like four seconds so do make it quick. Wait, you’re not really reading this are you? This text is really only here as a visual joke so it might as well be lorem ipsum but that seems kinda off, you know? Just please be cool about it baka yarouuuuu~

While we’re at it, the credits are sometimes affected by what’s happening in the show. When the characters go to war over the results of the most recent popularity poll (. . . yeah), the first person to be taken out is the manga’s author himself (who placed at 15th). But what happens to the art when the artist is eliminated? You must “hire” a temporary artist, first of all. Which turns the first five minutes of the next episode into Fist of the North Star—until the “temp” gets taken out too. The opening credits that follow? Instead of this:

prague 1

the whole 90 seconds are animated like this:

prague 2

Not to say it’s never happened, but I’ve never seen any other serial medium (anime, sitcom, podcast, or otherwise) make use of the credits for laughs. From start to finish, from what’s funny to what’s serious, nothing is off limits.

I don’t care what you do somewhere else in the universe, but anywhere within reach of my sword is my country!

An unfailing sense of hope. I know it’s kind of a hard swing from that last bullet point to this one, but bear with me, I can glue it together. In Gintama, sometimes good guys die. Friendships fall apart. Star-crossed lovers don’t get romantic reunions. But the show is never a total bummer and always manages a bittersweet tone at worst. Shit happens, and the characters make of it what they can. Even when the bad guy loses it’s not without a mountain of pity, because the characters almost always come to understand the bad guy as a person and why he became who he is; there are maybe three exceptions among dozens. There is human drama, but never melodrama, and always with a sense that life soldiers on.


The tempering of melodrama often comes in the form of Gin absently picking his nose in the background (even as nostalgic piano music plays), or blowing gum bubbles, or sleeping, or otherwise failing to acknowledge others’ heartfelt monologues (at least outwardly—that’s the thing about Gintoki, he’s always listening). And within its darker stories, the show never fails to offer just a little something lighthearted to remind us that shit doesn’t always suck, and that all will return to normal no matter how painful things are in the present. The health of a recurring character’s sister slowly deteriorates in a multi-episode arc, but as the result of a bazooka early on, Yamazaki is stuck with a traumatic afro throughout.


It doesn’t feel disrespectful, nor does it detract from the seriousness of the situation. Things like this serve to maintain the continuity of the series as primarily being a comedy, while allowing ample space for serious themes. And the two never clash thanks to the authenticity of the characters; there are no recurring characters with only a single “gimmick”. Take Katsuo: he’s a yakuza sub-boss, has a huge scar across his face, a strange obsession with the golden ratio (which he thinks is 7:3), and adores his Dachshund like a doting parent. And he appears in, what, four episodes? Five? And still the author bothered to develop a distinctly quirky personality for him. When it feels like even the minor characters live their own lives, a series is truly populated by real people. And real people aren’t limited to expressing themselves through a single genre; you can still laugh at jokes on a bad day, and you can still cry on a good day. So it goes in Gintama.


The greatest hope in their stories comes from having the support of others. Family, comrades, “obnoxious bonds”, “bad friends”, tenuously friendly enemies, whatever. They’re terrible cooks, they give awful advice, they make fun of you—but they always show up when it counts. There are plenty of eye-wateringly sweet episodes (father-daughter themed ones work best on me), and things get especially weepy in the short-run season six. But the first to draw real tears was the second half of 111. There is so much love in it, especially its conclusion—and yet it is expressed nearly wordlessly. Like the humor, the drama is more touching when quiet. Subtle, gentle, and with a smile.



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