Original Creator: Sorachi Hideaki
Director: Miyawaki Chizuru
Seiyū: Sugita Tomokazu (as Gintoki), Nakai Kazuya (Hijikata), Sakaguchi Daisuke (Shinpachi), Kugimiya Rie (Kagura), Ishida Akira (Katsura)
Now that the new series has come to a close I can finally say, with due authority, it goes out with a whimper.
That’s not to say the entire series is done for. It does leave off with a cliffhanger, but in the worst way: with several dozen manga chapters remaining and no immediate guarantee that this is just another hiatus.
Anyone familiar with this stupid blog is aware of my intense love for this stupid show. Some of the very best episodes of the series have aired this past year, and it never hit any true lows. That’s the advantage of a show that doesn’t deal in filler; occasionally you can see the padding, but it’s nominal, especially compared to long-run series that refuse to break to wait for more material from the original mastermind.
Nonetheless, it has been rocky. The appeal of this series has long been the lifelike blend of laughter and tears, but this season comprised an uncharacteristic segregation of the two, resulting in an uneasy sensation of coldness and distance that permeated even the silliest standalone stories. Still the highs in Gintama° are higher than the lowest of its off-color lows.
The storytelling. The season is front-loaded with comedy, with most of the multi-episode stories based on totally dumb premises. There’s a flashback arc that looks like Kuroko’s Basketball featuring Ono Kenshō (Kuroko himself), and a Bleach-flavored storyline, propelled by the absurdly talented Inoue Marina, that also manages to introduce the next major villain. There’s a forcibly faked death, a trial secretly by proxy, a time-stop, a soul-switch-em-up, a sex-change-em-up. . . .
The lows include, among other things, a bewildering absence of the plucky protagonist and his gang. It’s a Shinsengumi-heavy season—which is fine. They’re a strong bunch of characters, and the very roots of the series lie with them. At the height of popularity for the live-action drama Shinsengumi! in the early aughts, struggling young Sorachi was advised by his editor to ride the drama’s coattails and create his own series centered on this most famous historical faction. And so Gintama was born.
Though Hijikata is about as close as they come to a true deuteragonist in Gintama—as the title would suggest, it was always about Gintoki. Yet the final 17 episodes of this season—the two longest and most dead-serious arcs in series history—are punctuated by almost no focus on the actual protagonist. In this final stretch Gintoki relives the most painful moment of his life and witnesses the most disturbing sight in the (likely) decade since that moment.
But the series gives him no time to breathe or grieve, even as narration brings us three months forward in time. He is bound to be driven—to action, to anger, to insanity—but in the finale we get hardly one saccharine scene that concludes in a collective fit of laughter that sounds as misplaced and uncomfortable as it looks.
The characters. I’m not opposed to latecomers. Exhibit A: Tsukuyo wasn’t introduced until the 130s, and she is hands-down my favorite female of the cast, besides maybe old lady Otose. (PS, as much as I’m basically a Kinsey 0 and somehow still find Tsukuyo hot as hell—she’s a million times hotter as a man.)
Exhibit B: the newly-introduced Shinsengumi captain Saitō Shimaru, stealthily voiced by Sakurai Takahiro. (His characters are so varied that I absolutely NEVER recognize his voice until I look him up. He’s that good.) The script lays it on a little thick by having Sougo call him Shimaru-niisan several times in the course of one info dump, but his character arc is delightful, his plights eminently relatable.
That is what determines whether newcomers sink or swim: development. Another of the lows in Gintama° is a failure to let the audience identify with many new allies. One newbie is built up as an enemy in her introduction, and within minutes she is an ally that saves the day. I didn’t catch her name in my first viewing, so a couple days ago I looked it up, and I still don’t remember it so I’m not looking it up again because this is exactly the impact that she had on me. None. She’s cardboard. There’s no tonal context for her character, no reason to be attached to her. And yet she’s taking up space with the characters who have earned their place among the mains, trading esoteric fluff with longterm allies as if the audience has known her all along.
The situation is less pronounced but similar with the Mimawarigumi, the police force that rivals the Shinsengumi. Though they were of much greater renown in their day than the Shinsen militia, the Mimawari has fallen through the cracks of modern pop culture consciousness. Sorachi’s initial concept of his Okita character was actually female, but he abandoned the idea because the Shinsengumi did not allow women into its ranks. Well . . . neither did the Mimawarigumi. But they are so little known today that Sorachi probably felt more comfortable shaking up their ranks, finally able to fulfill that initial instinct to have a female Okita. Giving us the equally soulless killing machine Nobume.
This season delivered the third major arc in which she and her chief Sasaki appear. And for two they had not been portrayed sympathetically. While previously only hinted to be backdoor allies, the storytelling now insists that we should already feel for them, as though Sasaki was demonstrated to be more than an asshole one-percenter and Nobume as more than a flat-eyed donut hound.
The backstory they do receive in the end is a tearjerker, but only because Sorachi is a genius writer that twists words just right to make small things hit with gale-force impact. I still had no emotional attachment to these two—positive or negative—because neither had received any of those lighthearted character-building episodes that make the people in Gintama truly special. As a series so firmly rooted in “obnoxious bonds” it has felt somewhat detached from its own themes. Even the multitudes of truly bad guys don’t get the Alas, Poor Villain treatment that used to come standard with this series. Maybe there’s just that much missing, cut from the source material (or not yet reached). I’m too busy/lazy to find out right now. I might get back to you on that one someday.
The performances. Another disappointment is, shockingly, Sugita. A pre-season OVA has Gintoki saying it’d been so long between seasons that the voice actor “forgot how to do Gin-san’s voice”. There was maybe more to this than just a No Fourth Wall gag. There are a handful of episodes where he sounds like regular ol’ spunky Gintoki (296 being the most glowing example), but for the most part he sounds like a completely different character.
His voice comes out much deeper, which in itself is not disagreeable (read: “hot damn that baritone tho”), but the timbre is flat and disconnected and unfit for such a mischievous character. Sugita was already over 30 at the end of the last Gintama series, so I’m not ready to accept vocal maturation as the sole cause of this change. If it’d been ten years, maybe.
But it’s not just the raw quality of his voice. The character this time around is written rather flat, so already there’s a dearth of opportunities for him to show off. And even when he’s able to show off, it sounds like he’s phoning it in and even comes across as disingenuous at times. Maybe Sugita was experimenting with a more grown-up Gin-san. And maybe in the process he took one too many pages out of Nakamura’s book. (I LOVE YOU BUT YOUR BEST FRIEND IS A BORING ACTOR I’M SORRY.)
Nakai, on the other hand, knocks it out of the park. For example the soul-switch-em-up is occasion for him and Sugita to do impressions of one another. While Sugita’s “Nakai” is more or less just New Gintoki with maybe a higher frequency of poutiness—Nakai nails his impression from top to bottom. The singsong prosody, the nuanced emotional monologues, the carefree honesty . . . he’s got it all. Nakai does a better Gintoki Classic than Sugita himself.
Even without Sugita playing consistent boke ball Sakaguchi remains tsukkomi as ever, and while Kagura has the most distinctive speech patterns in the series—and thus the easiest role to screw up—here Kugimiya is better than perfection with all the material that gets thrown her way. The supporting cast shines just as brightly, notably Chiba Susumu (Kondō) and Yukino Satsuki (Otae) who, combined, brought me to tears with a single line on at least four separate occasions. (There was a good deal of crying this season.) And Katsura’s simple scripting comes alive in Ishida’s masterful hands. But this is not news. Overall the acting is just what you’d expect from Gintama: fluid, natural, and real.
The visual execution. Despite a batch of animators new to the series—whose character art is different to a noticeable and even distracting degree, especially on the ladies—the art is really good. Its polish may even be a contributor to that feeling of unease I had, since the series is usually a little more rough around the edges. (Too pretty? Who’da thunk.) The movement can be iffy in action sequences, but compared to the series as a whole it’s at or above par. While the director has mainly key animation credits under her belt, many of them are previous incarnations of Gintama. It’s her first rodeo as lead director, but she knows the material, and she knows animation. It shows.
This season brings the emergence of what appears to be the ultimate villain, and a unique feature of his animation highlights his otherworldly nature. In action sequences he is accentuated with a rainbow effect, which sounds kind of stupid on its face but is actually really cool conceptually. Like fucking Bruce Lee was too fast to film (they had to use more frames AND slow it down), this villain’s movements are so powerful that he can only be conceived of when broken down into prismatic fragments. I do not know who came up with this little piece of visual narrative but they deserve a medal.
If the action is at par, the stills are sublime. Shading/coloring is greatly improved, and an increase of close and metonymic shots (most frequently of mouths and jawlines) adds emotional depth and tension that is darker than ever before. This style may not have been a merit of the anime, but the source material; some fans complained that the director copied scenes frame-for-frame (or panel-for-shot) from the manga, unlike previous directors that added their own creative perspectives. Either way, it makes for the most visually striking and cinematic season thus far. In a word, it is beautiful.
51 of 316 episodes (from the series’ third lead director) isolated by two years’ distance is a rather short span compared to a continuous 581 chapters with a single author. So some incongruity was to be expected. In total the season isn’t a wash, not by a long shot. In many ways it’s the crowning achievement of a stellar series. But lots of small things total to a gestalt that is a little more impersonal than the magic that came before.