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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Gintama Swan Song

I’m in the same boat as all the diehard Gintama worshippers out there. March 25, 2010 was a sad, sad day for us all. After four years and 201 episodes of cheers and jeers, the Yorozuya have finally shut their doors on the animation side of the pond.

Now, it isn’t the end of the world quite just yet. Hideki Sorachi is still furiously inking away week-after-week, bringing us tales of the silver-haired samurai and his eccentric entourage. In fact, as of this writing, I hear that the series is in the middle of another one of its brilliant “serious” arcs, concerning the four leaders of the Kabuki district. And of course, the Benizakura movie is still set to premiere in late April.

Still, my heart does weep faintly at the thought of not being able to kick back with my favorite, frenetic, featherbrained crew every week. But at least the series ended on a high note and for all the right reasons. I’m glad Sunrise decided not to forfeit Gintama’s integrity by flooding the series with mediocre filler, as is par for the course with every other long-running shounen-action series to date. It’s not that the Gintama can’t pull off good filler per se; it’s more that creating filler for a unique series like Gintama is a grueling ordeal. As it’s based off an ongoing manga, every filler gag used robs the mangaka of potential material in the future.

For example, Episode 166, which forced Gintoki and Hijikata together by way of (double) handcuffs, had me howling with laughter at every turn. From the café scene to the painstakingly-elaborate bathroom-configurations to Gintoki and Hijikata wiping out an entire warehouse full of thugs in spite of the literal bind that they’d been placed in, everything was perfect. Hands-down one of my favorite episodes of the series. And yet it was filler.

Problem is, Sorachi can no longer pen a chapter based around any of those truly hysterical antics. While it was probably simple enough to get his consent on the handful of gags used in that one brilliant filler episode, just think of how unreasonable it would be to ask for 50 episodes’ worth of original material upfront!

So I totally get why Gintama had no choice but to stop. It’s bittersweet in every sense of the word. Gintama fans, myself included of course, won’t have our hearts broken seeing the series’ reputation get dragged through the dirt. Sunrise gets to take a break and promote their movie. And Sorachi gets to continue cranking out chapters of his opus uninterrupted. After suffering through some short-term withdrawal, it’s easy to see that everyone wins.

With that out of the way, the time is ripe to rifle through our scrapbooks full of great Gintama memories. To start, I personally was hooked from the very beginning. The concept of a comedy-action series that involved aliens invading Edo-period Japan was way too wacky and haphazard to pass up. It’s truly Anachronism Stew at its absolute finest.

But there were also a wealth of factors that kept me stranded in Edo for months to come. For one, Gintoki himself was endearing and engaging right from the get-go. And while I consider him groundbreaking and one of the niftiest characters to date, I harbor unconditional love for the rest of the cast as well. Together, they form one incomparable group of screwballs.

Secondly, the series really has a firm grasp on the Sliding Scale of Seriousness Versus Silliness. The comedy bits are absolute genius. The material is as smart as it is ambitious (see the boundary-pushing Neon Genesis Evangelion ending sequence or Nausicaa parody) and the relentless deluge of references and shout-outs is unceasingly entertaining. And when the time comes to sober up and get dangerous, Gintama eagerly jumps at the call, nimbly going from mirthful and jovial to grave and somber with nary an awkward tonal shift in sight. I often refer to Gintama as the Ouran High School Host Club of shounen-action in the way it both mocks and pays homage to the genre.

"Congratulations"

But enough of the qualitative stuff. This is supposed to be a relaxing look back at a series that has already proved itself a modern-day classic after all. Starting from the beginning, the first pivotal arc is where the series started to catch its stride.

Benizakura reminded me of the episode where Hajime Saitou made his appearance in Rurouni Kenshin in that it was a grim, jarring departure from the lighthearted hijinks that we were all accustomed to. Benizakura is where Gintama finally got to strut its stuff; the fight between Gintoki and Nizo was a crude, sword-clanging fracas and all of the staples of shounen-action (i.e. the unwavering determination, heroic quips, and inseparable ties holding the nakama together) were showcased at their best without feeling like they were poured on too thick.

“Take a good long look at this sword your sister forged…and see how well it cuts!”

Oh, and Katsura’s back-to-back badass with Gintoki was nothing short of epic.

Speaking of the Sliding Scale of Silliness Versus Seriousness, the Mitsuba two-parter was a shining example of how to switch over from laughs to tears without succumbing to Cerebus Syndrome. It proved that Gintama is right up there with shows like Ouran in terms of pumping out solid, sentimental character development. Never had it been clearer that the Shinsengumi was an organization forged by unbreakable bonds of loyalty and friendship.

“We’re lucky, you know that? To have such lousy friends.”

Hijikata flourished in his oh-so-badassery by stating that he falls more on the side of Noble Demon rather than Demonic Vice-Commander, then hacking his way through a dock full of terrorists all on his own. Also, who could forget Okita settling the score with his sister’s corrupt suitor by slicing his car cleanly in two? And finally, the unbelievably heartrending scene of Okita and Mitsuba saying their goodbyes. *sniff*

The Shinsengumi discord arc. Oh, where do I begin? Without a doubt, my favorite lengthy arc of the entire series, the Shinsengumi discord arc was a multifaceted, moiling rollercoaster ride from start to finish.

As always, the arc started off inconspicuously and innocuously with Hijikata’s possession by a demonic sword that housed the spirit of an otaku. It wasn’t until Treacherous Advisor Itou proclaimed his bid to usurp Kondo that things really started to spiral out of control.

From there, the rest of the arc flew by in a blur of head-spinning insanity crammed full of Crowning Moments of Awesome. Okita blenderizing a train carriage’s worth of Shinsengumi traitors, Hijikata breaking the curse through his irrepressible loyalty to his commander alone, and Bansai Kawakami trading blows with the White Demon himself.

The revelation of Itou’s tragic backstory was perfectly placed and again, took what would normally have been a flagrant foible of shounen-action and presented it in a manner that was satisfyingly poignant. And after the requisite reconciliation, Gintoki did layeth the smackdown on Bansai by delivering an impressively charismatic and charged Shut Up Hannibal to our misguided musical assailant; a speech that took first place in Gintama’s best quote’s compilation.

“Then and now…what I protect HAS NEVER CHANGED!”

Yoshiwara-Shangrila was also quite a treat. Granted, Knight-of-Cerebus Shinsuke Takasugi was absent, but the introduction of psychotic Blood Knight Kamui more than made up for it. More than anything, however, this arc made me realize how much I love Gintoki’s fantastic snarking during his Big Damn Hero entrances. He even engages in some chummy foul-mouthed bickering with Tsukuyo in the middle of the climactic battle with Hosen, the lovably smart-alecky rebellious spirit.

And speaking of Gintoki vs. Hosen, yes it was a balls-tighteningly spectacular fight. I’m still surprised at how worked up I get watching the showdown, specifically the conclusion where Gintoki spits another one of his scornful retorts at Hosen, then proceeds to drive Lake Toya right through the dastardly mob boss, blasting him out of the arena and into the sunlight.

“Gin-san!!! Burn the chains off…the King of the Night!”

Aside from the major arcs, there are simply too many epic episodes to list. The two with Sakamoto were unforgettable, mostly due to Shinichiro Miki’s hyena-laugh. Video game-centric arcs such as the Ow-wee arc, the Screwdriver arc, or the Tama arc were all clever, high-brow, sublime parodies. Seriously, making fun of video games in an intelligent manner is tricky business and Gintama might be the only series that has done it successfully, i.e. without looking pathetically misinformed. And as someone who views the Saw franchise as a guilty pleasure, I was positively smitten when I saw Hijikata and Okita chained together in a chilling death trap masterminded by a puppet-masked villain (or so it seemed).

If I had to pick out a favorite mini-arc besides Mitsuba’s, I did enjoy Okita’s Death Flag arc, which brought out more and more sides to our rebellious little sadist. But I’ve got to give it to the Ryugu palace arc, which had an ending that mercilessly yanked at the heartstrings. It still amazes me how Gintama can take something that would normally be eye-rollingly hokey and turn it into something unaffectedly heartfelt.

I was fully expecting Gintama to get an unceremonious send-off as the Exorcism arc wasn’t the most fulfilling way to end an incredible journey. And then when the series started the Santa arc, things kept looking bleaker and bleaker. However, I’m glad to say that the final episode turned out to be an incredibly satisfying way to end the tale of our intrepid Odd-Jobbers.

Instead of pulling out all the stops and descending into the usual rhapsodical ramblings that the series is infamous for, Gintama decided to go for the most low-key, “shootin’-the-breeze” kind of ending ever with Kagura’s final words of “Happy Merry Last Episode!” being the only reference to the series’ departure.

It really brought a smile to my face. All too often does a series based off of a manga crash clumsily into its finale, leaving us wracked with disbelief at how half-baked the ending was. Great Teacher Onizuka, Soul Eater, and even Ouran to name a few. While there was no closure in Gintama’s case, the series definitely went out smoothly and demurely and for a series that’s as polemical as it it trollemical, a humble bow as the curtains fell was the best way to go.

I hear the series is slated for a comeback in the future and I yearn for the day Gintama returns to wow us on a weekly basis. ‘Til then, though:

SEE YOU SILVER SAMURAI

4 comments:

  1. Excellent overview. Man points to you my good sir!
    I think another few bits that should be mentioned should be the Jiraia Arc, as that was one of the first times we actually get a real look at Gin's past. In addition there is the episode, "The "kiai!" is critical" (Episode 50), where they basically parody every major shonen currently running. Another great point to Gintama is its music score (notable contributers are Audio HIGHS and Kamagata Eiichi),which by and large are superb and put alot of modern animes to shame. On the subject of the music, the intros and outros throughout the series are amongst the best ever heard (honourable mentions go to DOES and The Rodeo Carburettor for these). One further important fact to mention is that under the vale of brilliant comedy, the actual characters are deep and well thought out (in other words if the straight comedy is not your thing, the 'serious' arcs are well worth checking out, but I would recommend watching it from start to finish, in order, since the series is greatest that way....oh yeah, and don't be put off by the average first episode that is probably one of the weakest amongst the series!). Also on a final note, as mentioned by ILLCONSTRUCT, the filler in this series is actually great, so if you skip it, you will miss out on some great bits!
    Once again, great overview of an even greater series! This one here is a must watch!

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  2. Oh yes, one further thing, if wondering what subs to go for, Rumblesubs are the best and most accurate translation for this series around....however they are a fair bit behind the anime, so bear with them as they catch up!

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  3. Ah yes, Episode 50 was indeed another shining example of how to pull off parody. Can't believe I missed that one. And yes, I thought the Jiraiya arc was excellent, specifically the gritty, stencilized duel between Gintoki and Jiraiya. It kinda speaks volumes when, over the course of 201 episodes, it's hard to find one that didn't stand out in some way.

    Yeah, the music definitely deserves a mention. All the OPs and EDs are catchy and feel like a throwback to the 90's when shows were more about wholesome frolicking fun. And the insert songs are quite memorable as well. The one never fails to get me choked up is "Koko Wa Samurai No Kuni Da" aka that oh-so-recognizable melancholic ditty that plays during all the sad bits.

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  4. Man, after recently finishing the Gintama anime myself, this was just what I needed to read. Thanks for such a well-written tribute!

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