Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Gintoki Sakata

“Listen up! Let's say you drink too much strawberry milk and have to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. But it's cold outside your bed. You don't want to get up, but the urge to urinate is just too strong! You make up your mind to go! You run to the bathroom, stand in front of the toilet, and let loose! You think that all your life has led to this moment! But then you realize! It isn't the bathroom! You're still in bed! That feeling of lukewarm wetness spreads like wildfire! But you don't stop! You can't stop! That's what I'm talking about! That's the truth of the strawberry milk! Do you get it?!”

Not quite the rousing speech one might expect, eh? With this silver-haired samurai at the reins, it becomes quickly apparent that shounen-action will never be quite the same. Whereas protagonists such as Ichigo Kurosaki of Bleach churn out excruciatingly corny one-liners such as:

Zangetsu: "Do you want to fight? Or do you want to live?"
Ichigo: "I want to win!"

the klutzy hero of Gintama spends time busting his balls to enlighten us about the humble wonder of calcium-rich beverages laced with sugary strawberry syrup. Because that’s just who he is.


Gintoki Sakata is has become quite a name in anime ever since his series debuted in April of 2006. In fact, during Newtype’s decade-sweeping popularity poll, he placed 8th in the 2000’s male bracket. And unlike glitzy pretty boys such as Kira Yamato, he actually earned such a vaunted position, instead of sailing to victory on the pedigree of a face-crunchingly popular franchise.

So why is it exactly that the sweet-toothed samurai deserves to carve trace with urine his name amongst the anime icons of yore? As I mentioned in my eulogy to Gintama, Gintoki is one of the niftiest, most fascinating, and most groundbreaking characters to date, even moreso due to his genre of choice. He puts such a delightfully unpredictable spin on a tiresome, oft-maligned archetype that he towers above the competition with his dead-fish eyes peeking out from underneath those deliciously white-permed bangs.

First off, Gintoki owes a lot to his excellent character design. As crazy hair is revered in anime circles, that unkempt, wavy silver-hair is a distinctive cornerstone. But equally so is his aforementioned strikingly unamused gaze. His default disgruntled expression could be a result of sheer indifference, but it could also mean that maybe, just maybe, this guy’s got his reasons for being fed up with life.

Likewise, the half-draped-on kimono could be indicative of Gintoki’s pure apathy on maintaining a tidy appearance. But it also shows that he’s only half-willing to let go of his samurai roots. Or maybe that old bushido code is something that will forever cling to his person and he’s just given up on shrugging it off. Isn’t it nice when a design can be not only iconic and distinctive, but also articulate?

I’m sure plenty of people picked up on the handful of similarities between Gintama and the 1990s sword-swingin’ samurai hit Rurouni Kenshin and it’s easy to draw comparisons between pacifistic wanderer, Kenshin Himura and silver samurai, Gintoki Sakata. They’re both wayward, disillusioned spirits who reject yet are constantly followed by their destructive pasts where they each garnered a deadly reputation on the battlefield.

However, Gintoki is far from an expy of Kenshin. I believe the reason Gintoki is so well received is that he is, in fact, not so much of an upgrade of Kenshin Himura, as an update of our favorite ponytailed, retired manslayer.

You see, back in the day, Kenshin’s "speak-softly-and-carry-a-reverse-bladed-sword" badassery was the norm for gutsy action shows. In present day, however, we’re still weathering the onslaught of school or small-community-based series’. It’s not too far-fetched to suggest that, nowadays, we react better to characters we can identify with and this desire is not lost on the part of the creative design team.

As of recent, shounen series’ seem to be leaning away from shining the spotlight onto plucky, wide-eyed peaceniks and towards molding their protagonists into audience surrogates. It’s a new paradigm for a new age. Just look at Ichigo. He’s a character that the demographic can relate to; a brash, reckless high school student. Because, you know, it’s cool to be independent and incorrigible at that age. Well supposedly, at any rate.

Gintoki, on the other hand, definitely embodies a lot of what makes up your typical high-school/college otaku. He’s precisely the vicarious vessel that we want our heroes to be; cool, but in that flaky, smart-alecky sort of way, while also feeling very real and relatable. Unlike Ichigo, whose deeply-ingrained heroic streak benumbs his alleged rebelliousness, Gintoki is genuinely lazy, apathetic, and obsessed with shounen manga. He shares the same laid-back, no-frills attitude that most, if not all of us content ourselves with whenever real life starts rearing its ugly head.

And like Kyon of Suzumiya Haruhi (whose voice was also provided by Tomokazu Sugita starting in the exact same week of the exact same year), Gintoki is rife with inherent charm because he’s a fantastic deadpan snarker who constantly bemoans the fact that the weight of the world is too much for him to bear. I know it’s a given, but he’s really good at it. And for the exactly same reasons, i.e. because his unforgiving sarcasm is invitingly incisive; well-written and realistic to the point where the old saying “it’s funny because it’s true” holds considerable weight. Gintoki’s an unrepentant smartass, on par with Kyon, whose dry comebacks and lemony commentary overclock the comedy processing unit.

I think this overgeneralized math equation says it best:
Gintoki is the best parts of Kyon, the best parts of Kenshin, and the sweetest part of L. He’s snide, smart-tongued, and wrapped up in trying to shoo away all the unpleasant eccentricities that keep knocking at his door, thus fulfilling the role of The Unfunny almost too well (as the head of an Odd Jobs business in an alien-inhabited 1860’s Japan, did you really expect much else, Gin-chan?) while also having the ability to get downright dangerous and lay some serious beatings on anyone who messes with him.

It’s true that he sobers up and kicks ass during all the climactic showdowns as shounen tradition dictates. But unlike all the rest of the shounen heroes who invariably get devoured by all the groan-inducing theatrics, Gintoki maintains his supremely wry, maverick edge even when he’s forced to flaunt the usual shounen schtick.

For example, during the Itou arc, he refers to his ties with the Shinsengumi as “obnoxious bonds” and refuses to state just what it is that he has always fought for. I mean, his unwavering devotion to his nakama is pretty obvious, but the fact that it isn’t explicitly spelled out is quite a refreshing twist.

We’ve seen this sort of attitude before, but, as mentioned, that spectacular snark combined with the fact that he is the main character as opposed to the Lancer or the Aloof Ally in a shounen-action series is very much the strawberry-on-top.

He’s truly the best of both worlds. Unmotivated, sardonic, desperate to obtain the newest Weekly Shounen Jump, and generally a derisive jerk to everyone around him. But at the same time, honorable, skilled, and willing to go to any lengths to help a person in need, be it those in his beloved nakama who he is inwardly affectionate towards or complete strangers.

No, seriously. He’ll do anything to help a troubled soul, whether it be taking a sound beating to bring the son of a Yazuka boss to his senses, tackling a cult of onmyouji and demons to bring the smile back to a weather girl’s face, or challenging, one-on-one, the mob boss of the strongest alien race in the galaxy just to reunite a scruffy pickpocket with his long-lost mother. Remember, Gintoki still upholds the old bushido code, which has the stunning effect of making him an impertinent, covert chevalier.

In essence, all of the admirable parts of a traditional shounen hero with none of the inane cheesiness and a healthy drizzling of goofy, cheeky chutzpah. Gintoki serves as both an excellent touch-point for the otaku crowd while also playing the role of untouchably cool, wooden-katana wieldin’ warrior.

Is he this decade’s Kenshin? Of course not. Gintoki Sakata is a remarkable being unto himself; the luminescent silver-lining to the hoary cloud of shounen action.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a tall glass of strawberry milk awaiting my undivided attention.