July 24, 2007
by: Serdar Yegulalp
It was a surprise smash hit in Japan, and now this outlandish mix of stinging cultural commentary and pie-in-the-face comedy is ours to enjoy, too.
Manga Description: Back in the old days, samurai walked the streets as if they owned them. But then an alien race landed in Japan and stripped the samurai of their status and their swords. In the world of Gin Tama, history takes a wrong turn: samurai in this alternate Japan must live alongside aliens - not to mention guns, TVs, cars, and spaceships.
Sakata "Gin" Gintoki is a goofy former samurai who'll take on any odd job to make ends meet. His greatest wish is to protect Japan from yakuza and dishonorable aliens, and return Japan to its former glory - all with a wooden sword!
Content: (This section may contain spoilers.)
Gin’s a sleepy-eyed fellow with a shock of silver hair and a mouth that looks like it was designed to say nothing but insults, which is not far from the truth. The occupation on his business card reads Odd Jobs, and from what we can see, he does mean odd. He works out of the second story of a ratty building where the rent goes perpetually unpaid in exchange for doing favors for his crabby landlady, like fixing her VCR (which, given the rest of his personality, he probably accomplished by smacking the thing against a doorframe). He’s a quintessential underdog: perpetually broke, always in one kind of trouble or another—and, worst of all, his blood sugar’s so dangerously high he can’t have more than one chocolate parfait a week. It's a small wonder why, in the opening scene, when a couple of clumsy aliens knocks over said dessert, he goes Viking on their faces with a (banned) wooden practice weapon.
Yes, folks, aliens—the “Amanto” who have blanketed Japan in Gin Tama’s alternate reality, crowding into every aspect of life and leaving the proud samurai of old feeling extremely out of place. It’s a parallel to a part of Japan’s own history, when centuries of Shogunate rule ended and “aliens” from the outside world flooded in to do business. And, in a way, it’s also a parallel for the changing Japan of today, where everyone from Americans teaching English to Portuguese day laborers and Korean professionals are doing their best to fit into a nominally insular society that looks askance at outsiders.
Arrgh. I’m making Gin Tama sound too much like a history lesson. What it is, first and foremost, is really, really funny. There’s a reason it’s become one of Japan’s biggest hit comics: it’s not only got a lot of knowing jabs at modern (and not-so-modern) life in Japan in the guise of its story, it’s got one splutteringly broad laugh after another. I made the terrible mistake of trying to read it at Otakon’s manga library room and ended up almost shoving my whole hand into my mouth to keep from cracking up. Many of the jokes are gleefully dumb and obvious, but they’re also served up in a wrapper of smart satire that makes them work all the more.
The story wastes no time getting everyone into trouble. Right after the aforementioned restaurant bust-up, Gin sticks one of the hapless wait staff with his wooden sword and hightails it away from the scene on his scooter. The sap in question, Yashichi, is ultra-livid for getting shafted like that—but not quite as livid as his sister is when she sees him tooling around town instead of sweating blood at his now-former job. Once she finds out Gin’s responsible for getting Yashichi sacked, she deals him a beating of his own, to which Gin replies by delivering one of the many, many priceless lines he has throughout the story: “It was my big intro scene. I guess I kinda went overboard.” (Fourth-wall-busting gags festoon the pages: at one point Yashichi berates Gin for only protecting him for a single page. Gin’s retort: “Shut up! One page is a long time for a manga artist!”)
Yashichi and his sister are stuck with a husk of a former business, a dojo, that no longer has relevance in their world. With swords banned and samurai on the unemployment line, why bother? Worse, they’re in debt up to their nostrils to Amanto moneylenders, and the only way out seems to have the girl sell herself to a hostess-club-in-the-sky where she’ll probably be doing a lot more than just pouring drinks. Gin’s response to all this is to get fighting mad, smash heads together, and substitute pure moxie and headstrong courage for anything remotely resembling a plan. Of course it works.
That’s how Yashichi and Gin end up working together, although it’s a serious stretch of terminology to call what they do “work.” It consists of solving problems no one else in their right minds would touch—such as, for instance, locating an influential alien’s missing pet … a Cthulhu-oid creature about the size of, oh, a small office building, with a penchant for snacking on anything that moves.
And then they acquire another hanger-on: Kagura, an alien girl with terrible command of the language—she doesn’t just mangle her sentences but folds, spindles and mutilates them for good measure. She also happens to be nearly indestructible (Gin runs over her by mistake, but she rebounds in fairly short order), can break people’s hands without so much as blinking, and is currently on the lam from the thugs who’ve enslaved her into service as a contract killer. She’s angling for a change of career, and to that end nonchalantly weasels her way under Gin’s roof. Not what Gin needs, especially when she tears through ten whole bowls of rice in one sitting … and then just starts eating right out of the cooker. Things get even worse when an old friend of Gin’s shows up and gets him sucked into dealing with a gang of anti-government rebels who’re running around and blowing things up.
It’s not the plot that makes Gin Tama work, as you can probably figure out by now. It’s the attitude, the approach, and especially the biting, irreverent humor. Sometimes the jokes are fairly low-key, like a gag about what day of the week Shonen Jump comes out in Japan, and sometimes they’re as unsubtle as a frying pan to the face: how about chapter titles like “People Who Make Good First Impressions Usually Suck” or “If You Jerks Have Enough Free Time to Spread Terror, You’d Better Go Walk Your Dog?”
Art: Hideaki Sorachi is hardly a genius of comics or anything—his art’s basic and serviceable, and occasionally a bit stiff. This isn’t a title you’ll read for the art. But the important things are all here: he knows how to hustle the story along, and stop at exactly the right moment to get the best laugh out of a gag.
Translation: Viz took a pretty no-frills approach for Gin Tama—it’s in right-to-left format, but the effects have been retouched and the signs relettered, although there is the occasional cultural note in the frame margins. It doesn’t play badly at all, though, and for a story like this (where a lot of the gags work best when they’re taken immediately on face value) it actually works fine. Bonuses include “Dandelion,” an early Sorachi work that first garnered him attention, sketches for “Samurai-der,” the prototype story that was eventually kicked to the curb and revamped as Gin Tama, and “Totally Naked Gin Tama,” a riotous author’s afterword where he spills the whole can of beans about how the manga came to be.
The Bottom Line: I’m glad Shonen Jump and Viz had the nerve to bring this title out here, because it’s not hard to see how it commanded such a huge audience back home. And if Gin Tama sounds as unlikely to you as a hit as it did to me, be warned: the first volume alone may be enough to make a believer out of you.