Anime is often a synonym for the absurd. Whether we are talking about the impossibly spiked points of Vegeta’s hair or the rubber infused Gomu-Gomu power of Captain Luffy’s Limbs, absurdity is a norm in Japanese animation. Goofy, loveable characters and their larger than life plots are a staple of the genre. They are the universal constant by which their genius creators manage to turn outrageous concepts and ideas into multi-million dollar fun. Which brings us to the world of Amanto. Where a lazy samurai, an idol obsessed otaku, and young alien girl with superpowers, struggle to make ends meat. What better way to celebrate April and its holiday for fools than to start the party early with one of the most popular comedic anime ever created, the absurd: Gintama.
Animated by Sunrise Studio and based on the wildly popular manga of the same name by Hideaki Sorachi, Gintama is a long running, gag driven, anime series. The premise for the original story came about due to Hideaki’s editor wanting him to write something historical. Sadly, Hideaki wasn’t really interested and instead wanted to write a story about aliens. Neither fully got their wish and the story ended up being a historical joke manga about a parallel world where aliens invade Edo, Japan. Told from the point of view of a down and out Samurai named Gintoki (as well as his friends Kagura and Shinpachi), the story follows a group of three losers who work as a kind of neighborhood fix it all service. Anything from finding your lost pet, to fighting toe to toe with alien ninjas, Gintoki and Co. can handle it. Except when they can’t, which is nearly always. In that case everything goes to shit and the hilarity of it all brings the episode to completion.
Everything from Gintama’s plot to its diverse cast of characters is based firmly in the absurd. Nothing is supposed to seem realistic because the whole premise of the show is Hideaki playing a joke on his editor. Except the joke ended up being so well done and funny that it kept going, eventually turning into a cornerstone series of Shonen Jump’s already big hitting lineup; and the world is a better place for it. Watching Gintama is waking up to an April Fool’s joke every Thursday. Each episode is a complete mystery, there is no predicting what the plot might do or how the characters are going to react. There is a tension that pervades each episode as the jokes slowly line up and take shape. Sometimes the wait is nonexistent and the show starts off with a bang, or a fart. And other times the jokes slowly burn their way through the episode only to take fire as the ending credits begin roll. One of the advantages of being a show that doesn’t take itself too seriously is that there is a tantalizing diversity to the kinds of jokes being put on display. Hideaki has all the room in the world to experiment and he uses that to full effect.
Take this clip for example:
In this clip Gintoki and Co. are all in an accident and stranded on a deserted island, each of them believing that they are the sole survivors and are completely alone. Believing this they begin to do things that they would never do in front of their friends. The gag starts out normal enough with Shinpachi streaking nude on the beach. Then it gets weirder, and funnier, with Gintoki being found practicing his Kamehameha. From there things get even stranger as the references and punch lines get more obscure. Both Otae and Kagura are caught doing things that are embarrassing specifically in the context of Japanese culture. Singing a popular vocaloid song and wondering if there is a floating castle in the sky respectively. Then the gag finally ends with Katsura doing a mixture of everything that everyone else was embarrassed over and his reasoning is complete nonsense. The characters, let alone the viewer, have no idea what he’s talking about when he explains himself. It is this kind of wild experimentation that makes each episode a joy to watch. There is literally no telling what the hell is going to come out of a character’s mouth. Sometimes they do things we can all understand but most of the time they are off in fucking lala land and the viewer is left rolling in his seat. This kind of comedic progression is classic Gintama.
A sorely misunderstood aspect of comedy as a genre is that a sense of humor can exist solely in a vacuum, that a joke can just be funny without having any setup or comedic timing. That is just not true. The funniest material always comes from having either a dramatic or serious setup or being based on something relatable. Gintama understands this concept better than pretty much any other anime that I have ever seen. It has an amazing ability to come across in one moment as really tense and serious only to break the silence with a with a gloriously timed dick joke. This balance is what drives Gintama as a show. The cycle of heavy drama and characterization followed by the inevitable fart. There is a depth on display catches the viewer off guard and heavily rewards their initial investment of time and energy. Gintama uses its silly to do things and that is rare thing indeed in this age of laugh track and gimmick.
At its heart Gintama is all about its all-star cast of characters. Through the shows near endless onslaught of jokes each and every character is given space to grow and develop. Keep in mind that this show is still airing today and after starting in 2006 there are upwards of three hundred episodes. Even characters who started out as unimportant set pieces have end up getting their own episodes and storylines. That is the true strength of having a show that is simply about creating jokes. There is no tight leading storyline; no need to constantly thrust the story forward in one direction. Instead Hideaki can spend time wandering around the streets he has painstakingly created. What this leads to is giant long running gags. Jokes that start of as small one offs and then snowball into gags that span entire episodes and arcs; an evolution that is not only seriously fun to watch but also quite rewarding.
Watching Gintama pays off. It doesn’t leave good setup wasted. It doesn’t leave a funny joke alone. Because of this simple fact, no matter how absurd things get, there is always a reason to keep watching and investing in the characters. Hideaki doesn’t take his artistic freedoms for granted and he transforms what could have otherwise been a shallow and uninspired premise into hands down one of the funniest anime ever created. So do yourself a favor this April, don’t be a fool and watch some Gintama.