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Andrew Osmond gets to grips with Gintama the Movie

Gintama doesn’t start like your average anime. It begins, Muppet Show style, with the main characters fretting about the movie we’re going to watch – “Why are the Warner Brothers (sic) making a samurai movie anyway?” They squabble over how to tell the story; it’s suggested they should explain everything for newbies, but that’s nixed because, “Only hardcore fans will come anyway; we’re very selective!” In fact, it’s easy for newbies to pick up the basics, especially if you like oddball comedy and SF, but here are some pointers.

The Gintama film is based on a long-running anime and manga series created by Hideaki Sorachi, which has racked up nearly fifty manga books and over 200 TV episodes. It is, indeed, a samurai anime, set in the nineteenth-century city of Edo (Tokyo as-was) with plenty of swordplay and lean, cool warriors furiously pledging their honour. It also has a giant duck (well, something like a duck). And a giant dog. And flying warships, and spaceships, and A.I. technology. Er, what is this again?

You can class Gintama as alternate history, or as a very Japanese kind of steampunk, but the most fitting category for the show is “messing things about.” It’s a riff on real history; in 1853, Japan’s fate was transformed when America’s “black ships” sailed to the isolated island, and made Japan open up to the world. Gintama, though, imagines that instead of Americans, Japan was visited by honest-to-goodness aliens, who thrashed the samurai and conquered the country. Decades later, Japanese society has been transformed by all manner of anachronisms, from TV to manga comics. It’s a burlesque, pantomime Japan, accommodating bloody battles and Carry On Edo comedy.

The show’s main characters are three self-employed odd-jobbers. Gintoki is a full-fledged samurai who fought on the losing side against the aliens. Like many anime heroes, he’s nonchalant and undignified, but has superhuman skills. Shinpachi is a meek youth with glasses, and the butt of much of the humour, but he wields a decent blade too. The girl Kagura is a peppery tomboy with kick-ass speed and strength. She’s actually an alien, but very earthy (if she challenges you to a spitting contest, look out!). Another ally who plays a large role in the film is Elizabeth, the aforementioned giant duck, with a deadpan demeanour and the habit of commenting on the action with signboards (“This is a violent anime!”).

If you want to consider Gintama seriously, the retro-invasion might seem daft, but it’s a cartoon of how Japan’s development was accelerated in staggering ways from the mid-19th century. By extension, the conflicts in the film reflect the lacerating identity crises that would drive Japan to Pearl Harbour. As in anime like Summer Wars and Towanoquon, the past persists in the present. The main weapon in the film is a tech-enhanced super-sword; one character praises the capriciousness of making such a tool in an age of guns. But ideals aren’t necessarily good. The sword’s creator is eaten by his desire to make an ultimate, invincible weapon, for which you can read A-Bomb. The film’s main adversary, Takasugi, is obsessed with avenging the past through destroying Japan as it’s become.

The conflict between Gintoki, Takasugi and a third samurai may mean the least to newbies who’ve not seen the show. You get an idea of the scale of the series, though, from the comedy epilogue after the fake end credits. In it, a massive crowd of Gintama characters burst in, demanding a proper role in the next film! British viewers may get the chance to see more of them in the show itself. Manga Entertainment has said it’ll consider releasing it if the film sells well.

But just on the film’s own terms, how many anime can match it for fourth-wall busting humour; an Akira-style cyborg mutant who brings down flying ships with a sword; gags about Bleach, Naruto and Lupin; and the most adorable oversized bird since Eva’s Pen-Pen? Not to mention my favourite line of dialogue, which is said sternly by Kagura to her loyal canine steed as she sends it on an urgent Lassie mission. “Even if you see a cute doggie – no humping!”

Gintama the Movie is out on UK DVD on Christmas Eve from Manga Entertainment.


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