We’re quite fortunate to live in a time when the licensing of Japanese shows is pretty consistent. Although the ‘anime bubble’ may have popped, pretty much every good show and movie that comes out of the country gets a licensed release overseas. However, this isn’t always the case, and some popular works get tied up in red tape. With regards to the UK, this means that even a series that is enjoying an official release in other English speaking countries may not arrive here, usually for being too much of a financial gamble in our smaller market.
One such title is Gintama, which chronicles the comedic adventures of a former samurai in an alternate history Japan. DVD sets have appeared in America, but currently the series can only be seen in online streaming in the UK, a respectable avenue but one with lower exposure than a DVD release. So with the first movie now on DVD, perhaps they are testing the waters?
The tone of humour for the film is set immediately in an opening that wouldn’t be out of place in a Monty Python movie. No sooner has the iconic Warner Bros. distribution logo faded then the three leads are discussing just who these Warner Brother guys are and why they’re suddenly distributing anime. Offering a brief roast of animation studio Sunrise, this kicks off a series of fake prologues which end with an attempt to explain the backstory only to be cut off by the main character’s view that only hardcore fans watch such movie spinoffs anyway. Whilst funny and mostly true, this does cause a problem for those such as myself who aren’t fully immersed in Gintama’s lore.
Essentially, it’s about aliens attacking feudal Japan and warring with samurai for control of the land. The aliens effectively win but are courteous enough to not change too much other than opening Earth up to the wider races of the universe. Gintoki Sakata is one of these former samurai, now making a living by taking various odd jobs. He is aided by Shinpachi, a teenage student who is pretty much everyone’s doormat/straight man, and Kagura, a human-like alien girl possessed of certain invulnerability.
The plot focuses on Gintoki accepting a job to locate and reclaim an alleged evil sword which has been stolen and rumoured to carry a curse of possessing whoever wields it. At the same time, a mysterious night-roaming swordsman seemingly strikes down one of the group’s friends in a duel. Gintoki accepts the job but finds there’s a lot more going on than first expected.
The actual plot is a retelling of an earlier arc from the show. The film even has the balls to use ‘Rehash’ in the title. Not too big of an issue for a rookie such as myself, but appreciated in the face of all those reheated anime re-releases that try to hide behind fancy titles.
I’ll start off by saying I love the evil sword idea. Yes, the first thing that leapt to mind was Soul Calibur, but the idea of a seemingly inanimate object exerting a harmful power on living humans has always intrigued to me not only for the horror of the premise but for the commentary on greed and the human view of the world. With a weapon it becomes particularly chilling; we forge weapons ostensibly as tools for defence, so what happens when the human becomes the tool to a weapon with no moral compass?
The explanation for the sword’s nature is creative and fairly unique, more involved than something so vague as a curse, and fits well with the world in which it appears. It also allows the film to offer some impressive visuals as the ‘curse’ extends over the story.
Although the series’ sense of humour is displayed from the start, it unfortunately gets lost in a battle which seems overly long. Although there are moments of action spread throughout, the finale is a very long action sequence where all the characters gather to engage in various battles. The result reminded me of a mix between the finales of Ninja Scroll and Tekken: Blood Vengeance as this all occurs on a ship as the characters attempt to stop a plot to create unrest, and each seeming end point leads into another battle. The obvious centrepiece is Gintoki fighting the wielder of the ‘cursed’ sword, and whilst this does make for an impressive and emotional final battle, the film then continues into an even larger scale one where he and an ally flaunt their skills against enemy hordes.
Aside from length, the issues of absent humour and familiarity are the two other issues with this whole sequence. There’s still the odd joke (mostly from Elizabeth, a strange gag character who, again, seems to lean on familiarity) but the film starts playing things more dramatically and in a way that seems to hinge on the viewer being familiar and fond of these characters. Now, I don’t want to fault it unfairly for this; again, the film admits at the start that this is aimed at existing fans and I myself don’t like it when I see a review take issue with such continuations for things I am a fan of. But when such a story is being presented as the sole example in a particular market it’s a massive gamble.
At the same time, I don’t want to sound like I’m faulting the film for stepping away from constant humour. I admit that all I’ve seen of Gintama have been very funny comedy moments, and there may well be serious undertones to it I’m not aware of. But in all honesty, Gintama does comedy very well whilst the dramatic moments instead come off as the same tired stuff you’ll find in just about any anime. A good story requires a balance of light and dark, but I feel Gintama’s strength is the light. This is only furthered by the fact the dramatic story thread of the film ends on a ‘to be continued in the show’ note. Luckily, the comedy does return with a vengeance before all is said and done.
The film is presented in a choice of Japanese or English. Whilst English dubs are becoming increasingly rarer, I feel this really isn’t one of the better ones for a few reasons. I appreciate that as the first dubbed Gintama installment it must have proved a challenge for the actors, as of course the original cast were all firmly established in these roles and riding on the coat tails of a successful TV run. However the dub just seems stuck between dodgy performances and botched translations.
A perfect example is the scene where Gintoki takes the job to find the sword. The constantly shouting sword smith doesn’t acknowledge a single one of his questions as he continues to stubbornly tell the story, leading to a punchline as Gintoki grows more and more annoyed. The dub for some reason has each part of the sword smith’s dialogue begin with him directly acknowledging the questions yet Gintoki still responds as if he isn’t. How can the subtitles on the disc get the joke but not the dub?
Likewise, the subtitles translate the main group as Odd Jobs Crew/Gang, yet the dub uses the straight Japanese word. I’m really glad I watched the subs first because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to understand a story element. Haven’t we moved beyond the days of pointless ‘It’s cooler to keep the Japanese!’ non-translation?
In terms of acting, I unfortunately have to single out Mark X. Laskowski’s performance as Shinpachi. The character obviously calls for a goofy voice, but a mix of lack of energy and flat line reads means it’s no match for Daisuke Sakaguchi’s performance in the original, which really sounds like an average guy who can’t catch a break. Again though, this may be casualty of the pressure on the dub cast.
Gintama The Movie is a lot of fun, but I’m not sure how well it works as a gateway for the main show. As an anime tie-in movie it is pretty much shooting for the existing fans, and the brilliant meta thread of the relationship between Japanese studios and American licensors is barely touched on. Fans of the show will certainly want to add it to their collection, but others will be better off watching the TV show first.
Gintama The Movie (UK Edition) is available from www.amazon.co.uk.