If you take a look at MyAnimeList‘ Top 50 ranked anime of all time, you will see up to 5 animes related to Gintama, be it different seasons or movies. Despite not being that well-known in Western countries, Gintama is one of the most successful shounen stories in recent years, yet many people are reluctant to start watching it because of a particular reason. In fact, surfing through anime forums, one question often comes up: Does Gintama have a plot?
NOTE: This article does not contain any spoilers for the series
Let’s start by taking a look at the labels of this anime: Action, Comedy, Historical, Parody, Samurai, Sci-Fi, Shounen. Excluding ‘Parody’ and ‘Comedy’ (although many shounen do include Comedy), Gintama does seem like a regular shounen. The series tells the story of Gintoki, a retired samurai who lives in a Feudal Japan where an alien species called Amanto have taken control of the country and forbidden swords and samurais. Now far from his dark days of fighting the Amanto in a bloody war, Gintoki lives his life working as a Yorozuya (running errands and doing odd jobs for a fee) along with his friends Shinpachi and Kagura.
From the synopsis alone, it becomes apparent that the most shounen-like aspects of the series, the war against the Amanto, is over. Even though some of it is re-lived through flashbacks and small not-so-serious talks every now and then, that feeling of danger is gone. Humans and Amantos live together in peace and the big majority of Gintama episodes consist of the main trio running strange errands and basically living comedic situations. This is one of the first reasons why people start wondering when the real action is going to start.
Aside from the comedic moments, there’s also many parodies of other anime. One of the on-going jokes in the fandom is how come the series has been able to go on for so lon without getting a lawsuit. It’s actually rare to watch an episode of this series that doesn’t contain some sort of reference, not only to other manga and anime, but also to well-known figures of Japan (including politicians!). From random quotes to straight up acting out scenes from other anime, Gintama knows no limits.
If that wasn’t enough, the series is constantly addressing the fact that it’s a fictional work. Seeing characters in anime thanking the audience in the beginning/end of special episodes is not that rare, but the characters of Gintama often talk about what they should do in the next season, ask why the opening is late, or even wonder why they haven’t been cancelled yet. Hell, they even had one entire episode dedicated to the characters gathering to debate where the series should go next!
This could have the risk of making the audience feel like they can’t take the story seriously. This one depends on people’s taste. Some don’t like it when characters talk straight to the camera (The Office, Modern Family…) because it breaks the fourth wall and it puts them off. Others will find it amusing and will still be able to feel immersed in the story even though it’s constantly being addressed that it’s fictional. Gintama does this wonderfully, as it’s able to separate the comedic episodes from the serious ones.
As any other long story, Gintama has different arcs. Some of them are more light and comedic, while others are actually pretty dark and serious. This is the thing about Gintama: from the beginning, it doesn’t promise you an epic, serious story about adventure, death battles or tragedy. It’s rather the opposite: it does seem like neither the story, nor the characters take themselves seriously. This is reinforced when villains will have stupid reasons for attacking the planet, or when conflicts will be resolved for the most stupid reasons. That is probably why when something actually serious happens or when you see that one character crying, it catches you off-guard and it hits you even harder. Just when you’re relaxed thinking that this is all about comedy and parodies, the other shounen genres come and stab you in the back. Because it does seem like a “betrayal”: wasn’t this series labeled as one of the funniest anime ever made?!
Gintama does have a plot, you just have to wait for it. Even though it might seem that the war against the Amantos is over and that there’s nothing to fear anymore, there are always uncovered problems and tension among some characters. Some of the things that are only addressed in 1 out of 25 episodes keep slowly building in the background. Things that you think are irrelevant can actually cause a butterfly effect that will make a future arc possible. Think about it like this: 99% of shounen have a main plot, with some comedic moments every now and then. Gintama does have a lot of comedy, with some plot advancements every now and then.
This is probably why many people are not interested in watching Gintama, or drop it after having watched 10-15 episodes and seeing that there’s not a main story or goal for the main protagonist. Running gags are fun every now and then, but after a while one gets the feeling that the story is going nowhere. Again, you have to be patient, because it’s worth it: it’s not only that Gintama is probably one of the funniest animes ever made, but it also has some of the best shounen arcs ever made. Some of them could actually compete against others belonging to highly popular series like Hunter x Hunter or Naruto. Why? Well, for starters, sometimes shounen anime suffer from adding unnecessary cliché sad backstories for their characters that usually revolve around loneliness, rejection or loss of loved ones (I’m looking at you, One Piece and Naruto). The characters in Gintama don’t have that. Some of them are extremely ordinary, and so they have inner problems that any viewer could feel identified with: having insecurities, not knowing what to do in a given situation, not wanting to lose your friends… Every arc, no matter how action-packed it might be, feels incredibly personal and emotional. And, after having watched so many episodes with these funny characters, you suddenly realize that you have grown attached to them and don’t want them to die.
Many shounen stories are constantly jumping from one arc to another. It’s almost funny how, just right after a conflict has been settled, some other villain comes in and starts creating havoc. It almost seems like the story can’t survive without antagonists and conflict. This is not the case with Gintama. You might watch an epic arc and think that things will get serious from here on, but they don’t. Perhaps they will add 50 new episodes of just mundane, comedic stuff instead. Because that’s how life is and that’s OK.
“Characters in One Piece and Naruto are fighting for their dreams and goals, so even though manga going toward dreams are absolutely necessary, if all manga are like that, some readers might think “well, where should I go if I don’t have any dreams?” Or “what should I do if I didn’t do my best every day?” Then, they read Gintama and see everyone in there is living a lazy life, they’ll feel more at ease. Even if you’re lazy, you can still walk down your path of life, and you need to live well, like that” – Oonishi Kouhei, Gintama‘s first editor.