Gintama is a cartoon. Yes, that should be obvious in the literal sense since both the manga and anime are a series of drawings that tell a story. What I’m really referring to its artistic functionality. Gintama’s anachronistic setting and self-referential humor defer effort in depicting any sense of realism. That isn’t to say its irreverent spirit is inherently impossible to imbue corporeality in live-action. Deadpool, its most kindred equivalent in western comic books, was brought to life faithfully in form and function to fantastic results. But it’s one thing for a character in a film to break the fourth wall and make self-aware pop culture references; it’s another to have these characters interact with a world that has no semblance of reality in it.
You might be wondering how that’s possible considering the authentic Gintama experience often involves seeing Kondo’s buck-naked hairy ass, and a man draped in a white blanket with a duckbill on it that only speaks by holding up signs. Gintama’s comedy is difficult to replicate in live-action because it’s rarely grounded in something directly relatable. But rather than working under the limitations of live-action, and trying to change certain characters or story elements to make them more palatable, director Yuichi Fukuda forgoes those considerations entirely. Instead, the film embraces the spirit of its source material and never loses sight of it throughout its runtime.
Its endeavor for fidelity is apparent from the very beginning when we’re treated to a painstaking recreation of the opening prologue that describes the setting of the animated series in early episodes. Every word of Shinpachi’s dialogue is accurate, and every image in the scene mirrors the anime’s version, and the following scene showing Shinpachi and Gintoki’s first meeting in the café is as similarly faithful. The film frequently breaks the fourth wall to let audiences know it’s self-aware, and jokes about trying to appease newcomers alongside seasoned fans. Moments of self-reflexivity occur throughout, with a particularly funny discussion centering around how much creepier Elizabeth is in live-action than he is animated. Topping it off are lots of fun Easter eggs referencing other characters and events from the series, the design of Gengai’s trash being a personal favorite. Being so faithful to the spirit of the original and so open about what the film is helps ease any apprehensions about the live-action adaptation.
The film holds nothing back in terms of its humor, going as out there and insane with its gross-out gags and pop culture references as possible. There are scenes with a naked Kondo slathered with honey all over his body, Elizabeth being cut in half and disintegrating, and Kagura barfing a veritable river; laugh-worthy without worrying about their realism just like in the anime. The filmmaking isn’t afraid to be bombastic and cheesy, with slow-mo close-ups of characters getting their faced punched or dramatic musing underscoring a silly scene. Even in supposedly serious moments, the film sprinkles in jokes like Tetsuya yelling all of his lines at the top of his lungs, or Gintoki flippantly shooing away Hijikata to get him to leave the scene. The film also replicates the look of every character and setting as accurately to the anime as possible. Most of the Amanto are dressed in costumes and masks instead of being rendered in CG, and that helps them feel more realistic, though it’s sometimes noticeable how limited their mouth movements are. Sadaharu is the only character rendered in CG, and he looks almost exactly like he does in the anime. Yet, despite the contrast of this obviously cartoony character interacting with real people, it never feels like there is a disconnect. The combination of all these disparate elements blend together to define a cohesive world for all these characters to exist in.
What really sells this film, above all else, are the actors. They immaculately match their respective characters’ personalities to perfection. There are several clever casting choices, like Kondo being played by Nakamura Kankuro VI, a veteran of Shinsengumi dramas. It’s particularly impressive how close each actor replicates the performances of the original anime voice actors, to the point there’s only a slight variation between voice pitches. Their biggest strength, however, is their commitment to performing visual gags and physical comedy. Much of Gintama’s humor draws upon hilarious facial expressions, body language, and slapstick, and it’s hard to replicate Sorachi’s more exaggerated drawings in real life. Despite this, the actors consistently make hilarious expressions, and their comedic timing in the slapstick is top notch. They really make the characters feel like they’ve come alive. Even with more serious characters, they strive to portray them accurately. Hirofumi Arai, who performs all his scenes as the blind manslayer Nizo with his eyes closed, deserves major accolades. Nizo is a difficult role considering the complicated choreography of his fight scenes, but he pulls them off flawlessly. Every member of the cast is similarly dedicated to their roles: it never feels like anything is off or out of place. As the film goes on witnessing the Yorozuya as real live human beings on screen, instead of their animated counterparts, becomes an afterthought as your sides split with laughter.
Put simply, Gintama fans will love this movie. It is about as perfect an adaptation as could ever expect from a live-action adaptation of this material, and raises the bar for how faithful a production can be even if based off the most cartoony of premises. But for the uninitiated, that same fidelity begets its own issues that weaken it as a film. While the way the movie abruptly cuts from the opening scene to its next skit is hilarious, it glosses over Kagura’s introduction, never adequately explaining who she is or why she works for Gin, making it a little jarring when she opens the next scene screaming about catching beetles. Additionally, while the Shinsengumi are all hilarious in the film, they weren’t involved in the original Benizakura arc, so almost all of their material in the film is invented to weave them in. Admittedly the film does a much better job integrating them into the story than the theatrical anime adaptation did, but you could still cut all their scenes out and not affect the plot much. The same can be said of many other characters and scenes: there’s a lot of funny stuff that’s only there for fans that will leave uninitiated viewers scratching their heads as to what purpose they served.
The biggest issue, above all else, is that the film puts its strongest foot forward selling itself as a comedy, so when the dramatic moments of the story kick in they aren’t nearly as interesting or resonant. Fight scenes are mostly characters flailing their swords around, though Kagura’s fights with Matako feature some impressive stunt-work and use of the set. The reliance on CG to depict the Benizakura’s crimson blade and it’s wire-like tentacles never registers as threatening even when it’s choking the life out of Gintoki. The fight scenes are mainly impressive for when they recreate iconic images from the manga rather than being entertaining in their own right. A more glaring problem is the treatment of certain characters who need to carry dramatic weight. For example, the subversion of a certain character’s gag as he’s dying is meant to be heartfelt, but the film doesn’t do a great job of investing in the character on an emotional level, making it hard to care. This also extends to the idealistic conflict between Gintoki, Katsura, and Takasugi, which fails to leave an impression because Takasugi doesn’t have much of an on-screen presence and because his actor Tsuyoshi Domoto doesn’t imbue him with the charisma necessary to make his scenes feel important. Oguri Shun does have that charisma, as do most of the main cast, so most of the dramatic scenes do work functionally. Still, I often found myself zoning out while waiting for the jokes to pop back up. Granted, these are criticisms I’d also lobby at the original story arc, so the film’s faithfulness weakens it in this regard.
Despite some jokes appealing to neophytes, the Gintama film is really a fans-only affair. While people who’ve never seen Gintama before could potentially enjoy it, they’d have to be pretty deep into anime to fully appreciate lengthy references to the likes of Obake no Q-Taro, Mobile Suit Gundam, and Nausicaa. As such, it’s difficult to wholeheartedly recommend to those unfamiliar with the series or anime. But for those in the know, it’s a treat from start to finish, and arguably the most entertaining version of the Benizakura arc to date. Definitely, support this film and pick up Well Go USA’s release when the DVDs drop in March. This is a huge step in the right direction for live-action cartoons, and I can’t wait to laugh along to the sequel whenever it comes out over here. So what are you waiting for? Go pre-order those DVDs right now! JUST DO IT!