For nearly as long as anime and manga have seen mainstream popularity, there have been numerous attempts both in Japan and stateside at recapturing the magic of these fantastical stories on the silver screen through live action film adaptations. Very few (if any) have managed to achieve the popularity and memorability of their source material, however; in fact, more are remembered for how they utterly failed in achieving this. I’m not going to claim to be an expert in Japanese cinema (because I’m not), but the failure of last year’s live action films based on iconic manga series Fullmetal Alchemist and JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, both in the box office and to fans, seems to suggest that Japanese filmmakers have a track record about on par with Hollywood when it comes to adaptations.
However, 2017 also saw the release of a live action adaptation that set the Japanese box office on fire and even saw theatrical runs internationally. Gintama, Yūichi Fukuda’s adaptation of the namesake manga and anime franchise, was the third-highest grossing domestic film at the Japanese box office in 2017, outselling the likes of Sword Art Online, Yo-kai Watch, and even Pokémon.
Gintama, for those unaware, is a manga written by Hideaki Sorachi that has been published in Weekly Shounen Jump since 2003. It is set in an alternate version of Edo-era Japan that has been invaded by aliens, called Amanto, and has the technology and amenities of the modern world, such as electric fans, video games, and idol singers. It focuses on Gintoki Sakata, a samurai who fought valiantly in the war to keep the Amanto out of Japan but ultimately failed. He now runs an odd jobs business (called Yorozuya and translated as Odd Jobs Gin) with Kagura, the daughter to a clan of alien warlords, and Shinpachi Shimura, a young swordsman trying to keep his late father’s sword dojo alive. Much like the protagonists’ business, the series is a jack-of-all-trades, blending referential, slapstick, meta, and character-based humor with appreciable action, drama, world-building, and a sizeable ensemble cast.
I could gush about the anime and manga for paragraphs upon paragraphs, but that is not what I am here for. I am here today to explain how the live action film holds up against its source material, and whether it’s worth the time of fans of the nose-picking, manga-reading samurai. This task has been made much easier for me by Well Go USA, who released the film with English subtitles on Blu-Ray and DVD in North America just this month. If this review convinces you to watch it, I’d definitely recommend buying this release. But without further ado, let’s dig into the movie.
Gintama begins with a hefty introductory sequence – or, I suppose it would be more apt to say several introductory sequences. We receive chunks of the first chapter of the manga, which shows the first meeting of Gintoki and Shinpachi, a later comedic arc where the Yorozuya clash with the Edo police force Shinsengumi over a rare beetle in the woods, and a couple brand new sequences written just for the movie. They’re definitely entertaining, but as a veteran of the series I couldn’t help but feel a bit fatigued and ready for the main story to begin. They serve the purpose of introducing the main and ensemble cast of the series to new viewers, which the Yorozuya themselves state in typical self-aware Gintama fashion, but I can’t help but feel they could have done it with more brevity. Nevertheless, it does provide a nice segue into the meat of the film.
This movie, as you probably already know, is mainly an adaptation of the Benizakura arc. This is the first major plot-relevant arc in the series, and it introduces what is the main conflict for a majority of Gintama’s run. It makes sense to use this for a brand new live action adaptation not only because of its expository nature but because it is a relatively short arc that fits the length of a feature film perfectly. In fact, the adaptation of the arc in the anime series was already re-adapted into its own feature length film, Gintama: Shin’yaku Benizakura-Hen (released stateside by Sentai Filmworks as Gintama: The Movie), which fits the entire arc, plus extra scenes, comfortably into a 96-minute run time with no cuts made to the story. This already gives Gintama an edge over other live action adaptations, which often attempt to adapt all or a major chunk of the story in one movie and end up feeling bloated and rushed.
Much like the animated movie, this one is quite faithful to the original story, with relatively few cuts or changes made. In fact, more content was added than removed, though this is sometimes to the detriment of the narrative. Lengthy gags not present in the source material are placed in the middle of tense or impactful moments and can disturb the flow and pacing of the story. I was curious to discover the reason for the addition of Hiraga Gengai, who makes no appearances in the Benizakura arc, only to find that he is only in two scenes in the climax of the film to provide references to Gundam, One Piece, and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind that overstayed their welcome.
Nevertheless, the highs of the arc felt just as high in this adaptation. Thanks to stellar direction, choreography, and special effects, action scenes are full of weight and exhilaration (this is an action movie, after all), and in some cases even surpass their animated counterparts. Emotional scenes have the same impact as well, such as the scene where Gintoki flees from Otae’s bedside to go save the day. This is a scene that will always hold a special place in my heart because it is the first time in the series I felt that the characters had complexity and depth to them, and I was thrilled to see it receive the proper treatment in this movie, going so far as to even use the instrumental track that played in the same scene in Gintama: Shin’yaku Benizakura-Hen.
And this is not to knock the movie’s sense of humor, either. There are just as many original jokes in this movie that elicited a laugh out of me as there are jokes taken from the manga and anime. It is obvious that both Fukuda and the main cast understood the delivery and comedic timing that make the jokes in the anime so effective. It also surprised me how the movie incorporates jokes from filler episodes of the anime, as well as scenes written specifically for the anime film adaptation of Benizakura. Fukuda obviously did his research while writing the screenplay for this film.
As far as handling the main narrative of the arc goes, there are very few changes made as I said. It does feel worth mentioning that the subplot where series mascot Elizabeth dons the apparel of Katsura Kotarou and attacks the villains’ ship with the assistance of other anti-government rebels is cut out almost entirely. In fact, Elizabeth’s role in the overall arc is very understated in this adaptation, which makes me scratch my head because the rest of the story was handled faithfully and it’s not that hard to make Elizabeth “work” in a live action film.
I can forgive the movie for this, however the one thing I can’t forgive it for is its handling of the final scene. In the manga and both anime adaptations, the arc closes with Gintoki and Katsura fighting off a horde of assorted Amanto goons before making their escape via parachute. In this movie, the story ends instead with Gintoki fighting main villain Shinsuke Takasugi one-on-one. In both Benizakura and the series as a whole until much, much later, Takasugi’s machinations come from behind the scenes, and the lack of direct conflict between him and the main cast is a deliberate choice made for the sake of characterization. It makes no sense for him to directly confront Gintoki in the first major arc in the series, and I’d be lying if I said the fight didn’t leave a sour taste in my mouth. However, if this one short scene at the end is my only major complaint with the overall story, then I wouldn’t hesitate to call the story a success.
I am also pleased with the movie’s casting and performances. The portrayals of the Yorozuya and the Shinsengumi in particular capture the essence of their characters in both silly and serious moments with aplomb, though in my opinion Kanna Hashimoto’s Kagura looks and sounds a bit too old for her character. The only major gripe I have with the main cast is Tsuyoshi Domoto’s portrayal of Takasugi. Instead of sounding threatening and enigmatic like Takehito Koyasu’s portrayal of the character in the anime, he both sounds and acts sedated and apathetic. He misses the mark of this mysterious character by a mile.
Something else I felt was worth mentioning that doesn’t really fit anywhere else in this review is the film’s use of special effects. As I mentioned before, the use of special effects greatly contributes to the quality of action sequences, however when adapting a story with aliens, airships, giant dogs and demon tentacle swords, it’s obviously going to be used for a lot more. The special effects in this movie are hit-or-miss, with the CGI rendering of the cursed sword Benizakura making it look all the more intimidating and otherworldly, while the rendering of the Yorozuya’s giant pet dog Sadaharu looks choppy and unnatural when set against the human characters and real-world scenery. On the topic of scenery, the movie relies rather heavily on green screens and computer-rendered sets in its second half. It’s not too intrusive on the overall experience, but it’s pretty obvious the characters aren’t really fighting on an airship in the sky.
Overall, despite some fairly meandering pacing and shoddy special effects, Gintama is an enjoyable film that captures the heart of the manga and anime series with excellent casting, effective comedy and thrilling action. I’m certain that years from now it will be remembered fondly alongside its manga and anime counterparts, which is more than can be said about most live action adaptations. If you are a die-hard fan of the series, this is not an adaptation you’re going to want to miss. If you’re a casual fan, I’d still say this movie is more than worth your time as long as you are past the Benizakura arc in the manga or anime. If you are completely new to Gintama, there are worse ways to introduce you to the series, but I would not recommend it regardless. If you absolutely insist on starting the series anywhere other than Chapter 1, Gintama: Shin’yaku Benizakura-Hen does a much better job of representing the series for newcomers.
On one final note, the success of Gintama in Japan has resulted in the production of a sequel releasing just shy of a year later, on August 17th, 2018. I am looking forward to this sequel, especially knowing that it will most likely not have such a massive exposition dump at the beginning. What arc will this movie adapt, though? Personally, I would love to see an adaptation of Shinsengumi Crisis, one of my favorite arcs in the series. Let us know in the comments what arc you want to receive the live action treatment next.