The second volume of Gin Tama cracked me up in a way that hadn’t happened since, well, the first volume of Gin Tama. I chalk this up to GT being a truly whacked-out original; it’s got the goony glee of Buckaroo Banzai* when so many other manga are the stale Star Wars prequels. The jokes are that much funnier if you’re already a general J-culture fan, but I think anyone can laugh at the sight of a giant alien dog thinking that his new owners are tasty as well as fun to play with.
What I loved right off the bat about the first book in this series was the setting — a reworking of post-feudal Japan that swapped “aliens” for “foreigners,” and combined that with an acid streak of irreverent humor to make sly jabs at the world we live in now. Also, the lead character was a true original as well — the perpetually broke and hypoglycemic odd-job man Gintoki, henpecked by everyone from his landlady to his buddies, and despite all that somehow living up to the ideals of a bygone age in his own way.
Volume 2 picks up immediately where the last volume left off, with Gin nursing a fat grudge against the authorities for trying to do them a favor and getting pounded by them anyway. He’s still got his sort-of buddy Shinpachi as his sidekick, and alien girl Kagura (who apparently has a few too many missing pieces in her jigsaw puzzle) eating him out of house and home and doling out death blows with her umbrella to anyone who gets in the way. Shinpachi’s sister O-tae manages to make ends meet in a hostess club, but she’s attracted a stalker of sorts — although you wonder why she asks for help from Gin or her brother, since she delivers a wicked left hook that flattens the poor schlub’s nose. The reason why she needs Gin’s help becomes clear once Gin steps up to the plate, though: he’s the only one among them who can smack sense into his head, and sense is in increasingly short supply these days.
The other stories in this volume also revolve around lost or misplaced love, sorta-kinda. Kagura becomes the owner, sort of, of a giant alien doglike creature that gets dropped off on Gin’s doorstep one day for no particular reason. Think of Menchi from Excel Saga (one of my favorite characters from that particular font of utter insanity) except about the size of a Ford Explorer and with a penchant for mindlessly gnawing on anyone that isn’t Kagura — and Kagura’s only too happy to have something she can lavish love on … especially since the last time she did that, she stupidly crushed the poor thing to death.
And in the same vein, we have the gangster who breaks out of prison to see his daughter perform a live concert, just like he promised all those years ago, and another old man who longs to find his childhood sweetheart. The latter’s likely to get both big laughs and an “Awww!” from the readers, since the sweetheart in question is the absolute last person you’d ever suspect to be the target of unrequited love. The last story, involving a search for a missing rich man’s daughter that turns into a clash with a dangerous gang of drug-runners, is more about Gin than anything else, but does hint at the one or two veins of seriousness that do run through the story: under Gin’s perpetual attitude problem, there is a man who has a great deal of self-loathing and self-doubt, and bottles it up until something causes it to surface unexpectedly.
As much as I enjoy Gin Tama, I’m not sure everyone’s going to think it’s the best thing since pickled seaweed (Kagura’s favorite snack, much to the disgust of everyone around her). It’s the sort of story that really only clicks for people who already have some understanding of Japan to begin with, and the art definitely isn’t anything to write home about — something the author himself admits to, rather hilariously, in one of his interstitial notes. But it’s an original, a loopy and off-kilter original, and I savor such things whenever they show up. Here’s hoping you do, too.
*If this reference is lost on you, go rent Buckaroo Banzai right now and pretend you saw the movie ages ago. Do not admit your ignorance, on pain of terminal uncoolness. You have been warned.