Sometimes you just can’t explain what makes you laugh. I’ve gone in circles trying to explain to people what it is about Gin Tama that kicks my funnybone harder than most anything else I’ve read lately, and in the end I’ve had to fall back on explanations that don’t really explain anything. Gin Tama makes me laugh because it’s like a piece of Japanese history (and a few of its modern-day dilemmas) as seen through a funhouse mirror, but I know I’m going to get a size-six blank stare if I tell that to most people. So I cop out and tell them that Gin Tama just makes me laugh, period, and who needs to explain this stuff when they can just be persuaded to experience it for themselves?
The third volume kicks off right where #2 had stopped, in the middle of an ongoing plotline about a bunch of aliens who’ve been hustling drugs to the natives. Shinpachi and Kagura ended up being kidnapped, but then Gin and Katsura show up — dressed in the least convincing pirate disguises ever created; even Luffy would laugh himself sick if he saw these two — and endeavor to save them. No prizes for guessing what happens, but the plot is never the main thing in this book — it’s the asides, the double-takes, the dippy deadpan shots that Hideaki Sorachi does so well.
And yes, I also like the way this series works as a clever mutation of Japanese history. The Shinsengumi and its commanders figure in as major recurring characters, and Sorachi plays them for laughs — but in a smart, sly sort of way, where obvious gags (like Okita’s sleep mask with eyes painted on it, to make people think he’s still awake) are used as segues either for more serious things or even bigger jokes. What’s nifty is how underneath all those things, the themes that are usually associated with the Shinsengumi whenever they’re used in fiction (loyalty vs. pride, etc.) aren’t damaged by being handled in a jokey way.
The same mixture of silly and serious burbles through the whole book. One chapter features ex-government officer Taizo, now disgraced and jobless, sitting on a park bench with Kagura and ruminating about how he ended up where he is. “I followed my heart,” he says, and explains how he lost even a lowly job as a cabdriver by trying to defend his pride. It’s the standard shonen comics stiff-upper-lip formula for such a story that you’ve seen before dozens of times, but here it’s shot through with the snide irreverence that’s the hallmark for this series. The moral for this segment, such as it is, sounds like it could be one of Gin Tama’s loopy chapter titles: “Sure, It’s Fine To Say You’re Going To Live Your Life The Way You Want, But You Still Have To Eat On Days Ending In Y.” (Best actual chapter title this time around: “Kids’ Annoyance Factor Is Proportional To The Length Of Their Hair.” So true.)
I love how Gin Tama has fun hijacking all of the other Japanese cultural topics that are typically made into manga story fodder. At one point most of the cast turn out for a cherry-blossom viewing party, and it turns into a head-bashing free-for-all. Kagura’s mammoth dog ends up on a TV show for weird pets (which also devolves into chaos). When Gin stumbles across a kappa in a pond that’s set to be drained and turned into a golf course, the gang swing into action for a little ecological preservation — but let’s face it, the real reason for this episode is to show Kagura in a monster outfit shouting “Gimmee a cucumber, [expletive]!”
My favorite episode, a two-parter, comes last, and features a character I sincerely hope is expanded into a full role in the comic. Meet Tatsumi, a rough-and-tumble female firefighter patterned in the old-time Edo mold for such folks. She’s another example of the story starting with a stock idea but growing past that to do fun things: she’s not taken seriously by her own firefighting team (since she’s a woman), and is determined to catch an arsonist that’s been wreaking havoc around town as a way to build herself some credibility.
So, again, what is it about this series that tickles me to the core? No one thing, I guess; it’s the whole tamale. It’s the far-out setting, the twists on history, the visual gags, the endlessly quotable dialogue … all of the above. More people deserve to get bitten by the Gin Tama bug. What's stopping you?