Suffers from many of the pitfalls of a big-budget American superhero joint.
“Wait, is this where we actually start the live-action film for Q-taro? Holy Crap! That sounds like a much more interesting film!” The third-highest grossing movie in Japan of 2017, Gintama, adapted from the popular manga, comes with its own built-in review, and unfortunately that self-assessment is entirely accurate. Despite visual charm and action scenes that are directed with a little more coherence than the typical blockbuster, the movie still suffers from many of the pitfalls of a big-budget American superhero joint: self-conscious in-jokes, bloated runtime and bad CGI. This overloaded battleship rights itself in time to steer away from the treacherous waters of the January movie calendar, but all that effort just doesn’t add up to a good movie.
Gintama is set in a feudal-era Tokyo that has been invaded by aliens known as Sky People. This occupying government has outlawed swords, and, stripped of their weapons, samurai are forced to take menial jobs. In this unsettled world, white-haired warrior Gintoki (Shun Oguri) teams up with the goofy Shinpachi (Masaki Suda) and Kagura (Kanna Hashimoto), an alien girl with special powers, to find a serial killer with a deadly high-tech weapon.
What distinguishes this from other manga adaptations is that writer-director Yûichi Fukuda has transformed the source comic into a live-action adventure with human actors playing against minimal CGI—and a lot of actors in animal suits. The cosplay element makes the movie feel at times like it’s set at Comic Con. It’s intermittently cute, but the conceit drives the script to a barrage of self-referential humor that its own characters frequently critique, as in the quote that starts this review. Entire scenes are made up of such jokes, many of which revolve around the fact that long-haired samurai Katsura (Masaki Okada) has a pet duck named Elizabeth that looks a lot like popular manga character Q-taro. You see, Elizabeth is little more than a person in an expressionless duck suit. This might have been charming if the script didn’t keep reminding us of its cleverness. “It definitely ups the creepy level when it’s live action,” the crime-fighters agree when faced with the mute duck suit.
The samurai-and-animal cosplay conceit sets up the peculiar subtext of a traditional world overwhelmed by deadly technology, a storied warrior class rendered nearly obsolete by a culture of cuteness. Fortunately, for the film’s second half the script largely drops its incessant winking, and the warrior class survives long enough for a kind of cyber-samurai opera to unfold. This is where the film finally begins to resonate for viewers who are unfamiliar with the manga and may have otherwise tuned out at all the Scott Pilgrim-goes-kawaii stuff.
Which means that in a sense the movie ends up like a samurai Lady Bird: all its resistance to tradition gets tossed out in a final act where the heritage (in cultural and cinematic terms) that it has tried to subvert ends up being the guiding light for its characters. The trouble is, for Gintama, it’s too little, too late.