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Japan has been conquered by aliens from outer space called the
Amanto. The city of Edo (Tokyo, before 1868) has been transformed into a
weird mish-mash of traditional Japanese culture intermixing with
futuristic alien technology, resulting in what mostly resembles
modern-day Japan, as the country appears to have mostly accepted the
rules of the Amanto. Several samurai rallied to fight them off in a
brief rebellion, but in the end they were unsuccessful, and the Amanto
ended up banning all swords in public.
Gintama focuses mostly on the "Yorozuya" (the Odd Jobs Trio), consisting largely of the silver-haired ronin Gintoki Sakata, glasses-wearing Shinpachi Shimura, the incredibly strong alien Kagura and her giant pet dog Sadaharu.
In this version of Edo, they simply live paycheck to paycheck doing
everything from fighting villains to dressing up in costumes, even
though some folks occasionally try to use them to rekindle the great war
against the Amanto.
There is also development of Gintoki's former days as a samurai, as
he often comes into contact with his old swordfighting partner, Kotaro Katsura, and other samurai from his past. However, the story rarely focuses on this, and instead is often filled
with one-shot gags and tons of references to other media or Japanese
Sorachi originally planned to do a real manga series based around the exploits of the Shinsengumi with the encouragement of his editor. However, he had trouble keeping any passion for the project until he started adding elements of science fiction and incorporating more fictional elements into his story. After a long process of trial-and-error, Gintama was born.
The Odd Jobs Trio The "Yorozuya" consist of three members: the leader is a young ronin named Gintoki Sakata, who fought the Amanto with other samurai during the war but now doesn't seem to care about the conflict anymore. As swords are officially banned in Japan outside of the authorities, he uses a mystical wooden sword ("Lake Toya") that is just as powerful as a real one, if not more so. His partner Shinpachi is a young samurai-in-training who was working at a snack bar when Gintoki inadvertently got him fired. With no one else to help him, Shinpachi became Gintoki's partner, though he's usually the saner member of the group. The third member of the trio is Kagura, a surprisingly human-looking alien who possesses incredible physical strength but has a slight weakness to the sun's UV rays, and usually carries an umbrella wherever she goes.
The unofficial fourth member is Kagura's pet dog Sadaharu, an alien puppy she finds abandoned near the home of the Odd Jobs Trio. Though gigantic in size, Kagura became attached to it as she is strong enough to withstand the dog's incredible strength and interpret it as playing.
Shinsengumi The Japanese special police force that is similar to the historical Shinsengumi in name only. There are many members of the Shinsengumi, but only a few have become memorable cast members.
Their commanding officer is Isao Kondo, also referred to as a "gorilla" for his hairy ass and rough demeanor. After interpreting Tae Shimura's pity about it as a sign of love, he spends his free time stalking her everywhere. His second-in-command is the "Demon Vice-Chief" Toshiro Hijikata, known for being a chain-smoker and drowning everything he eats in mayonnaise, but otherwise being a very cold and violent swordsman. Underneath him is Sougo Okita, a quiet sadist who is not-so-secretive about his desire to "accidentally" kill Hijikata and move up in the ranks of the Shinsengumi. Despite their issues, the three characters are somehow friends with each other.
Also featured in the Shinsengumi of Gintama is Sagaru Yamazaki, a spy and scout who mostly serves as additional comic relief throughout the series. He is often seen in the background, wielding a badminton racket. Lately, he's become obssessed "anpan" during stakeouts. Despite this, he got 4th place in a Gintama character popularity poll.
Terrorists (Joi) As mentioned before, there are some who continue to violently resist the Amanto after their takeover of Japan. However, they are not only limiting their targets to the aliens, some are targeting human sympathizers as well.
Kotaro Katsura was one of Gintoki's best friends during the Joi war. After the war, he went underground and developed a strong following of sympathizers who refused to believe that they had lost. He constantly attempts to reclaim the past glory of the samurai and fight back against the Amanto. However, this character's efforts have quickly become a source of comic relief, as he rarely seems to be successful anymore. The Shinsengumi still try to hunt him down every so often, but he continues to escape their pursuit.
Aiding him is a creature known only as "Elizabeth." It is unknown who or what Elizabeth is, as Elizabeth only speaks with a cardboard sign pulled out of nowhere. However, speculation is that Elizabeth is just an old man wearing an expressionless duck or bird costume, though why he/she/it continues to hang around with Katsura is unknown.
Shinsuke Takasugi is another comrade of both Gintoki and Kotaro, though unlike the others his brand of villainy is much more serious. He pops up from time to time as a recurring antagonist with his own sub-faction, the Kiheitai ("Demon Soldiers Army") and is willing to go to whatever lengths it takes to destroy the Amanto and those humans who support them.
Yagyu FamilyA family of highly-skilled swordsmen (and an allegory to the historical Yagyu) that appear later in the show. Kyubei Yagyu is the heir to the Yagyu name who was childhood friends with Tae Shimura and later showed up wanting to marry her. After a fight between her family and a Shinsengumi/Yorozuya team-up, it turned out that Kyubei was actually a girl who was raised as a boy. Since then, Kyubei has been a recurring character, with the Yorozuya afraid that she's still trying to marry Tae. Another recurring character who constantly appears with Kyubei is Ayumu Tojo, her servant and bodyguard who is a bit too obsessed over her.
Other CharactersOtose is the old lady who owns her own snack shop along with the place where the Yorozuya live and work. Though she often chides Gintoki about paying the rent, she's pretty lenient in actually collecting it. Working at her bar is Catherine, a former cat burglar (with emphasis on the cat) and Tama, a robotic maid.
A couple of ninjas who have popped up with some regularity are Ayame Sarutobi and Zenzo Hattori. Ayame is a skilled assassin...when she keeps her glasses on. Otherwise, she becomes nearly blind. This led to her falling through the roof of the Odd Jobs office and landing on Gintoki in their first encounter. When Gintoki tried to push her away, she interpreted it as a sign of love. Ever since then, she has taken to stalking him in her spare time. Zenzo is a ninja with a goatee who has a love of Shonen Jump comics and an eternal hemorrhoids problem. He first ran into Gintoki when the two of them fought to the death over who owned the last copy of Shonen Jump that was available in a nearby store, a fight that ended when they discovered that they had picked up the wrong magazine. Despite this, he is considered a superior fighter and mentor to Ayame.
Tae Shimura is Shinpachi's older sister. When the dojo was about to be sold, she offered to sell her body to a sleazy alien in order to make up the debt her father incurred, which led Gintoki and Shinpachi to rescue her. After that, she ended up working as a hostess in a bar instead. Pretty much a normal girl who plays a supporting role, though one running gag is that her smiling face hides her horrible cooking skills and hair-trigger temper. She does occasionally lend moral support to the good guys.
MangaThe manga was first published in December 2003 in Shonen Jump, spans 39 tankobon (book volumes) and is still ongoing as of May 2011. Viz Media acquired the license to publish the manga in North America with English translation, but plans to stop at Volume 23 in August 2011.
AnimeThe anime adaptation of Gintama debuted on TV Tokyo on April 4, 2006. The series ended on March 25, 2010 with 201 episodes, but soon returned with a fifth season in April 2011. The series is being simulcast on Crunchyroll, and DVDs of english-subtitled episodes from the first two seasons are being distributed by Section23 Films.