When a movie opens with multiple self-referential gags up to and including the cast breaking the fourth wall to crack wise about the production company, it's clearly first and foremost courting an audience who don't care - who expect this, even. The first feature film for the long-running manga Gintama plays to the bleachers from the word go, and while it's genial enough about it - often genuinely funny, in a cheap and cheerful sort of way - the whole thing is created for the fans to the extent the uninitiated will frequently not have a clue what's going on.
Gintama takes place in an alternate Edo-era Tokyo conquered by aliens, a setting dreamt up by creator Hideaki Sorachi as a means to get around his editor's request he do a period piece - which is a good indicator of how throwaway the whole thing sometimes feels for those who haven't invested in the preceding seven years of material. To be fair, Gintama never once pretends to be anything but a lighthearted action-comedy. It's just if you can't pick it up, the narrative (such as it is) feels neither deranged enough to rank alongside the best gag mangas, nor coherent enough (relatively speaking) to match up to the big-name boy's adventure stories such as One Piece or Bleach.
It's not merely that it's all been done countless times before - from the demonic sword serving as macguffin, to the mysterious assassin who's pilfered it, to the different factions after it, to their ruthless, villanous swordsman who lives for battle, to the hero's coterie of misfits (dopey but well-meaning, petite but super-powered et al) and more besides. Gintama The Movie simply lacks anything to tie all of this together. It has its moments, but none of them stand out as being either particularly original or distinctive, and no joke or action set piece sticks very clearly in the memory past the next one that ambles along.
Gintama himself simply isn't that interesting. Unlike his peers he doesn't boast much of a way with a one-liner, nor does he do much beyond swing a sword. It's easy to pick gaping holes in Naruto and its ilk but even at their most transparent and reductive they still have a clear purpose, a motivation that infuses the narrative with some kind of energy. Even the strangest Japanese animated series have still managed subtexts and themes that give them that extra spark. The lunatic Jungle Wa Itsumo Hale Nochi Guu franchise still had clear nods to tribal myths and legends in its character design that meant even the most nonsensical instalments still had some kind of emotional resonance.
In contrast, Gintama just feels lazy. It's practically lifeless, even, aimless doodles in a scrapbook that don't mean anything to anyone bar exceptionally undemanding audiences or those fans who've committed the print volumes and the animated series to memory already. At no point do you lose yourself in the story or the setting - it's a fight scene followed by a gag, then another gag, then a meta reference, then a set piece, then another brief flurry of action and on and on until you realise that was it, and the credits are rolling.
None of it rates as bad per se - director Shinji Takamatsu, his voice cast and crew are obviously well inside their comfort zone after working on the animated series for so long, and everyone handles their roles with workmanlike efficiency. Anyone with any interest in anime will doubtless manage a few laughs - the jokes play out with a solid if unremarkable sense of timing and the action provides a modicum of showboating. But it's all a blur, like walking in on the highlights of the past few years of the show strung back to back in random order with no reference points whatsoever.
Some people might protest there's nothing wrong with catering to the fans, and again, it's not difficult to see the hardcore being delighted. But even taken as fanservice, it's really nothing worth getting excited over. Anime has done better - comical, samurai-themed or otherwise. The television series Jubei-Chan sported an absolutely laughable premise that aspired to nothing more than breakneck swordplay and gentle titillation but the second season managed to be consistently funnier than anything seen here, with the aerial battle halfway through still an astonishing piece of animated choreography several years on.
Ultimately, unless you already have an interest in the character there's flatly no reason to bother with Gintama The Movie. It's content to muddle along its little niche, trading on comfortable familiarity and the thrill of seeing a beloved character up on the big screen. Fans might well adore it, but anyone looking for anything more memorable - or even just a primer to help them out - should probably stay away. Determinedly average in every respect, doing nothing that hasn't been done already and done better, Gintama The Movie can't really be recommended.
(Gintama The Movie was screened as part of the 24th Leeds International Film Festival.)