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We all need a purpose in our lives. Whether it’s a belief in a higher calling, a profession that we find fulfilling, or a passion that we are devoted to, having a purpose is what drives us forward. Knowing the destination makes the hardships of the journey seem meaningful; having a goal allows us to attach a narrative to our suffering and make it seem worthwhile. “This hurts now, but it’s all worth it because I am working towards something,” we often tell ourselves. Part of the human experience is finding and defining your purpose in this world.
And this, dear reader, is the central theme of Gintama.
No, wait, stick with me for a second. I know what you are thinking: isn’t Gintama is the anime about flicking boogers and Looney Tunes hijinks? It’s that one show with entire episodes set in bathroom stalls and all the ridiculous puns. If Gintama has a theme, it’s comedy, right?
Okay, sure, that is a fair assessment of a lot of Gintama’s appeal. Adapted from Sorachi’s 2003 shounen manga into an anime in 2007, Gintama’s focus for much of its 300+ episode run has been comedy. The silver-haired Gintoki, along with his companions Shinpachi (the straight man and samurai-in-training) and Kagura (an umbrella-wielding alien from another world), spend most of their time on screen getting into absolutely absurd situations with the help of their enormous supporting cast of weirdos. I am not going to lie to you and say that Gintama is not a show about juvenile comedy – I have more respect for you than that.
But I think that is only part of its identity.
Gintama is actually a show about losing one’s sole purpose. The show is rather blasé about the war with the aliens at first: “The Amanto showed up, we fought back and lost, and now they run the government,” is basically the sum total of the explanation we are given for why the world is what it is. We know that Gintoki served in the war against the invaders (and with distinction, no less) but that time is long past. It appears to be a quick explanation for why he is so powerful, and little else. But as the show unfolds, it begins to reveal more and more characters from the war against the Amanto, and really hone in on its central theme:
What do you do when your purpose is taken from you?
Because at its core, Gintama is a story about losers. The big war? It’s over. The ultimate outcome? Decided. The fate of the human race? No longer up for debate.
Humanity put everything it had into fighting back against the aliens – our hopes, our will, our skill, our righteousness as underdogs – and lost. The Amanto won because they were more powerful. Where is the poetic justice in that? And more importantly for a samurai: Now what do I do?
That is the true essence that Gintama is tapping into. Samurai follow bushido, which (without getting too lost in the weeds here) is ultimately a warrior code about service. Like many feudal warrior structures, the code of bushido is about service to one’s lord. It makes sense of a chaotic world through a hierarchy that – while imperfect – is explicitly defined and makes sense of the madness. Ideas about individual morality or right and wrong become subsumed into the idea of serving your lord completely.
So what happens when that structure is demolished?
The samurai of modern day Gintama have lost everything. They were warriors through and through, but when it came time to fight the most important battle of all, they lost. They were servants to their lords in body and soul, yet now those lords are dead or working for the enemy. They were quiet cogs in a grand machine that provided stability for their society, but which has now been coopted to serve as a tool for their oppressors. What good is maintaining your honor to a system that no longer exists? What good is being a warrior when there is nothing worth fighting for? What does it mean to live when you have no purpose?
Swords without scabbards.
This is where many of the dramatic storylines and overarching narrative of Gintama comes from. The Four Heavenly Kings, the central cast of samurai who fought against the Amanto in the war, are all struggling to come to grips with this new world where they have lost their reason for living. These warriors each represent a different response to the tragic loss of identity and your life’s goal.
Sakamoto decides to pursue worldly gain. All that time spent serving others, the bleeding and the fighting and the dying, and for what? To preserve someone else’s prestige? To help the shogun maintain power? And look where all of that got him. Now he travels the stars, hawking wares to aliens across the galaxy, and making money hand over fist in the process. Money is fickle and fleeting; but then, so was honor. Rather than acquire resources for a master, he chases riches for himself.
Katsura continues the good fight. In his mind the war was always about fighting for the right of the shogunate to rule. Even though the war is over and the system he fought to save has essentially sold its soul, he refuses to yield. In many ways, he is holding on to the exact same purpose as he has all along; his war never really ended, it merely entered a new phase. Katsura is the true believer, and he stands beneath the same banner he always has. Even if the world has gone mad, he follows his duty where so many others have forgotten.
Takasugi has given himself over entirely to the conflict. He lost his purpose with the end of the war, but he never gave up the war itself. Now life is one long string of battles; bloodshed for its own sake, destruction and death and the edge of the blade. Takasugi used to fight for a cause – now he simply fights. He has foregone finding a new purpose, and instead given himself over to nihilism and endless battle. The empty space where his goal used to be is now an open wound, one that festers within him but he refuses to let heal.
And what of Gintoki?
Sakata Gintoki has found a new purpose completely apart from his former comrades. He did not choose worldly gain, carrying on with the fight, or losing himself in battle. Each of these paths is some variation of the Four Heavenly Kings’ original duty to the shogunate – adherence to a higher ideal, something bigger than themselves. For Sakamoto it is wealth, for Katsura it is the original cause, and for Takasugi it is a rejection of that concept. But Sakata’s purpose becomes something unique amongst his peers:
Gintoki’s new purpose is the people around him.
His friends become his ultimate goal. Their well-being becomes his purpose; safeguarding them from the hazards the world would throw their way. Even though his veneer is that of a self-centered slacker, his ultimate goal is protecting the people he cares about. The other heavenly kings chose ideals that were beyond human beings; Gintoki chose humans themselves. He thinks himself a lost cause because he failed in his “ultimate” duty, but through his connection to others we find a nobler Gintoki than the White Yaksha who slew countless monsters on the battlefield. Perhaps the loss was the start of truly gaining something meaningful. It is this relational understanding of life and watching over the people that matter to him is what sets Gintoki apart from the rest of his peers. When they lost their scabbards, they sought new places to point their swords.
Instead, Gintoki set his blade aside.