There are some things meant only for Japan

As soon as the new season of the Gintama anime started, I noticed a couple of tweets asking whether the Gin Tama1 manga was cancelled since the US Viz release of the 23rd volume was declared as the final volume. The manga is still going strong in Japan and when I checked my 23rd volume, it didn’t have a joke on being the last volume. Hence, I was surprised with the blurb in the same way that I was surprised that this even happened at all. How did one of Japan’s most popular titles close its pages in the US? Perhaps I should first ask: how did Gintama get translated in the first place?

I do remember what I felt in seeing the first volume of Gin Tama (as appropriated by Viz) a long time ago, wondering even why it exists. Having been a fan of the Japanese original, there were two problems I saw with a Gintama translation. First, it was deeply entrenched with Japanese concepts, trends, and puns that it would be difficult to translate without having to write tons of footnotes on why that pun was supposed to be funny2.  Second, the manga’s loaded with childish Japanese humor, the stuff that young teenagers refuse to let go of. We’re talking about poop jokes, dick jokes, boob jokes, idiot talk, idiot choices, and warped childish logic that are certainly not everybody’s cup of tea. At least to my experience, not everyone can ride on that humor. Unless you’re a Japanese kid3

When I browsed through that issue, I found myself appreciating the lengths that Viz had done for the US translation. They chose the path of keeping the humor and the story but they sacrificed a bit, and at times a lot, of the context. Gin Tama’s for a different audience after all. When American teenage boys are hell bent on their action heroes beating people to a pulp, seeing a hero pick their nose might just throw them off. It’s not a bad thing. The comic was still funny even if Gin Tama was not Gintama. It might sell but as I placed the volume back to the shelf, I had a feeling that kids might not get the 魂 (tama or in english “soul”) in Gintama.

Gintama takes pride in being a series with a lot of soul. The main character, Gintoki believes that as the hero, he upholds the soul and dreams of many boys. This can mean a lot of things but it can go as easy as helping the elderly to doing what you think is right to protecting the people you love. But this is just a part of Gintama’s soul. The entire city of Kabuki-chou, its crazy denizens and its culture, is a microcosm of metropolitan Tokyo. In it there are women who work in cabaret clubs, men in host clubs, brothels, thieves, otaku, perverts and the occasional densha otoko. The characters fall in love with digital girlfriends and they go in online anonymous boards to get advice on love. Gintoki is an avid reader of Shounen Jump and is not afraid to reference it everytime he needs to put his manga into place. This series is not afraid to represent Japanese social reality in its pages that it’s hard to divorce Japanese culture from its pages. It captures the vibrant and ever changing soul of Japan hence to appropriate or to even translate the series to another culture or language compromises Gintama’s soul.

Panels from the Viz edition of Gin Tama. Catherine was based from Cat's Eye, another Jump title.

Personally, I understand why Viz even picked up the title. It’s a funny series, more so, an amazing story. To me, it’s possibly one of the best titles serialized in the Japanese version of Shounen Jump. Gintama’s also been receiving some following ever since the anime started and fans bear through tons of footnotes and explanations that come out in the fan subtitles of the series4. Some scanlations were emerging and at that time, it felt like the English-speaking fandom might be knowledgeable and mature enough to understand some of the jokes pulled in the series. Unfortunately, if they are indeed pulling Gintama off the shelves, then English-speaking world just didn’t click with Yorozuya.

If they are pulling off Gin Tama off the shelves5, then the series is a great reminder of how some things are better left untranslated. As a fan of Gintama, I too want the series translated however as someone who understands it in Japanese, I know that it would be impossible to port the series at 100%. A lot of us would like to think that manga has a universal appeal however, the failures of series like Gintama is a reminder that sometimes, some manga just don’t have an international audience in mind.

I’m quite curious if Gintama suffered the same in other international editions. So I’d like some readers (outside of the US) does your country translate Gintama? If they do, how were the translations? Was it successful or did it wrap up like Gin Tama did?

  1. From here then on I will refer to Gintama as the Japanese version while Gin Tama as the VIZ releases []
  2. which kind of kills the jokes, doesn’t it? []
  3. and even that is quite questionable since different kids have different tastes []
  4. I must confess, even reading the fansubs of this series is half as good unless you don’t have a deep understanding of the Japanese context []
  5. this could be just a joke after all. Gintama‘s very fond of such jokes []

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16 thoughts on “There are some things meant only for Japan”

  • Some jokes in Gintama are changed to jokes that match my country’s humor so that the general audience can enjoy. There are some word play as well. Gintama is popular here, the funny thing is when i first came out, it was not popular.

  • The Humor in Gintama never translated well in English, I know this cause I read it in Korean and I’m studying Japanese.

  • as for France, it keeps selling but poorly mainly because they aren’t in book shops even in those specialized in manga/comics so you have to order them. As such nobody can buy it if they don’t know someone who knows about it. Plus it’s really hard to translate in french even if they add notes. But they keep selling it albeit not regularly, it’s a “side” manga to release, only done so the fans could have it on their bookshelves with no hope for profit

  • Hi! (return visit time- thanks for the tips!)., Have been recently marathonning Gintama for the first time and wondered: “Would the sisterhood turn the goggles on something this goofy, this crude, this odd?” 
    So of course a quick keyword search of your blog reveals…. Yup!
    I thought Gintama was the ultimate manga guys’ “gendered space” – too full of lazy non sequitors, guy-stupidity, poop jokes, ‘roid jokes, vomit jokes, endless formulaic battles and chaste as a desert – to be ravished by the fujoshi tribes. Is nothing too manly-man-dumb to goggle-ize. Is there beavis+butthead slash?  What can be done with a manga that situates a “mexican standoff” in a row of outhouse stalls devoid of any “supplies” but a sheet of sandpaper???  Youz gals can ship that???

    Be afraid of the women..

    Off Topic:  I also owe you for a few research links, so I return the favor and commend to you the works of Akiko Mizoguchi, which has nothing to do with Gintama, but give a radical testimony to one Japanese fujoshi’s love of the genre. Google-fu should provide, or drop by for links. Cheers and many thanks. ..M.

  •  Its weird how both Gintama and Reborn! were cancelled in the US and I heard that in Spain both series are struggling too to survive, I read somewhere that Gintama sold like 500 (yeah 5 0 0, not a typo) volumes in Spain, such bad numbers.. 🙁

  • I think it did need to be marketed differently but I still feel its a shame that you go this far into a series that’s still ongoing and now you pull the plug. Personally I hope it can come back–not quite sure I want to read it online–but it’s bad it has to end this way.

  • I believe it is/was a title that needed to be marketed differently to the average Jump title and was probably going to be a niche title (maybe in the way of Zetsubou Sensei). Whether a niche title could sustain a 39+ volume run is probably unlikely so while I’m sad to see it go it would have probably happened sooner or later.

    • I must agree. Viz has been one of the better translation teams but they’ve also had their hits and misses. Gintama’s one of them. I do wonder if it makes a difference that Kodansha (who is doing Zetsubou Sensei) is a Japanese Publisher at first hence they translated it differently (with tones of notes, I heard).

      And I must agree, brave as it was, it’s bound to happen. It’s not everyone’s brand of funny. Maybe Japan’s. Maybe France’s (I heard it’s going pretty well there).

    • What I find interesting though is that there’s also a number of people who actually appreciate the Japanese translation however, I would consider, that despite this following, it’s just not enough to sustain a solid sale.

      I can only infer so much about the American fanbase, but since it’s confirmed that it’s being pulled out, I guess Gintama just didn’t connect with American fans.

      • I liked it myself, though they did have some blunders.

        Yeah, it probably didn’t connect with American audiences. Though it’s interesting that in Italy, the anime was dubbed there by MTV Italy.

  • Interesting, but I think the real reason most manga being translated into English get the ax is because unless it sells obscene numbers of copies (Naruto, Bleach, One Piece) it’s not given any shelf space in retail stores. And it’s hard to sell a manga people don’t know exists.

    The point about humor is also a little off the mark–in manga’s closest American equivalent, comic books, there are popular titles that run on bathroom humor, parody, and pop-culture jokes. Try googling ‘Deadpool’ some time. He’s popular enough to have got a movie cameo, if not a good one.

    Yes, there’s some sacrifice in translation. Yes, there are some things non-Japanese readers will need explained or won’t quite get, but that certainly doesn’t mean Viz shouldn’t have tried. Anything is a product of the culture that produced it. We’re just as incapable of understanding nuance included in the big hit series as we are in this one–at least Gintama makes its references obvious (and I won’t even get into how many *Western* pop culture reference the series works in–should those be excluded from the Japanese versions? No one would argue for that.)

    • It does take obscene numbers to actually sustain the sales that they need to keep on publishing Gintama. It sure hasn’t hit NYT’s best seller list and I hardly doubt any effort to bring the sales up can match the numbers of other Jump titles. But I find it interesting how you pointed out the retail stores. Sometimes, it boils down to how titles are shelved. People who wouldn’t know would probably put the series at the back of other titles.

      As for the context, while I agree with your point, I still hold on to what I’ve said. We have to take into consideration that in America, the context of the pop-culture jokes are American. In Gintama, an American fan would probably not understand Love Plus or the Densha Otoko jokes if they’re not familiar with Love Plus or Densha Otoko. In the same way that if a Japanese would read Deadpool, he also wouldn’t understand the reference. Does this mean that this average reader would have to make an effort to research on that cultural reference? If we discount avid readers, the average reader possibly wouldn’t give himself that time to look into why Catherine had to be a thief.

      I’m not saying Viz shouldn’t have tried. I think it’s brave that they did but it’s sad to see their efforts fail because of the difficulties of the said text. I do agree that everything is culturally nuanced by its creators but unfortunately, Gintama’s too much steeped in its own culture that it’s hard to relate it to those who aren’t so keen on Japanese trends and all that.

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