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.
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?
- From here then on I will refer to Gintama as the Japanese version while Gin Tama as the VIZ releases [↩]
- which kind of kills the jokes, doesn’t it? [↩]
- and even that is quite questionable since different kids have different tastes [↩]
- 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 [↩]
- this could be just a joke after all. Gintama‘s very fond of such jokes [↩]