Indecent Exposure of the Soul: Trauma and recovery in Gintama

By: Meg Ross December 13, 20190 Comments
Gin looking at all his friends. subtitle: My soul has been colored by every one of your fools

CONTENT WARNING: Discussion of depression and suicidal ideation.

I think a lot about episode 17 of Gintama. It tells the story of a father, Hiraga Gengai, grieving for his son and lashing out at the senseless world that took his life, and the emptiness that followed after he finally burned out. Having lost everything, his life seemingly ruined beyond repair, he demands of the protagonist, “What do you want me to do?! How do you expect me to go on living?!” 

Watching this episode as a kid in high school, I expected a grand speech from our hero about bravery and ideals and all the usual shounen fluff. Instead, Sakata Gintoki scratched his head and gently said something that has stuck with me for years:

“Beats me. Just live a long life, maybe?”

I don’t think I really understood it at the time. I was shocked at what seemed like such a callous response. But it stuck in the back of my head for reasons I couldn’t really articulate—that is, until later, when I remembered those words during an episode of suicidal ideation and broke down crying, because I finally got it.

Gintoki looking pensive. subtitle: Just live a long life, maybe?

When I found Gintama, I was going through the worst depressive/anxious episode of my life. I had just started coming to terms with my sexuality and begun the process of coming out when I was suddenly (and entirely accidentally) outed. 

Having just moved to a new state halfway through high school, I had lost my support system. My anxiety attacks would leave me curled up on my bathroom floor, unable to leave my house. I spent my last two years of school almost completely socially isolated. And the thought that plagued me the most during this time was: How am I going to live like this?

Of all the people in the world, I was not expecting Sakata Gintoki to give me an answer.

Shinpachi chasing a bored Gintoki on a scooter. subtitle: Just what did you say about my mother?
Shinpachi chases down an unperturbed Gintoki, who has just cost him his job and framed him for murder. A typical day.

Meeting Your Heroes (Who Live Next Door)

Gintoki is not exactly a standard shounen protagonist. He isn’t a fresh-faced teen with lofty goals and a good work ethic. He’s a broke, self-employed 20-something with so little ambition that he turned down the offer of a Bleach-style bankai in favor of a nap. His biggest concerns in an average day are minding his blood sugar and feeding the teenage alien and giant dog who live in his linen closet. He’s lazy, greedy, antagonistic, and so crude that characters have to warn him not to get the series canceled.

It’s clear, however, that he’s also someone who struggles with trauma, and this is the core of the story. An orphan of war turned displaced veteran, Gintoki is riddled with self-destructive habits. He drinks, he gambles, he’s reckless in combat, and he can push people away when he hits his lowest points. He’s haunted by nightmares and flashbacks of a past so harrowing that it drove the other people involved to violent revolution. 

Despite this, for the most part, Gintama is not about Gintoki’s past. It’s about his recovery in the present.

A skeleton whispering in Gintoki's ear. subtitle: There's nothing you can protect!
Gintoki having a nightmare after being unable to rescue Shinpachi and Kagura.

As the audience, we are not privy to much information about Gintoki’s past for the bulk of the series. It’s revealed sparsely in bits and pieces as he reconnects with old friends and foes. Instead, we get to know Gintoki through the eyes of all of the people around him, much like you might get to know a friend or neighbor. And the picture that forms is one of a person whose only ambition is a simple one: to figure out what it means to live a good life. Because the truth is that, like the rest of us, he doesn’t know. 

As a kid, watching this series, I couldn’t help but think about that, too. What would a good life look like to me? At the time, I couldn’t even picture it. But as I slowly inched my way through the series and through my day-to-day life, that started to change.

For once, Gintoki was a hero that I could see myself in. He struggled with mental health issues that turned the most mundane aspects of his life into absurd melodramas and complicated the way he interacted with other people. He struggled to meet his own self-imposed standards. He was forced to live without any real plan for his future. And in spite of it all, he was still a hero.

That heroism came from a place that had little to do with being a swordsman. It was the courage to keep living in the face of overwhelming pain, and to take that pain and use it to reach out to others. To be honest and vulnerable about how much he cared for everyone he met, even strangers. Even enemies.

One of the unique things about Gintama is its structure. Somewhere between a battle shounen and a slice-of-life gag show, the story is told less through a chronological plot and more through vignettes of the characters’ daily lives and relationships. We get to know everyone in the massive ensemble cast intimately, as if we had lived together with them in Kabukicho for the entirety of the series’ fifteen-year run. 

Thanks to what the characters jokingly call the “Sazae-san method,” referring to the lack of a steady passage of time in the series, very little changes in anyone’s lives up until the final arcs. The majority of the story is spent in this transitional phase, as characters take time to stop and grieve their old lives while simultaneously trying to figure out what to do with their futures. Change is hard to adapt to. It takes time. And the author is generous with it.

a fox-eared person bowing low. subtitle: sorry, but I can't steal anymore. Please forgive me.

Taking a Leave of Absence (from Life in General)

Recovery is not presented as a straight upward climb, either. Even as the characters heal, life doesn’t stop and wait for them. Plenty of terrible things happen to Gin, Kagura, and Shinpachi, over and over again, as they try to take on the burdens of other people. 

Characters in the Shinsengumi deal with everyday tragedies, like family members passing away of terminal illnesses, at the same time that they try to cope with the absurd danger of their jobs. The divorced, homeless, and chronically unemployed Hasegawa is forced to pick himself up every time that he finds himself right back at the bottom of the pit. 

And when former Yoshiwara courtesan, Hinowa, adopts Seita, the orphaned boy whose life she saved as an infant, the two of them struggle to play the part of a happy family as they begin to realize that neither of them know what that would even look like. But just as Seita finds solidarity in knowing that his classmates also come from unconventional families, the entire cast of characters finds solidarity in knowing that they are all steaming hot messes.

two children sitting on a swing together. subtitle: So that's why you always ate lunch alone.
Seita opens up to his classmate, Izumi, after finding out that she makes her own lunches because her mother passed away.

Gin’s odd-jobs business, the Yorozuya, is a place that Gin describes as temporary—something that he started because he didn’t have anything else to do, and would eventually be disbanded once he and the kids figure out what they truly want. But this doesn’t invalidate all of the time that the Yorozuya spends together. Gintoki, Shinpachi, and Kagura form a tight-knit support system as they all struggle together to find themselves. 

And the more people they meet, the more this support system grows. Eventually, all of Kabukicho can count on one another to band together when times are hard, even for the sake of just one person in their community. They aren’t united in some lofty goal or ideal, but in a simple sense of camaraderie in the shared heartaches of their daily lives.

Gintama’s portrayal of recovery presented a brutal yet comforting honesty that I desperately needed. No one in my family quite knew what to make of what I was going through or how to help. I couldn’t afford counseling and had no one to reach out to for advice. 

But then, this funny little anime told me exactly what I needed to hear. That no one is ever alone because everyone struggles. That it’s okay to take things at your own pace and just live day to day. That life is hard and absurd and it hurts like a bitch, but it’s precious, too. That the only way to make things better is to survive.

Gin walking into the sunset with someone on his back

Indecent Exposure (of the Soul)

In volume one of the manga, author Sorachi Hideaki talks a little about his own social anxiety and compares publishing his manga to exposing his anus to a crowd of strangers—a hilarious comparison, but a painfully real one, too. Making art is vulnerable. Exploring topics like trauma and recovery is beyond vulnerable. But that honesty and vulnerability helped to pull me out of the deepest, darkest pit I’ve ever fallen into. 

Gintama made me realize the power of fiction. Art is, in its most basic sense, a form of human connection. There is a dialogue between artist and audience. That dialogue can be used to uplift, to make people feel seen and understood. It may not be a responsibility for creators to use their art in this way, but it is a unique privilege. For all Gintama’s flaws (and there are many) I will forever be grateful to Sorachi for exposing such deeply private parts of himself and giving me the courage to do the same.

The impact that Gintama had on my worldview as a kid can’t be overstated. It made me recalibrate so many of the lenses that I was looking at my life (and myself) through. It encouraged me to be sincere in my work, my friendships, and my daily life. It made me think about what makes me truly happy day to day. It gave me the courage to pursue art, something that I had no natural talent for but plenty of passion. It made me stop letting the fear of embarrassing myself prevent me from living my most authentic life. It made me feel like, for all my flaws and struggles, I could be somebody’s hero, too.

It’s hard to be sincere. It’s terrifying to put your heart into something and then put it out into the world for millions of strangers to see. But I believe that courage begets courage. Sincerity is powerful.

Gin looking at all his friends. subtitle: My soul has been colored by every one of your fools

It’s been five years since I first found Gintama. The manga has come to an end and I’ve begun a new phase in my own life. Inspired by the impact that the series had on me and emboldened by its messages, I’ve started pursuing an art degree and a career in comics. 

My anxiety has improved so much that I was able to travel alone on my first trip abroad this year. I’ve met so many good people and made so many good memories that I wouldn’t have made if I hadn’t survived. The process is slow and painful, and I will always be a work in progress. But the longer I live, the more sure I am that I’m doing at least something right.

In episode 307, a man sitting in a jail cell awaiting his execution tells his captors that he isn’t really a prisoner at all, because, as he says:

People are born weak. Everyone struggles through life, burdened with an identity they cannot accept. Unfortunate as it may be, there is no escaping that struggle. However, that doesn’t mean we can only struggle as our weakness controls us. We can also struggle to face our weaknesses, defy them, and change ourselves… People have more freedom than they think.

And that is the heart of Gintama. If life is a series of struggles, why not struggle to make it a good one? 

Recovery is a struggle. Adapting to change is a struggle. Honing a skill is a struggle. Being vulnerable is a struggle. Helping others is a struggle. Love is a struggle. 

But it’s all worth it. Being alive is worth it.

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