Some actors have a knack for picking good material. And some, like Shun Oguri, drift from stinker to stinker: “Museum,” “Terra Formars,” “Galaxy Turnpike,” “Lupin the Third.”
Still considered a box-office force despite this dismal track record, Oguri stars in “Gintama,” the live-action adaptation of Hideaki Sorachi’s long-running gag manga set in an alternative universe where aliens have conquered feudal-era Japan. Directed by Yuichi Fukuda, a comic-action specialist (“Hentai Kamen: The Abnormal Crisis”), “Gintama” is another manga adaptation with too much plot, too many characters and too much emoting at full volume, as though “loud” equals “funny.” And playing the lazy swordsman hero Gintoki, Oguri spends much screen time with finger inserted in nostril prospecting for nose gold, one of several gross running gags.
But “Gintama” is not, on its own terms, a disaster. Gag manga, whose readers are largely maturity-challenged males, are rude and crude by design, and so are the films based on them. By (admittedly low) genre standards, “Gintama” does a superior job of extracting laughs from the products of Sorachi’s demented comic imagination, which soars beyond booger jokes to the higher realms of local pop-culture parody.
As the film begins, the aliens are in charge of Edo (old Tokyo) at the end of the Bakumatsu Era (1853-1867). Called Amanto (literally, “sky people”), they have imported everything from futuristic skyscrapers to ancient-looking TVs with the acquiescence of the bakufu (Shogun’s government).
Meanwhile, Gintoki is lounging about the rambling Japanese-style house that is the headquarters of his yorozuya (jack of all trades) business. His two assistants are Shinpachi Shimura (Masaki Suda), a nerdy former waiter who is handy with the sword, and Kagura (Kanna Hashimoto), a petite but powerful alien prone to devouring and projectile-vomiting vast quantities of food. One day they happen to view a TV show segment on a kabutomushi (rhinoceros beetle) hunt with a giant cash prize. Gintoki is soon in the woods, net in hand, but the dangers he and his assistants encounter go beyond bizarre bugs to armed-and-dangerous humans.
More challenging, however, is the job that arrives from Tetsuya Murata (Ken Yasuda), a genius swordsmith with a foghorn voice: His greatest creation has gone missing and he wants Gintoki to find it. Called the Benizakura, this super-sword has the ability to absorb new information and merge with its possessor. Gintoki’s search leads him to the Kiheitai, a band of rebels led by Shinsuke Takasugi (Tsuyoshi Domoto), Gintoki’s former classmate and comrade-in-arms, who is now dedicated to defeating the bakufu. One of his men, the blind but fearsome Nizo Okada (Hirofumi Arai), clashes with Gintoki — and claims to have killed Kotaro Katsura (Masaki Okada), a one-time pal of both Gintoki and Takasugi. Gintoki is next on his hit list.
As the above indicates, “Gintama” has more story arcs as well as more ferocious (if digitally blurred) sword fights than the usual gag manga farce. In fact, I have left out characters and plot lines doubtless central to fans, but which to this reviewer seemed like only more sensory overload.
Pardon me while I detox with a quiet stroll down a six-lane highway — and ponder why Oguri has become the Kevin Bacon of bad Japanese movies.