Himura Kenshin (of Rurouni Kenshin fame) and Sakata Gintoki (of Gintama fame) have totally different personalities in spite of being fairly similar characters. The comparison starts with their respective shows being set in different versions of the same time period; Kenshin is set (depending on which part of the story you are looking at) at the end of the Edo period and ten years into the Meiji period where swords have been outlawed and samurai are done for. Gintama is set in an alternate version of the end of the Edo period wherein Earth is invaded and taken over by aliens who pretty much establish a high-tech Meiji era with the same anti-sword laws and death of the samurai. The leads in these two series reflect the different-but-not-really settings.
Gintoki is probably a few years younger, but he and Kenshin are around the same age. Neither is over thirty, but both are (and act) definitively older than their friends, who have a tendency to be teenagers and young adults. Gin and Kenshin both fought in wars that that brought the world to it’s current state, and while they would have fought on opposite sides if their wars had overlapped, both had the same general experience. They both were legendary fighters, both lost important people during the war, and both vowed to never use their swords again to kill, but instead to protect anyone within their reach. As such, Kenshin weilds the sakabatou (reverse-blade katana) and Gin his bokuto (wooden sword) the “Lake Toya.”
Both men become sort of father/older brother figures to the people arond them. Kenshin keeps the heads on his young companions and becomes a mentor for Yahiko as well as Kaoru (even though he goes on to marry her.) Gintoki takes in Shinpachi and Kagura who share a ton of admiration for him. I wouldn’t quite say he keeps their heads on, but he gives them some direction, and Kagura pretty much learns everything she knows from “Gin-chan” who she treats like an older brother. And I’m just throwing this out there, but Gintoki and Kenshin are both immediately identifiable by their unique hairstyles.
So these guys more or less live in the same situations and have the same principles which they hold very highly. But what of their personalities?
Himura Kenshin is ultimately a nice guy. His protective and kind principles pervade in every part of his personality. He is very polite, using speech that puts others above him, and he tries his hardest never to create conflict. When he fights, he does so with great honor and respect for his opponent.
Gintoki is the total opposite – he’s kind of an asshole, actually! He talks like a gangster most of the time and glares at everything with his beady, bored eyes. While he doesn’t like to see death or the bullying of the weak, he mostly doesn’t give a damn what anyone does so long as it doesn’t involve him. When Gin fights, he actually cheats! See one early episode (I want to say 6 or 7?) wherein he gives his opponent a broken sword to fight him with! What an ass!
So Why the Parallel?
It would be easy to say that Gintoki is a subversion of the shounen trope that more-or-less began with Kenshin – the ultra-nice guy seeking redemption for his hideous past – especially because Gintoki is the hero of a highly referential black comedy series. However, what strikes me as an important detail is that Gintoki is honestly the more realistic character. Kenshin’s personality makes sense with his backstory and the nature of his existence in the story, but nowhere in the world does such a quintessentially nice guy exist. Rather than think that Gintoki is subverting Kenshin, I’d like to say he’s taking the character type and making it real.
Now, Gintoki is a great guy. He’s quick to defend and hates the idea of letting someone die but, well, that’s true for most people, isn’t it? Personally, I don’t follow the morals established by society – I don’t live under the illusion that I can be a good person by doing so. I’m not a saint by anyone’s standards, but I still have my own moral code to abide by – as Gintoki brilliantly puts it, he follows “ORE NO RUURU.” I find Gintoki very easy to relate to because I, too, am a generally nice person who looks after the people around me – but I am also an inpolite, unhealthy, cheating bastard. I think if I lived in the Edo-cum-Amanto period, I’d be just like Gintoki.
This is not to say that I think either character is better or worse, since I love them both, but it’s interesting to think about.