Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Spring Break J-Dramas: GTO: Great Teacher Onizuka

This is Day 2 in a series. You might want to start at the introduction.

After watching Mischievous Kiss, I didn't end up watching any more J-dramas for several months. I was busy with school, and just trying to keep up with the various anime series that I was watching simulcasted. But then summertime rolled around, and I came up with the brilliant idea to marathon all of Bleach. It's not very good for very long stretches at a time (*cough* Bount arc *cough*), and I decided one day that I needed a change of pace. Crunchyroll had just started airing the second season of GTO: Great Teacher Onizuka, so it caught my eye, and I started watching from the beginning. And thank goodness I did; it's way better than Bleach (though I did finish that too).

What happens when you take a former thug, and make him the head teacher of a class of troubled high school students? Good things, apparently. That's the basic premise of GTO. Eikichi Onizuka was in a biker gang during his younger days, and is kind of a scary guy. Then one day circumstances conspire such that he ends up hired by the director of a school to teach the worst class of students they have. Wacky shenanigans and heartwarming life lessons follow soon after.

The poster for GTO, featuring Onizuka, his assistant teacher, students, and friends, all air-fistbumping.
GTO's got a fairly sizable cast. It took me a while to tell all the students apart.
This J-drama is actually another remake based off of a mega-popular manga series. Actually, in North America the most famous version of the story might be the anime version from '99. It's hard to say. The J-drama that I watched is from 2012, with the second season airing in 2014, both of which were 11 episodes long. In between the two seasons 3 special episodes were released featuring the characters from Season 1, as well as a 4 episode spin off series called GTO: Taiwan, where Onizuka is sent to Taiwan to teach for a little while. That spin off was actually a joint production between the Japanese and Taiwanese TV channels, which is honestly pretty cool.

This is the kind of show that lives or dies on the performance of its characters, and thankfully they knock it out of the park, especially Onizuka. He's played by Akira, one of the members of the massive J-pop band Exile (who actually performed the theme song for Season 1 of GTO), and he plays the heck out of him. It's clear that he had a lot of fun playing Onizuka. The character oozes sincerity from every pore, and he's just so much fun to watch. He comes up with rather unorthodox methods of solving his students' problems, like the time he took a female student to a hotel to have sex to get her to quit acting as an escort for old men before one of them could take advantage of her. He's a guy with a lot of heart, and you can't not root for him, especially when he's getting into one of his numerous fights (where he always shows what a beast he is by taking down dozens of thugs single handedly).

Onizuka hanging upside down outside a female student's window, claiming to be Spiderman.
Doesn't he look like he's having so much fun?
What Onizuka has in heart and his ability to preach to people about the importance of their lives, he makes up for in a lack of book smarts. He's a great teacher, but also not very good at actual teaching. All of his students know the material better than he does, which is where his assistant comes in. Onizuka is the main teacher, but he is also assigned an assistant teacher, who happens to be a female who inevitably ends up falling for him. Unfortunately, this is where one of my problems with the show comes up. I really liked his assistant from Season 1, Fuyuzuki, and I thought they had great chemistry. But, when Season 2 began, the show was moved to a completely different school with an almost entirely new cast. The only characters that stayed the same were Onizuka and his two biker gang friends, the school director, and the vice-principal. Everyone else was all new, including the new assistant Fujikawa, who I never ended up liking as much.

Actually, there were several things about the transition between seasons that made it kind of rough. For some reason, Season 2 started off a much worse show than the first season had been. It's kind of hard to describe why, but Season 2 didn't start to get good until about the halfway point. Part of that may be me sulking from the new characters, but it wasn't all in my head. One problem that I had with Season 2 in general was the dialog wasn't written as well. It wasn't necessarily that the words chosen were poor, but more that the delivery was off. There were several scenes of fast-paced dialog that was probably full of puns and plays on words in Japanese that just didn't translate into English well, and just ended up making me feel left behind and empty. Another problem with the start of Season 2 was probably the widened focus that it had. Each episode of Season 1 focused on solving just one student's problem at a time more or less, allowing us to get to know the class student by student so we really know them and care about them by the end. Season 2 started out by introducing every single student in the class in the first episode, with their name and description shown on the screen for a few seconds, all in one shot (which was quite impressive technically, I'll admit). The opening episodes focused on too many people that we didn't know yet, and thus didn't care about, which made it hard to care about the show as a whole. Eventually, I did get to know the whole class, and I think the episodes started to focus on specific characters better towards the end, which helped as well.

I think one of my favourite things about this show is how it gives a look into a radically different school system than the one that I grew up in. North America doesn't really have things like cram schools or school uniforms, and things like college entrance exams are handled very differently here. At my school (and most high schools here), the students move from classroom to classroom, and every student has a unique schedule, but in Japan, they are treated as a class, and stay together in pretty much the same room with the same teacher all day, with all the same classmates all year. My father teaches in the local high school, so knowing how his experience teaching in North America has gone versus how GTO shows teaching in Japan works is fascinating to me.

I may have a weak spot for this type of show, but I think it's fair to say that GTO is legitimately great. Akira puts in a strong performance as Onizuka, and everyone around him does great too. It's a high school drama that humourously covers real problems like teenage pregnancy and suicide without ever making light of them. If you ever want to watch a show that will reaffirm your faith that everyone really does matter and that you can move beyond your mistakes of the past, this is the right show.

Seasons 1, 2, and the specials are all available for free legal streaming from Crunchyroll, as is the special set in Taiwan. The entire series is available in North America and various other locations worldwide.

Full Series

Day 2: GTO: Great Teacher Onizuka
Day 3: Galileo
Day 4: Liar Game

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