Look! It Moves! #8 By Adi Tantimedh – To Miss Yakuza, With Love.

Posted by July 20, 2009 4 Comments

4063124118I thought I’d have something vaguely interesting to say about John Constantine and the subgenre of occult hero fiction this week, but with the rush for San Diego (I’m not going, but most of the people I know are), the day-job and having to write a report on a truly awful academic proposal about martial arts films, my brain became too mushy to the original plan.

So you’re going to have to settle for a rambling tour of the Beloved Maverick Teacher genre and how it’s gone cheerfully off the rails.

Now, I’m pretty sure this is not a genre that many people spend a lot of time thinking about. The narrative is fairly straightforward: the one teacher whose unorthodox methods succeeds on the problem students where more conventional means fail, and their lives are changed for the better.

For those of us who went to British schools, our earliest exposure to the teacher genre would have been James Hinton’s 1933 novel GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS, set in a public school. The title character wasn’t so much a maverick as an elderly stoic called back from retirement to fill in as younger teachers and students went off to war. The book was considered such a classic that there were two movie adaptations, two TV adaptations and a stage play. Some of us were also assigned E. R. Braithwaite’s autobiographical TO SIR, WITH LOVE, about a West Indian immigrant teacher at a London inner school who has to content with angry, tearaway students and racial tensions. His race immediately set him as an outsider to the white Londoners, and he had no choice but to do things as best he could, which was his way. And then the Sidney Poitier movie became an ITV staple, not to mention the Lulu song.

gto-live-dvdThe 70s saw the US take up the genre and start to take things in more unconventional directions. There was THE WHITE SHADOW with Ken Howard as a white basketball coach at a multiethnic Los Angeles high school. There was WELCOME BACK, KOTTER, which watered down the menace of the inner city kids for a cuddly sitcom format as Gabe Kaplan’s Kotter returned to the inner city New York school to teach the types of kids he used to be, and which introduced John Travolta to the world two years before SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER came along. 1988 saw Edward James Olmos downplaying his machismo in STAND AND DELIVER, 1995 had Michelle Pfeiffer as an ex-marine-turned teacher in DANGEROUS MINDS (you can tell she’s “edgy” because she wore a leather jacket!).

02-031But the teachers of the American version of the genre were never truly maverick. They were generally just mildly unusual. No, to truly find maverick teachers, you need to go to Japan.

The genre really kicked off with Tohru Fujisawa’s manga series GREAT TEACHER ONIZUKA in 1997. The hero is an porn-addicted, unemployed former delinquent and bike gang member who decides that becoming a high school teacher would be a great place for hitting on girls, but ends up with the worst class in the school. He finds his true calling by setting kids straight with tough-love, gang tactics, and enters into a full-on war of wits with the nastiest students and teachers. Fujiwara plays it for shock comedy and manic farce. Onizuka scares some boys straight by throwing them into the path of his scariest bike gang buddies. Onizuka’s ploy to shock a spoilt rich girl into opening up backfires and he thinks he’s killed her, so he tries to bury her in the forest, but she turns out to be alive and blackmails him into being her bitch.

gokusenGTO’s 25 volumes reportedly sold over 25 million copies and as was the wont of successful manga franchises, it was made into an anime series, then a live action TV show that was enough of a hit that it spawned a movie. Of course, it played down the hero’s perviness and gang mentality, played up the Great Teacher bit, and made a star out of lead actor Takashi Sorimachi.

Fujiwara has taken the genre and run with it again, this time to even more absurd heights with KAMEN TEACHER (“MASKED TEACHER”), a partial spoof of the long-running motorcycle-riding superhero franchise KAMEN RIDER, where the maverick teacher has a masked alter ego who engages in sports combat with the most violent students in the school. Over-the-top is an understatement for this series. Fujiwara has also launched a sequel of GTO this year with GTO SHONAN 14 DAYS.

But the current ruler of the genre is Kozueko Morimoto’s GOKUSEN, a manga series that began in 2000 and lasted only 15 volumes. Kumiko Yamaguchi is a nerdy new teacher in glasses full of idealism and drive, given the worst delinquent class at a raucous boy’s school as her trial-by-fire right out of training college. The students think she’s a pushover and set out to torment her till she quits. What they and the school don’t realize is that she’s the tough-as-nails granddaughter of a powerful Yakuza leader and heir too the family business. So she has to juggle saving her students in line and deal with Yakuza politics without her students finding out her family background, and forge an alliance with the smartest of her students who found out her secret. The tone is less raucous than GTO’s, and the target audience is geared more towards a female readership. Clark Kent here is a chick and her secret identity is a badass gangster.

yamaguchi1GOKUSEN follows the usual franchise trajectory of going from manga to an anime series, then a live action TV show that’s proven far more popular than GTO. Starring Yukie Nakama and a bunch of bishonen to appeal to teenage girls and housewives, the TV version downplays the Yakuza politics and concentrates on the cute Yukie Nakama’s relationship with her students and badly-staged fights where the tiny Nakama beats up street gangs. There’s more emphasis on repetitive comedy schtick, including a vice principle with his array of toupees. The show has become more popular than the GTO show, lasting not only three seasons but a couple of TV specials and a theatrical movie that just opened last week in Japan and is the biggest home-made box office hit this year.

What these stories have had in common since the Sixties is a fear of kids. They’re positively hysterical with anxiety over Youth Gone Wild, with gangs, extortion, senseless violence and all the threats to society you could imagine kids might pose, all those uncontrolled hormones. The kids have to be tamed before they can be useful members of society. Japan is all about social cohesion and the status quo, with the most insane fantasies as a safety valve. The likes of GTO, KAMEN TEACHER and GOKUSEN let the audience have it both ways: the vicarious thrill of transgression be had in both the Maverick teacher and the students. Everyone is the same kind of bad-ass and it’s one or all and all for one in a society desperate to remain stable.

gokusen2And the Japanese imagination is weirder and wilder than we will ever know.

GREAT TEACHER ONIZUKA and its sequel GTO SHONAN 14 DAYS is translated by Tokyopop and the anime is available on DVD. GOKUSEN has not been published in English but the anime is available on US DVD. KAMEN TEACHER has not been published in English. Episodes of the live action versions of GTO and GOKUSEN can be seen on http://www.crunchyroll.com

© Adisakdi Tantimedh – lookitmoves@gmail.com

(Last Updated July 20, 2009 4:31 pm )

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