Gokusen

gokusen

GOKUSEN

Watched via DVD

WHITNEY

CRYSTAL

PLOT: You have probably never heard of Gokusen unless you happen to also be a J-drama fan. This series is based off of a serialized manga, that also happened to be turned into a popular J-drama featuring of course, a lot of J-idols. I love all three versions of this franchise, but honestly the anime sticks out the most in my mind.

To begin with, Gokusen is the story of a newly-licensed mathematics high school teacher, Kumiko “Yankumi” Yamaguchi. It has always been her lifelong dream to become a teacher, and she heads into her first job at an all-boys private high school with a passion to change her students’ lives for the better. Unfortunately, or fortunately, her class is full of delinquents, and she was given the job because no one else wanted it. Still, this doesn’t dissuade her from her goal of being a role model teacher.

We are let on to the fact early on that “Yankumi”, as her students refer to her, actually has an ace up her sleeve. Born the granddaughter of a Yakuza boss, and raised by him after being orphaned as a young girl, Yamaguchi is surprisingly well adept to deal with her unruly students. By seeing her students without preconceived notions, she is able to earn their trust, and instill a strong sense of morality in them that doesn’t alter who they fundamentally are (kids that don’t like authorities). Beyond making sure her students don’t get beat up or commit crimes, there is also the lingering fear that her heritage will become publicly known, and she’ll be fired by the school for being part of the Ooedo clan.

The plot is rather well-paced and explores a new student’s life with each successive episode. While there definitely feels like there is a formula to this show, it never really bothered me because the plot and characters were enough to liven up the series.

The emphasis on misunderstood students keeps Gokusen fresh, since there are a variety of delinquents in Yankumi’s class with various reasons for being there. The most interesting episodes for me, though, were the ones where Yankumi’s yakuza life and her school life intersect.

PLOT: Gokusen, which means “gangster teacher,” is about a high school teacher who’s also the daughter of a yakuza family. Given Japanese high schools’ strict rules and how yakuza operate outside the law, this teacher, Kumiko Yamaguchi (Yankumi for short), does her best to hide her heritage and pretends to be a normal, slightly dumb person while on the job.

Despite Yankumi’s best efforts, and because she teaches a class of delinquents, her yakuza upbringing does make some hilarious appearances in the show. When her students end up in a fight, she joins in and saves them after they’ve passed out, making sure no one will find out her secret. She also encourages her students to stand up for themselves in a truly manly fashion or tells them to run when the cops show up. Most of the show’s humor comes from Yankumi’s inappropriate reactions given her position as a teacher, and the rest comes from her struggles in teaching a group of delinquents.

One delinquent, Shin Sawada, figures out Yankumi’s hiding something pretty quickly, and throughout the show he works to uncover her secret. He also has a tough life, having been kicked out of his previous school for punching a teacher, and his dad’s the head of the local police, so his role as leader of the class of delinquents doesn’t sit well with his father. Things come to a head there in an interesting way in this series, though I would’ve liked to see how else everything plays out further down the line.

The final main plot thread comes in the form of the high school’s vice principal, who’s dead set on having the school closed down so he can be promoted to a better job elsewhere. He uses several ploys to potentially reveal the delinquency of the school’s students, but Yankumi always steps in to save the school’s face so it can stay open. This plot gets old when it fully rears its head at the end of the anime, and I wish the show had stuck to the teacher-student drama combination, since that works so well. I guess that’s a reason to read the manga?

I think the manga does go into more of the relationships than the anime does, but I can’t promise it doesn’t drag out the same overused plot points that the anime does in regards to the head teacher.

SETTING: It’s the beginning of a new school year and Yamaguchi begins her new career being the homeroom teacher to a senior class of delinquents at a all-boys private school. While her class in particular has quite the reputation, the whole school itself doesn’t have the best image to begin with. The head teacher is always trying his best to clean up the school to elevate its status, but often this allows students to fall between the cracks without a second glance. This ruthless academic setting allows for many heated interactions between the students, who generally only get into small trouble, and the faculty who treat them like hardcore gang members.

While Gokusen came out in the mid-’00s, it has a strong influence from ‘90s teacher dramas like Great Teacher Onizuka. This genre may feel quite dated to today’s fans, but as a teacher it’s one of my favorites.

One of the aspects of setting which I found most intriguing, which is more predominant in the manga, is the Ooedo clan. By teaching Yamaguchi is giving up on becoming the fourth generation head of her family’s clan. Without her the clan is worried they will cease to exist. In a time when Yakuza are less “needed” in society, Gokusen explores the death of yakuza groups. I should also probably mention that this series highly romanticizes the yakuza and ignores a lot of damaging aspects of that culture. Not to dampen the fun of this series, but don’t expect to get a real in depth analysis of “right and wrong” in this series.

SETTING: Shirokin is one of those schools that can only exist in anime, with delinquent students running rampant and the vice principal plotting to close it down. Heck, when Yankumi shows up on her first day, she’s told to wear sweats every day, and the vice principal constantly has on a hard hat. The teachers literally work in the shadow of their fear for what the students could do to them, and it can’t be a very good work environment, unless you’ve been raised alongside yakuza men (Yankumi) or just want to nourish the hearts of good-looking young men (the other new female teacher). Gokusen also covers the standard places you see in anime about semi-delinquent teachers of delinquent students, so there’s a good deal of fights in grassy areas and running about the city at night. It’s all what you’d expect from this genre, but it’s incorporated pretty well.

More interesting is the Ooedo clan, where Yankumi grew up and still lives. I don’t know much about the yakuza lifestyle, but Gokusen appears to take it and play it up for laughs while still keeping its core values. There are some serious moments, and Yankumi has to participate in inter-clan conflicts, but there’s no murder here like in Black Lagoon. This seems to be a happy, watered-down version of the yakuza, where Yankumi can learn manly values and still have a solid foundation for the rest of her life. Surprisingly, Yankumi fits into her yakuza family very well, making me wonder why she’s so dead set on being a “normal” teacher in the first place.

I’ve wondered this as well, I think Yankumi could educate in a secondary learning environment just as well if not better than in the K-12 environment. She has a strong leadership role in her family and I could see her merging the two careers rather well if she chose too. Too bad Japan only likes high school dramas.

CHARACTERS: Kumiko Yamaguchi is a young and green high school teacher. As a decedent of a yakuza group she has overcome many obstacles of discrimination and learned to be strong to protect herself, instead of relying on others. She utilizes her strengths and compassion to instill positive characteristics in her students. She often plays dumb in order to throw people off from who she really is.

There are plenty students, but several really define themselves as the main cast. Shin Sawada is one of the main leads, and even manages to find his way into a love triangle with his teacher. Shin is rather complicated. His character in general is really well thought out and he shows a lot of development. I think Yamaguchi’s relationship as a teacher with him shows how teachers can help with more than just academics. On the other hand, I think it’s very inappropriate that he is suggested as a love interest. I guess you just have to take it with a grain of salt and just remind yourself that at least nothing happens so long as he’s a student.

Then there are Shin’s friends who are also in the class: Youichi Minami, Haruhiko “Uchi” Uchiyama, and Teruo “Kuma” Kumai. Their personalities and appearances actually differ quite a lot from the J-drama, and I can’t help but wonder if this is why the anime followed production of the drama, to get the story “right”. These guys get into mischief, and don’t always make the best choices. Often they are seen acting like young men, talking about women, trying to ditch school, and hang out late playing karaoke or at the arcade. I think the series did a great job of adding depth to these characters. They are truly bizarre looking and their speech is rough. There is nothing obviously redeeming about them until you get to know them better, which this show does quite well.

My favorite student is Kuma, who’s actually got a lot of depth to him for looking so big and scary at first. Kuma’s as much of a stereotype as Shin, but his appearance makes his character development that much more interesting.

CHARACTERS: Yankumi’s a very entertaining main character, with her staunch yakuza upbringing and fervent dedication to nurturing young minds. Though these sides of her often clash, you can always tell that she means well, and her good intentions carry the show along. I definitely admire her to living out her dream of being a teacher despite her yakuza family, since the threat to her career if found out is very real. Overall, she’s a great main character, and she mixes comedy and seriousness well.

Most of the secondary characters in Gokusen also work out well by taking tough-guy stereotypes and tweaking them. All of the yakuza men Yankumi lives with take protecting her very seriously, making them all mushy messes when anything could potentially happen to her. Yankumi’s students also tend to follow the trope of meaning well but looking (or acting) scary, and Yankumi has a gift for helping them out. Shin receives the most development, and his story is pretty rewarding, especially when you consider the events that turned him into the delinquent he is.

The sour notes in the show, though, come from secondary characters that don’t work out. First of all, and less irksome, is the vice president who’s so dedicated to exposing the delinquency of Shirokin. He’s obnoxious, but it’s always certain that he’ll receive his comeuppance, so I can deal with him.

The biggest problem in Gokusen, however, is, hands down, Yankumi’s dog, Fuji. He’d be fine if he were just a normal dog, but no, he’s anthropomorphized and narrates his tough-guy thoughts at the viewers while walking around in a track suit on his hind legs. He always shows up with some hyuk-hyuk insight about how he’d have beaten up some thugs if he’d had a chance, or would die for Yankumi, and it always throws off the show’s tone. The show works fine both as a comedy and as a drama without him, but whenever he shows up, things go down the drain, at least temporarily. The very sight of him makes me cringe because I know the fun time I’ve been having will disappear.

Fuji kind of works in the manga, at least in specials or extra features. As for him being in the main plot, there is no real reason for him to be there or act as a narrator since the story is pretty straightforward.

ART STYLE/ANIMATION: I would say that the “art style” is one of the weaker aspects of this series. In one regard, it is a vast improvement from the art style of the manga, which was so minimalist that many panels wouldn’t include any background material at all. To compromise I feel the staff held back to make the anime feel more suited towards the original aesthetic. It doesn’t look bad, but just rather plain. As for the character designs, I love them. There aren’t too many genuine comedies in anime, and I feel this one is a prime example of how it can be done well. The teachers are all various stereotypes, and their designs match their over-the-top personalities well. The hideous characterizations of the students help roughen them up and make it all the more rewarding once they begin to grow on you.

As for animation, it seems rather suited for the genre and budget. I would have liked to see more real action, but taking in account the manga, the action has always been rather laid back anyways.

ART STYLE/ANIMATION: Watching Gokusen, I was pleasantly surprised by how well the show is animated. As Whitney said, the character designs aren’t much to write home about—they serve their purpose by making the men all look like delinquents of various sorts, but the women are only attractive by the suggestions of large breasts or curved lips, while all Shin has going for him is the wavy styling of his hair. Honestly, no one in Gokusen looks good, and the show definitely has characters who visually fit into caricature.

Despite that, Gokusen’s quite well animated for the time it was made, meaning the whole thing suffers from looking worse than the effort that actually went into making it. Madhouse did the animation production, and the action might not be dazzling, but it’s definitely solid, especially in the moments that had more budget. The opening sequence, for example, has the students running, and everyone gets an individual gait. There aren’t many lazy mouths or sloppy sequences, which I’d expect with a show of this subject matter. Gokusen might not blow your mind or make you cry over its visual beauty, but it definitely looks better than I thought it would, which pleasantly adds to the overall viewing experience.

OVERALL: All right, so take my score with a grain of salt. I personally think that this series is an 8. It’s funny, witty, different, and an incredibly pleasant watch. I like that it doesn’t fit into the everyday mold of anime series constantly being pushed out in production and it questions a lot of aesthetic decisions being made by the market today. With that said, this series doesn’t come across as the easiest to get into. There aren’t really any bells and whistles to get your attention, and it’s a bit odd to say the least. I think it’ll take fans with an open mind to appreciate this older and zanier series without being put off by its lack of glossy-eyed appeal.

With that said, I think it is still worth buying, which is why it’s on my shelf. And if you’re still hesitant about it (because really how many of you know someone you can just borrow this from?) it’s only $15 on Rightstuf for the whole series. That’s the same as going out and buying dinner. Well, and even if you aren’t interested in it right off the bat, there is always the J-drama to watch, which is just a pleasant experience, although somewhat different.

OVERALL: Gokusen is a very fun comedy that tends to get serious, in the style of many anime comedies. The show does a great job of mixing together its disparate parts of high school teacher and yakuza family, making for a lot of hilarious moments and many instances that provide insight into the difficulties of growing up in Japan. Gokusen also balances out its many elements well, especially for being such a short series, and I felt a good sense of closure at the end without wishing that it would continue. As far as anime go, this is something you can pick up and expect a solid good time, especially if you like shows about semi-delinquents recuperating delinquents.

…If, of course, you can stand that ridiculous dog. I mean, look at him!

286646-ep2_fuji3

Just looking at him cry over Yankumi enrages me with how much he messes with such a good series (I guess anthropomorphized dogs are my Kryptonite). So, if you can stand this dog showing up every episode or so and being so goofy he ruins some perfectly good moment, go ahead and watch the anime version of this. Otherwise, just go find the J-drama (which I’m now tempted to rewatch), because I can guarantee you that there’s 100% less Fuji obnoxiousness and just as much of everything else that makes Gokusen a good watch.

FINAL SCORE: (8/10) FINAL SCORE: (7/10)
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