Tatami Drama Critic — Gokusen

17 04 2009

All That Drama, Part I

jg_gokusenFor the next few installments of Tatami Critic, we’re going to take a break from the movies and talk a bit about another enjoyable Japanese genre: The Drama.

Most dramas in Japan seem to be following a trend similar in the U.S.: one-hour episodes (less accounting for commercials) arranged in smaller runs of somewhere around 10-12 episodes (the brilliantly made Kisarazu Cat’s Eye, on queue for review in a later installment, intuitively had a nine-episode run, corresponding to the number of innings in a baseball game).

Also, unlike the ongoing series element that has pervaded the U.S., most dramas in Japan seem to be geared for a one-season run. If a show is popular enough, a second or third season is made, possibly with some notable cast changes and likely with a new story arc.

Such is the case with our first drama up for review, Gokusen. Based on both a manga and subsequent anime, Gokusen stars an ambitious rookie high school teacher receiving her very first assignment: Class 3-D, where the school dumps the bad kids to hide them from embarrassing the school. Everyone has given up on them, and the head teacher secretly hopes they’ll just drop out.

Enter Kumiko Yamaguchi (Nakama Yukie), who is no ordinary new teacher, though she is tries her best to appear that way. Yamaguchi, later called Yankumi for short by her students, is from a Yakuza family, and was slated to be the next Yakuza boss. Her dream, however, is to teach high school, and her grandfather and his subordinates accept that (more or less).

jg_gokusen-21As you can imagine, the first day goes anything but well. The class refuses to pay attention, they throw things at her and one student, the big-boned Kumai (nicknamed Kuma, Japanese for bear), tries unsuccessfully to land a punch on her. The leader of the class, the quiet and brooding heartthrob Shin Sawada (Matsumoto Jun), makes it clear that he doesn’t trust authority, and definitely not this new teacher.

Where most teachers would have run for the door, Yankumi is persistent, vowing to protect and believe in her students. The series is essentially episode after episode of her standing up for her students and believing them even when it looks overwhelmingly like they’re at fault (she is usually right). Through this we come to learn that the students all have reasons for being the way they are, and have good hearts but sometimes make bad choices, and are often misjudged because of these episodes. In one episode, a 3-D member gets in trouble for beating up an honor student, only to find out later that the student was abusing a puppy and the 3-D student was protecting it. Another involved a shoplifter stealing a videogame and dropping it in front of some of the 3-D kids, leaving the chasing storeowner to accuse them of the crime.

Yankumi perseveres, eventually earning the respect of Shin and the rest of the class. Partly due to her undying devotion to protecting them, partly due to the fact that her Yakuza skills help her do this, easily defeating a room full of thugs, the class towards the end learns to trust her, laugh at her silliness and awe at her strength, which Yukie handles with ease. One particular funny moment involved Yankumi agreeing to cheerlead for the 3-D sports festival team, with Shin rolling his eyes, saying “no one asked you to.” After donning a full cheerleading outfit and trying to get the other beautiful teacher and the beautiful nurse to do so also, Yankumi comes out into the gym alone in the outfit, and all the male teachers who had gathered to take photos of the other hot teachers leave. She is left pouting on the floor with Shin consoling her.

And as laugh out loud funny as Gokusen can be, it’s also darn tear-jerking at times, particularly toward the end. Though the show can be formulaic — student gets in trouble, head teacher wants to kick them out, Yankumi discovers the truth and saves the day, kicking a bunch of thug’s asses in the process — the show’s emotional level doesn’t suffer for it. Every time one of the bad kids does something good or reveals their true feelings, one can’t help but be moved.

Overall, Gokusen is a great series that pulls the viewer in and doesn’t let go. I challenge readers to watch the whole series and not tear up at least a little. 

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