by Jonathan Mays,

GTO: Great Teacher Onizuka

Live-Action Series

GTO: Great Teacher Onizuka
Did you enjoy junior high? Dumb question. Who could possibly enjoy a parade of teachers lecturing about junk that has no relevance to your life, or piles of homework that cut into your sleep and your fun? When you're a teen, school is a rite of passage, the gateway to success and happiness in the "real" world.

But Great Teacher Onizuka sees things a little differently. And he's determined to show you the light.

He might dangle you from the roof of a skyscraper, or leave you to be roughed up by some street bullies, but it's all in the name of education, really. Besides, what do you expect from a high-school dropout who hangs out with a bike gang? Eikichi Onizuka is poor at diplomacy, so he goes with his strength: kind-hearted hysteria.

Wild antics, noble intentions, and piles of humor made GTO one of the most watched television shows in Japan's history, and with good reason. It pulls you in and won't let go until you're laughing, crying, or (preferably) both.

Why does an ex-biker who washes windows for a living want to be a teacher? Who knows, he just does. What does matter is that Musashi Seirin Academy is going through a crisis, and their principal is desperate enough to fix things that she gives Onizuka a shot at teaching—to the extreme dismay of the rest of the staff. An overjoyed Onizuka shows up on his first day as a teacher, has a run-in with the beautiful English teacher Azusa Fuyutsuki, and prepares to instruct the infamous class 2-4.

Class 2-4 is the kind of group that tops the 10 Worst Homerooms of All Time lists in teaching manuals. There's the computer geek who gets his jollies by pissing off whoever's in charge. The straight-A schemer who uses her mother's PTA Presidency as leverage at every turn. The one with problems at home. The bullies. The bullied. Basically, every affliction or annoyance you could ever imagine, all rolled up into a room of cute juniors with twinkling eyes.

Fuyutsuki lays it on Onizuka: "The previous homeroom teacher had a nervous breakdown, and the one before that disappeared and is still missing." But he doesn't seem the least bit concerned.

"They're all the ones nobody cares about, right? I'm used to that."

Takashi Sorimachi, who plays Onizuka, fills his role and a lot more. Making a spectacle comes naturally for him. Sorimachi is never afraid of the wrong step, always a threat to steal the scene. And there's reason to his eccentric mannerisms; I can imagine a lesser actor turning Onizuka into a manic clown. Onizuka can be cold or sensitive, cunning or downright silly, and Sorimachi plays each extreme with ease.

His other half is the gorgeous Nanako Matsushima (Fuyutsuki), whose job is to foil Onizuka's crazy, impulsive behavior. The two of them bicker exceptionally well (no surprise that they're married in real life). Matsushima clearly loves making faces, so she overacts from time to time. But her chemistry with Sorimachi makes up for it.

Sometimes they argue over important matters. Most of the time it's something like who's better at of my favorite scenes. They drag along a couple of friends, and each pair tries a song (out of tune, of course) while the other has a sober conversation about love and marriage. Everybody has such silly grins on their faces; it's up to you to decide whether or not they're acting.

What really surprised me was the supporting cast, which steps up to the plate in a serious way—six teachers, a few friends, and no fewer than fifteen students have important roles in the show. While few have extended face time, each one rises to the occasion and gives believable dimension to each character. Onizuka and Fuyutsuki may hog a lot of the camera, but the show is really about the kids, like Miyabi Aizawa, who has some old demons to reconcile, and Tomoko Nomura, who has to choose between her parents' guidance and her own aspirations.

GTO is sort of like those classic kiddie dramas with a problem, a solution, and a moral at the end of each episode. Onizuka might as well remind us to eat our vegetables, too. Fortunately, the Great Teacher takes his own advice: "Don't get carried away." Some scenes swim in melodrama, but Director Suzuki seems to knows the threshold between real emotion and senseless theater; even the long scenes are never too long.

The show draws from its crazy humor and awkward situations instead of depending on them because its writers, directors, and actors play the punch line secondary to the setup. GTO is smart and incisive without even trying. Maybe that's why I was surprised to be so affected by it. After I saw the final episode, I walked through the campus park for a while, and sat and thought, and was happy nothing needed to be done right away.
Overall : A+
Story : A
Music : A

+ Great story, wonderfully executed.
After this, this GTO movie is a serious letdown.

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Production Info:
Director: Masayuki Suzuki
Screenplay: Mitsuru Tanabe
Music: Takayuki Hattori
Original Manga: Tohru Fujisawa
Art Director: Katsumi Nakazawa
Director of Photography: Takeshi Hamada

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GTO: Great Teacher Onizuka (live-action TV)

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