Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
GTO: Great Teacher Onizuka
DVD - Complete Collection
Eikichi Onizuka would make an awful teacher. Pretty much everyone agrees about that, including his oldest and most devoted friends. Formerly the invincible leader of Shonan's worst biker gang, Onizuka is crude, violent, and has serious authority issues. He isn't very bright, and has the impulse control of a drunken monkey. And he wants to be the greatest teacher in Japan. The hell of it is that he may have a chance. His, um, unconventional tactics may be dangerous, immoral, and occasionally illegal, and his academic credentials highly suspect, but he has a genius for connecting with evil problem-students and for squeezing out of tight scrapes. Which are two very useful skills—especially in a school with a student body that "executes" teachers and a vice-principal who hates his punk guts.
Want to feel old? Watch GTO. A generally well-regarded staple of the very early '00s, it was born in the final days of traditional cel animation, at a time when anime still courted mainstream audiences. It looks rough, even crude by today's standards. It takes pains to be accessible to all, targeting no demographic more specific than males 18-death. It has no fantastical leanings (not counting the fantasy of Onizuka getting a teaching position), its focus is on adults in the workplace, and its influences run more towards rowdy comedies, exploitation crime films, and baldly manipulative school dramas. To enjoy it you need only be at peace with bad taste and familiar with the 20th Century plague of uplifting films about unconventional teachers helping troubled teens.
Position GTO next to the computer-polished, insular anime fantasies of the current moment—series that live inside a Möbius strip of otaku influences—and it looks like an alien from another galaxy. This set, presented by the professional nostalgia-mongers at Eastern Star and crammed with every one of the series' highly variable 43 episodes, is a stark reminder (to some of us) that our fandom spans the chasm between those two galaxies. Which makes us feel really, really old.
As valuable as that kind of perspective is, it isn't valuable enough to justify buying the set. For proper justification you must turn to the series itself. And unlike, say, DBZ, GTO justifies its nostalgia value. It may be an alien in today's anime landscape, but it's an alien with a surplus of unabashedly unrefined entertainment—particularly in its first half or so. In that first rush of episodes, GTO is a series of back-to-back crises—a chain of threats to Onizuka's educator ambitions, each spearheaded by a new villain who is doomed to taste his or her own unique variety of defeat. The series is very much character-driven at this juncture, though in a different way than the term is usually used. It isn't so much that it's built around Onizuka's evolution—he does no such thing—but rather that it is wholly, and sometimes violently, shaped by Onizuka's personality. The show's main strategy is to build a standard teacher-movie situation, and then throw Onizuka in and watch him lay waste to it. So it begins with his student-teaching trail period, which quickly devolves into attempted fraternization with the female student body and ultimately torture and intimidation. From there it sends Onizuka into a job interview, which ends when he body-slams his interviewer. When Onizuka must save a bullied boy, his solution involves a paddle-stick, three bottomless female students, and blackmail. When a troublesome trio falls victim to nasty punks, the Onizuka cure is far worse than the punk disease.
And so the series goes. The student-teacher drama supplies the series with a soft emotional underbelly while Onizuka swings a wrecking ball at the genre's uplifting clichés, making it the rare series that works as both a parody and as the thing it parodies. Frankly, it shouldn't work—the show pursues humor, action, and affect with the same primitive gusto—but it does. Even now the series can floor you with a gag, shock you with Onizuka's behavior, and shred your fingernails with a seemingly impossible predicament (usually made worse, not better, by Onizuka's interference), without any reaction interfering with the other. When Onizuka decides to help an ostracized girl by making her an idol, we cringe at his methods (he asks porn producers to make her up), laugh at his juvenile hijinks, and glory in mean-spirited satisfaction at the villainess's defeat, none of which stops the episode's climax—an unbearably bittersweet phone call—from cutting our hearts clean out.
It helps, of course, that the ostracized girl is played by the incomparable Ayako Kawasumi. Just as it helps that Onizuka is played by old hand Wataru Takagi, obviously having the time of his life. Which explains somewhat why the English dub, produced for Tokyopop's original DVD releases, sounds so awful in comparison. Though it certainly doesn't explain it all. Rampant over-acting, a small pool of actors (actors voice multiple characters, often with laughable results), and the less than sharp production are also contributing factors.
The dub is the only extra that this set provides. Other than the second language track, these DVDs are as bare as can be. Bare is of course fine, a perfectly understandable result of the set's bargain-basement price, but there are other issues that are less forgivable. The video quality isn't good (which may be partly an age issue), and some episodes hold their last shot for a weirdly long time while others are cut short in the midst of their next-episode previews (for which there is no excuse).
You may have noticed the qualifications inserted into the "yay GTO!" paragraph above. As they indicate, eventually the series does start falling apart. It doesn't exactly drive off a cliff, but it definitely loses gas somewhere after the resolution of Kanzaki's arc (Kanzaki being the show's most frightening villain, and later, its most frightening heroine). The series loses its way amongst a rash of disposable filler episodes (a few of them downright awful—I mean, the old fake-terminal-illness gag? Really?). In the meantime Onizuka settles into a comfortable routine, becoming ever more like the harmlessly eccentric role models that he was intended to serve as an antidote to. The stories lose their dangerous edge and the humor grows increasingly repetitive. The cast as a whole softens, sometimes to the point of total sanitization. The show never fully recovers—though it has its moments, some of them excellent (the episode in which three anti-Onizuka girls push Kanzaki over the edge has a sick-making power equal to anything in the first half).
It's while it's floundering that you start to notice the things in GTO that haven't aged well. Mainly that means noticing how hideous the whole thing is. Quality control is terrible: proportions shift and faces change from episode to episode and scene to scene. The show's exaggerated expressions can only be described as nightmarish, and its scenery is deadly dull. When things are animated, it's often poorly controlled or wooden. There are jolts of beautiful full-motion action, and director Noriyuki Abe's mastery of comic timing and episode construction help paper over a lot of shortcomings, but stylistically GTO is pretty damned ugly. Even the score has its problems: Though Abe manipulates music superbly, he has too few themes to work with, leading to heavy repetition.
The half-point slump and the show's look, together with a few age-specific qualms (ever notice how adults being attracted to fourteen-year-olds gets really creepy when you start identifying as an adult?), ensure that GTO will never be the classic that our fond recollections want it to be. It will always remain a mere nostalgia piece. Still, it's a nostalgia piece that's very much worth revisiting. Though you may want to keep the fast-forward handy through the middle.
Overall (dub) : C
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : C
Art : D
Music : B
+ Onizuka, Onizuka, and also Onizuka.
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