(Episode Six: In which our manga dabbler realizes, among other things, that his present eyeglass prescription needs to be updated.)
Let’s get this part of the review out of the way immediately: this writer is a geezer with fading eyesight who’s been wearing bifocals for over five years. One of my recurring worries re: digest-sized graphic novels has revolved around the readability of shrunken pages – mite-sized word balloons, in particular. In most of the titles I’ve read to date, this hasn’t proved to be much of a detriment, but with Tohru Fujisama’s GTO (a.k.a.: Great Teacher Onizuka), my fears have been realized. Fujisama’s word balloons vary from Large, Loud & Legible to bite-sized – and to make matters even more frustrating, the smallest fonts often contain the best off-hand jokes (the lettering equivalent of Will Elder’s “eyeball kicks.”) Partway into the series’ first chapter (or “lesson,” as they’re titled here), I’m wondering whether I’ll need a mounted, lighted magnifying glass to get through this story.
(“Where’s the Large Print Edition?” he shouts, waving his croquet mallet belligerently.)
That grouse aside, let’s get into the first four books of this popular (“37 million copies sold worldwide!” Tokyopop brags on the front/back cover) manga series.
GTO is the story of Eikichi Onizuka, an ex-biker and karate champ who, on graduating from a mediocre college, finds himself struggling to get a job. The series opens on our hero as he flubs one of many job interviews – then retreats to the mall to sit by an escalator and ogle passing young girls’ panties. If one of the standard memes about manga is that their artists are panty-obsessed, you can see where that impression’s coming from – young Onizuka repeatedly is shown leering at unmentionables. Fujisama repeats the same visual joke in the first book around this sordid act, rendering our protagonist as a dirty old man holding onto a croquet mallet (which I assume is the Japanese equivalent to shuffleboard).
When he’s caught peaking at one ripe young thing’s undergarments (so pristine that they glisten), Onizuka takes her out, only to learn the girl’s still stuck on her older lover: a mousey-looking middle-aged teacher. “It seems like that kind of thing happens more than you think,” his crony Ryuji tells him. And with this, Onizuka vows to become a teacher – not just any teacher, but a “great teacher.” He gets a new haircut and spruces up (“Even had a flawless bathroom trip,” he tells himself, “didn’t even have to wipe or anything” – now that’s classy!) Then he signs up to become a teacher in training.
Onizuka is clearly a lout, definitely not the kind of character you’d associate with inspirational tales of the teaching profession. After Happy Mania and Iron Wok Jan, it’s clear manga readers are comfortable with ultra-flawed protagonists. In that light, our would-be “great teacher” can perhaps be seen as a manga version of a familiar American movie comedy type: the twenty-something asshole with a heart-load of Good Intentions (c.f. Adam Sandler or Jack Black), plus an extra dollop of thuggishness and Donald Duck-like temper. Per what appears to be a standard visual ploy in humorous manga, Fujisama plays a lot of games with his hero’s apperance, turning him simian whenever he’s on the verge of losing it. In one sequence, cat’s whiskers appear on Onizuka’s face after one of his students notes that he looks like a popular cartoon cat. He also sweats profusely when angered, tense or horny.
To be sure, our protagonist is not the only male indulging in panty-centric teen lechery. Fujisama is aware that most early twenty-something males aren’t much more highly evolved than your average adolescent boy, and he gets much comic mileage from this fact once he plunks the ex-biker into an actual school setting. While a teacher in training, Onizuka gets quickly set up by a comely schoolgirl in league with a gang of student blackmailers. He bullies and batters his way into retrieving the compromising photos they’ve taken of him, then tries to help the girl get along with her distant, embattled parents. What began as comedy suddenly takes a u-turn into domestic drama.
Look past the jokes, the leering sexuality and moments when GTO goes ballistic, and there’s frequently a serious undertone to this series. When Onizuka finally lands a job at Holy Forrest Private Academy, the first student he connects with is a bullied teen attempting suicide. Onizuka’s homeroom turns out to be the school’s most difficult class, a collection of vicious schemers who’ll readily turn on any classmate outside their clique. No harmless group of amiable Sweathogs, these: in one chapter, coeds strip and beat another student.
As a teacher/mentor, Onizuka follows his gut more than his brain: when confronted with a bullied student – or is himself targeted by his homeroom – his default response is to plot revenge. (Though we’re told he’s an alumnus of Eurasia Collage, he could easily have graduated from Faber College.) Much of the third and fourth volumes of the series focus on the conflict between GTO and his resistant class: in one sequence, for instance, our hero gets both his hands super-glued into a pair of bowling balls by an antagonistic student.
He also gains a nemesis within the school administration: vice-principal Uchiyamada, your standard officious middle-aged moral hypocrite (first time we see him, he’s trying to cop a feel on the bus). The v-p vows to purge our hero from the faculty roster (he correctly sees that the big lug’s an academic ignoramus but can’t acknowledge his intuitive skill at slowly winning over the “unteachable” class), a conflict no doubt prolonged through subsequent volumes.
As a reader, I still get periodically thrown by Fujisawa’s willingness to twist his character’s features to suit Onizuka’s mercurial moods. But the artist captures school and city settings quite effectively. The action in GTO runs the gamut from teacher lounge chatfests to frenetic action sequences (in volume two, we get a high-speed truck chase as Onizuka tries to make to a job interview on time) is efficiently handled. At times, however, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m missing something in the panels. Of all the manga graphic novels I’ve read to date, GTO is most packed with references to Japanese pop and youth culture new to these Western eyes.
According to Tokyopop, GTO has reached twenty-five volumes and counting. Don’t know if I’ll be following this series into the double digits: by himself, Onizuka could get pretty irritating over time, I suspect – and gleaming butt shots will only take you so far. How long Fujisama’s series holds my interest’ll probably depend on the ruthlessness and ingenuity of the rest of his cast. The more they katzenjammer their rock’em-sock’em teacher, I’m betting, the funnier GTO‘ll get. . .
(Originally posted in Pop Culture Gadabout.)