Soon as I read the premise of Deka Kyoshi (CMX), I couldn’t help thinking of the Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy, Kindergarten Cop. Hard-nosed copper goes undercover in an elementary school? Yeah, we’re talking high-concept/low credibility here.
Once you get beyond its credulity-stretching premise, though, Tamio Baba’s “teen-plus” rated series goes in a direction beyond its initial comic concept. Ignore the fact that Toyama, the manly detective sent undercover to teach a fifth grade class after its beloved instructor turns up dead, is seemingly given his assignment without any time constraints. The series’ core “mystery” is secondary to its school kid character dramas — which is where Deka Kyoshi excels.
Our entry into the mysteries of fifth grade behavior is a sensitive school boy named Makato, who Toyama rescues from bullies early in the first volume. Makato is the classroom scapegoat, but his emotional sensitivity provides him with the ability to view other peoples’ emotions “as visual metaphors,” a form of synthesia, we’re told. He sees his potential bullies as monstrous demons, sees a girl classmate with self-esteem issues as a child’s doll growing increasingly more raggedy, and so on.
With Makato and the winsome lady sensei Narita as his guides, Toyama spends more time helping out his new charges than he does investigating his original case. In one chapter, for instance, a manga-addicted boy is brought to the detective’s attention after Makato sees tentacles emerging from a proffered volume of Hunter X Hunter. Turns out the manga fan has been swiping tankobon from a local shop, so he can bring new books to school to lend to his classmates. (“I don’t see what’s so amusing about this dreck!” Toyama grouses as he peruses a pile of confiscated comics.) In another, our sensitive boy sees a girl with cutting behavior as swathed in bandages.
Toyama, trained as a cop, bulls his way through each of his students’ problems, but still manages to help them conquer their demons. (In this, he’s like a more straight arrow version of Great Teacher Onizuka.) If Baba’s solutions to his characters’ emotional issues at times seem rushed, his depiction of the difficulties his kids face is distinct enough that we quickly see how the teacher known as Mr. Big can get distracted from his case so much. “The job of a teacher is to believe in the students,” Narita says at one point, though our hero can’t help giving into his policeman’s suspicions. And in at least one of the first volume’s tales, he’s right to hold onto ‘em.
Baba’s art is clean and cartoony: though he’s also capable of serving up a good creepy looking psychological demon when the moment calls for it. At times I found myself comparing the art to Gosho Aoyama’s Case Closed, yet another series where the occasionally violent goings on are mitigated by a sprightly drawing style, though Baba’s art isn’t as textured. It suits Deka Kyoshi’s storytelling, though: the 162-page volume moves with such good-natured zippiness and affection for its characters that you really hope the Yamanouchi PD’s budget is big enough to keep our lovable lug of a detective with his fifth graders for the rest of the school year.