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Old, but Gold: Great Teacher Onizuka

Great Teacher Onizuka Review

Great Teacher Onizuka was a defining anime and manga series in the ’90s, and stands as an endearing classic even today. A combination of a permeating old school vibe, explosive humor, deeply written characters, and a unique take on the high school genre have carried this series to the general mainstream in both anime and manga form, and for those who haven’t heard of or experienced the series, here’s everything you need to know to get started.

A direct sequel to the high school comedy turned delinquent drama Shonan Junai Gumi by Tohru Fujisawa, Great Teacher Onizuka picks up the story of Eikichi Onizuka, one of the main characters of the prequel, as a young adult. Having graduated from a third-rate university with no stable unemployment and an increased desperation to lose his virginity, a strange turn of events convinces Onizuka to become a teacher, at first for the prospect of relationships with teenage girls. However, the man commits to becoming the greatest educator in Japan, and begins his quest at Holy Forest Academy, where his unorthodox (and oftentimes illegal) methods might be the only way to get through to the troubled, teacher-hating students of Class 3-4.

The series is frequently abbreviated to GTO, and features numerous live action adaptations and television dramas, but look no further than the original manga and TV anime adaptation for the authentic GTO experience.

The plus points

It is impossible to discuss this series without discussing the legend whose name goes into the title. Ridiculous, over-the-top, and charismatic just about scratch the surface of the sheer badass, Eikichi Onizuka. Retaining his core tenets as a legendary former gang leader, Onizuka embodies an ideal of living life to the fullest rather than living it respectably. As stated prior, his methods are unconventional, and some highly questionable (read illegal and immoral), showing his disregard for rules and norms; Onizuka is unrepentant about following his own principles in life, making him bombastic, lewd, and unnervingly confident in everything he does, creating a highly charismatic main character that you can’t help but root for.

What’ll sell you on Onizuka, however, is how inherently human he is. His over-the-top considerations on how to live life aren’t strictly wrong: he believes that everyone should take responsibility for their actions and follow their own conscience. Thus, Onizuka is fundamental a mature person who is superficially condemned for his “brutish” and misinterpreted methods (the idea behind his wacky ploys are always justified). In spite of his superhuman perseverance though, he is explicitly portrayed as flawed. A greedy swindler and lecherous pervert with poor judgement prone to being cheated, all of Onizuka’s highs are accompanied by lows; just as he can be confident and charismatic, he can also be defeated and depressed, but wherever you find him in his emotional spectrum, he never denies himself, openly broadcasting his emotional and mental state. Because that’s what the show is about: it’s alright to screw up, so don’t be ashamed, and don’t let it get you down.

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The comedy and tone of the show are much like Onizuka himself, as his crazy stratagems and temperamental outbursts are the main source of humour. Unrelenting and over-the-top, the comedy in Great Teacher Onizuka can come across as a little crude, but you may find this rather refreshing in retrospect, because its old school approach to comedy is both spontaneous and obvious, making it rather accessible. Another souvenir of its era which is put to good use is the rough, “manly” vibe observed in series around the late ’80s (think Fist of the North Star or early JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure), which GTO leverages, sometimes to highlight Onizuka’s old school delinquent background, and sometimes for the laughs (Onizuka considers Kenshiro his idol, as he’ll gladly remind you).

Of course, we’ll have to address the characters as a whole, and while there are plenty to go around, with Onizuka’s old biker buddies from Shonan and the school administration often starring as supporting characters, props have to go to the students of Class 3-4, as they make for an engaging ensemble cast. The focus of the narrative is Onizuka helping these students work through their problems while also making them accept him as their teacher (and, well, make them accept teachers in general). This doesn’t happen overnight though, and individual arcs are usually dedicated to Onizuka helping individual students and winning them over.

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While the narrative is cumulative as a whole, many individual arcs don’t directly lead into one another (the connection really isn’t that strong), as the series usually opts to build on their character development (how they’ve come to deal with their issues) and to flesh out their dynamics, showing progression from previous arcs. Further, it takes the chance to produce more comedic gags for the long run.

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Between extreme views towards education, disturbing backstories and awkward fetishes, there’s a lot going on with the cast as a whole, and amazingly, most of them get addressed. You might find yourself surprised by how much effort goes into making that one annoying, bald, wanna-be-villain more interesting and sympathetic. Ultimately, it ties back to a general view on redeeming yourself, and redeeming your views by opening yourself up to new experiences and moving on from the past, as Onizuka constantly reinforces that you shouldn’t get caught up in regret.

When I was in high school, I was a troublemaker. I hardly went to school. Before I knew it, I was expelled. When I couldn’t go anymore, I finally realised how great school was. Lot of friends and lots of fun stuff. When I got this old, I wanted to go back to school even more. That’s why I became a teacher. Because if I became a teacher, I could stay in school until I die, right? That’s why I’m really happy now, and I want you to be like that too. I want you to like school. ‘Cause once it’s over, it’s too late.

Eikichi Onizuka, 22-years-old

The minus points

An immediate flaw is potentially the animation. It isn’t strictly bad, and once you get into the series, you’ll find that it works well, and grows on you, but it can be offputting for modern viewers at first glance. Given the comedic side of the series, the rough, sketchy models work quite well for exaggerated moments and gags, but it’s not all that pretty, even for its time.

A criticism that can be targeted towards the writing is its callous approach to certain issues pertaining to society as a whole, lacking any nuance or subtlety in how these are dealt with. Although it’s not often people read this far into an anime series, those who are actually sensitive about some of the issues addressed in the series might find them somewhat downplayed compared to their real world counterparts, especially in how easily they are resolved, making them slightly less believable, and presenting Onizuka’s choice of actions as socially and morally irresponsible.

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A similarly charged issue would be its use of gender stereotypes. The cast is fairly well balanced, and female characters get just as much of a chance to shine in terms of narrative and humour, but some of the perverted actions (especially Onizuka’s) and scenes, while never obscene, can still be seen as misogynistic or disrespectful, so GTO might be a red flag for hardcore feminists.

Verdict

An important point to bear in mind is that the anime adaptation branches from the manga in terms of story, especially in regard to the conclusion. The anime goes for a faster ending by skipping a lot of content and going for an original ending, forcing certain plot threads to be dropped. The manga, on the other hand, has more depth and is more well rounded, but is also a direct sequel to Shonan Junai Gumi, making some of the earlier chapters confusing for those unfamiliar with Onizuka’s teenage years. The anime, as a standalone, is recommended as a gateway to the characters and tone of the series; should you enjoy the humour and writing, and crave the complete story, pick up the manga from chapter one, as you’ll be amazed by how dark and immersive the original is, in spite of sharing its essence with the adaptation.

So, in a nutshell, Great Teacher Onizuka is a classic series with a relatively unique concept executed with an old-school vibe. Outrageous with its humour and in-your-face with its portrayal, this is a must-watch (and read) for anyone hanging around the anime and manga community, as it broadens your perspective on the generation of anime past, and makes for a surprisingly genre-savvy watch for anyone familiar with high-school series, given its unique twist in focus and slightly mature edge.

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