GTO: Great Teacher Onizuka

Former juvenile delinquent and gang member Eikichi Onizuka only decided to become a high-school teacher because he thought he would be surrounded by nubile – and highly impressionable – female seniors, and thus be able to live out his fantasy of being a schoolyard Lothario. However, on his student teacher rounds, Onizuka makes two surprising discoveries. The first is that he possesses both a conscience and a moral centre, through which he develops a deep empathy for his students and a strong motivation to look out for their interests. The second is that the Japanese school system is riddled with cultural and systemic failures that neither develops students academically nor prepares them for life after school. Barely graduating from a second-rate teaching college, and only miraculously landing a job with a private junior high school, Onizuka immediately gets offside with the officious vice-Principal, Uchiyamada, but also makes the acquaintance of the attractive and earnest English teacher Azusa Fuyutsuki, for whom he starts to develop feelings. But Onizuka has little time for matters of the heart; assigned the “problem class” in the school’s senior year, he quickly finds himself butting heads with a troublesome group that includes computer geniuses, manipulative Lolitas, straight-up bullies, and an assortment of other oddballs and outcasts no-one else wants to teach. Drawing on his own experience, Onizuka sees the vulnerable and immature children who lurk beneath the bravado and bad behaviour; he also understands the pointlessness of conventional methods, and decides to adopt his own teaching style in order to deliver his students some critical “life lessons”.

Based on the hugely successful manga by Tooru Fujisawa – which has also spawned a multi-series television adaption, a feature film, and adaptions in numerous other media – “GTO: Great Teacher Onizuka” was produced by renowned anime studio Pierrot and ran on Japanese television from June 1999 to September 2000. Animated in an old-school hand-drawn style that is reminiscent of 90s anime and brings with it a certain nostalgic charm, “GTO” is an anarchic blend of at times puerile sexual humour, serious social commentary, and fast-paced, violent slapstick.  And yet in the midst of all this it also manages to draw Onizuka as a genuine, three-dimensional character whose connection with his students and ability to get through to them is at least partially based on his own immaturities and insecurities as an adult – resulting in both Onizuka and his students undertaking a course of self-discovery over the series’ duration. But it’s not all human drama: “GTO” also lands some hard-hitting criticisms of the Japanese school system – everything from rampant bullying and organisational corruption to outdated rote learning methods and indifference to students requiring extra assistance – in order to argue that students who are labelled “delinquents” are themselves products of a system by which they are abused and neglected. The result is moments of genuinely affecting emotion, laugh-out-loud comedy, and arresting social observation.  Landing somewhere between “Welcome Back, Kotter” and “Porky’s”, and by turns voyeuristic, funny, and tragic, “GTO: Great Teacher Onizuka” will not be to everyone’s liking – but it is unlikely to be forgotten, even by those whose favour it fails to win.

Text © Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2021. All rights reserved.