Has Japan caught a case of reboot-itis? In the case of GTO, it has! And as a fan of all things GTO, I looked forward to this reboot with great anticipation, because more Onizuka is always a good thing… right? Right!?
One In a Long Line of Onizukas
Eikichi Onizuka’s adventures started way back in 1991 as the leader of the notorious bike gang Oni Baku in Tooru Fujisawa’s manga Shonan Junai Gumi!. In the followup series GTO, twenty-year-old Onizuka quits the bike gang and begins his quest to become a GREAT high school teacher, hence the title G(reat) T(eacher) O(nizuka). GTO took Fujisawa’s Onizuka character to new heights, spawning manga sequels, a drama, a movie and an animated series.
Over-the-top and cheesy in all the right ways, the 1998 drama addressed major educational issues of the time, like bullying and “monster parents,” and scored record-setting ratings in the process. Although some GTO fans bemoaned trendy Takashi Sorimachi’s acting, he pulled off a smarter, black haired variant of Onizuka-sensei. Featuring a great balance of comedy, charm, and tear-jerking moments, 1998’s GTO inspired a generation of teachers, including this writer.
But this isn’t about GTO 1998, this is about GTO 2012! How does the recent series hold up as part of the GTO franchise? How about as a drama in its own right? Does it stick close to the original manga like the anime? Or does it provide a unique take on the character, like the franchise’s previous drama?
In short, GTO 2012 blazes its own path… but it’s not exactly a good one.
That Was Quick
And blaze is the appropriate term because GTO 2012 gets off to a fast, fast start, cramming two to three episodes worth of material into one.
Previous incarnations of GTO introduced Onizuka with slow grace, giving audiences a chance to become familiar with his character. At first Onizuka’s young, reckless, perverted exterior seems like a lost cause. But careful plotting and pacing reveal Onizuka’s pure heart. His dream of becoming a great teacher gives audiences something to empathize with. As a noble but misunderstood underdog, Onizuka’s struggle to realize his dream gave me no choice but to root for his character.
GTO 2012‘s frantic pace alienated me from both Onizuka and its story from the get-go. 2012‘s Onizuka became a teacher before I could develop a feel for his character. Other GTO series prepared audiences for Onizuka’s crazy exploits, but GTO 2012‘s plot unfolds matter-of-factly, as if audiences should know what to expect. That’s fine for a sequel, but not a stand-alone reboot.
Even the way 2012‘s Onizuka becomes a teacher has little rhyme or reason. As the school groundskeeper, this Onizuka has no teaching aspirations. But after assaulting the vice principal, the school’s principal decides to hire the groundskeeper as a teacher.
In other words, 2012’s Onizuka stumbles into the very job every other Onizuka struggled to get. Previous Onizukas had to fight like hell to earn their coveted teaching positions. GTO 2012 replaces character-building conflict with a random request that seems far-fetched even by GTO standards.
By gifting this Onizuka a job he didn’t want in the first place, GTO 2012 lacks essential character-building struggle and robs audiences of their reason to cheer for its lead character. I found it impossible to relate to this underwhelming, dreamless Onizuka.
Going Through the Motions
Onizuka’s character has changed as well. Where is his reckless, youthful exuberance? His innocence? His charm? _2012′_s Onizuka has the look of a worn out, over-the-hill porn star. Why is 2012’s Onizuka a mustachioed, creepy middle-aged guy?
More of a ratings gimmick than a capable actor, Akira of the Japanese pop group Exile plays Onizuka. But Akira never acts the role. Instead he takes the form of a phrase machine, spouting out empty Onizuka-isms while striking “cool” poses and flashing a smile that would curdle milk. There’s very little acting to be found, and anyone dissatisfied with Takashi Sorimachi should loathe Akira’s cardboard performance.
Forget other GTO‘s teachers’ offices with their quirky and developed side characters. GTO 2012‘s vice principal is angry for the sake of being angry. The gym teacher exercises because he’s the gym teacher and that’s what they do. The women in the office are one-dimensional decorative paper weights. GTO 2012‘s script gives supporting characters no chance to make an impact. Although I found myself sympathizing with them in other GTO series, GTO 2012‘s supporting characters are impossible to care for.
Worst of all, GTO 2012 under-develops Fuyutsuki-sensei, Onizuka’s female coworker and love interest. Second only to Onizuka’s relationship with his students, his relationship with Fuyutsuki-sensei sparks an important subplot that builds throughout the other series. But pacing is not GTO 2012’s strong point and Fuyutsuki’s admiration for Onizuka comes out of nowhere, feeling slipshod and forced. The actors’ lack of chemistry amplifies this misstep.
Instead of developing Onizuka’s fellow teachers, the plot dotes around Onizuka’s friends. In the past, Onizuka acted on instinct and reinforcements only appeared in extreme situations. But 2012‘s Onizuka relies on his friends all the time. Played by other popular personalities, these unnecessary characters serve one function – extra ratings.
The Silver Lining
To be fair, GTO 2012 gets a few things right. I enjoyed seeing new stories brought to life for the first time, outside the pages of manga. For example, episode five features an abusive parent story from GTO Shonan 14 Days. Never before seen plots present a refreshing break from other rehashed stories.
Keeping up with the times, GTO 2012 tackles some current and progressive issues. These new topics, like one involving the use of point-based systems for academic and behavioral performance, add freshness to the GTO formula.
Although Akira stumbled as Onizuka-sensei, Miori Takimoto put in a strong performance as Fuyutsuki-sensei, despite the character’s limited role in the plot. As an ex-pop star herself, Ms. Takimoto proves that some pop stars can act. It’s just a shame the writers didn’t present her character with more opportunities to shine.
The best Japanese dramas overcome low budgets and even poor acting with their overpowering charm. Poor plotting and character development hurt GTO 2012 from the start, and its weak acting and pacing prevent the series from creating enough charm to recover.
Overall GTO 2012 feels like an underdeveloped attempt to cash in on an established franchise and pop star. As a result GTO 2012 doesn’t just struggle as part of the GTO franchise, but as a drama in its own right as well. Even my high school students lamented how dull the show was – and they’re Exile fans! Mediocre at best, GTO 2012 disappointed this long-time fan of GTO and J-Drama in general. Skip it and watch a truly great series instead.