Having wanted to become a schoolteacher for years, the (seemingly) air-headed Kumiko Yamaguchi's dream turns into a nightmare when she finds herself teaching math to the good-for-nothings at Shirokin High School...but they may be the ones who have to worry. They aren't aware that their sensei is secretly the head of a powerful yakuza syndicate, in addition to being an exceptionally powerful martial artist. The problem is, Kumiko doesn't want this found out, but that becomes increasingly difficult as she finds herself having to intervene on behalf of her students' well-being, and her act as the "bespectacled ditz" starts to show cracks as they witness her knocking out bullies with one punch and standing up to dangerous biker gangs without seeming to feel any fear.
Japan has produced its share of humorous series about school-aged punks, with the level of absurdity ranging from mild (Great Teacher Onizuka) to extreme (Cromartie High School), but with nearly all of them toying with the notion that the students in question are "misunderstood", at least to some degree. The Gokusen combines this sub-genre with elements of yakuza drama treated in a flippant manner, with the punks' homeroom teacher now being an exceptionally powerful kumicho desperate to keep her identity concealed. In spite of this twist, however, The Gokusen isn't an especially inspired take on the theme, nor, unfortunately, is it particularly funny. While the early episodes indicate some promise, one-note jokes and inconsistent characterization ultimately make the anime adaptation of The Gokusen one to skip.
My essential problem with the series is that it sets up a potentially effective comic premise but then presents it awkwardly, briefly maintaining it with a series of weak, one-note jokes before dumping it in favor of unconvincing character drama. It's certainly not too hard to believe that Yamaguchi (semi-affectionately nicknamed "Yankumi" by her students) is not somebody to be messed with: some of her action scenes are pretty awesome, if not very well-animated, and at times, her character generates the perfect aura of intensity. For the briefest period, it's also amusing to see how unconvincing her attempts to portray herself as a "ditz" actually are, given how authoritative and menacing she can actually be. The other characters aren't bad, but you do start to see the pattern emerge pretty quickly: you've got the standard set of punks, all of whom secretly have hearts of gold, the one calculative and particularly dangerous boy who ultimately turns out to be an invaluable ally, the unsympathetic and balding vice-principal (Great Teacher Onizuka's Uchiyamada in all but name), and the truants who turn out to actually be dangerous.
Just as I started to realize that I'd seen these guys before, however, I began to get sick of the show's repeated set of gags, which continue with little variety throughout the first half of the series: either Yankumi gets caught up in a fit of rage befitting a yakuza and behaves goofily afterwards, her none-too-bright associates do their job badly and find themselves having to fight with her, or the one "calculating" punk who suspects her identity tries to expose her in various ways. Regardless, the joke is invariably stale by the third or fourth iteration. With the comedy rapidly in free fall, there's just not much to see: the drama is lackluster, and the show just doesn't really look that great, either. Indeed, the character design tends to add unnecessary bulge to the characters' lips and limbs, the color scheme is full of dull, awkwardly-contrasting shades that give it a muddled appearance, and the frames seem to be out of focus way too often for the standards of a finished work. I can't say I remember much of the music, either, although the opening theme does make for a mildly-enjoyable piece of rock music.
The second half of the series, conversely, screws up by having the vast majority of the characters appear to forget everything from previous episodes, with Yankumi fighting openly in spite of her previous secrecy, characters rapidly becoming such harmless figures that they might as well never have been punks at all, and the heart-of-gold side of the characters becoming too dominant in too short a period of time. If there's one thing I can't stand, it's a shift in personality that occurs with no context and without adequate time to justify it, and that's unfortunately what happens with everybody in this series. Yankumi's near-complete flippancy towards her identity, for example, is completely baffling considering her previous behavior. I can, meanwhile, understand that people might become nicer or less prone to violence over time, and I've seen such character development handled well in other cases, but given that her students were brawling and drawing lewd pictures of their teacher mere episodes ago, it's as if Santa Claus himself had charge of a "naughty/nice" switch that controlled their temperament and had decided to change the setting halfway through the series. The argument has been made that such developments matter little in a comedy, but while I disagree with that statement, the reason I find this to be problematic is different: the ending of the series attempts to be serious, and this inconsistent character development renders it into a mess. I was honestly quite bored by the time the ending rolled around, and I can't simply write that off as the dramatic parts being window-dressing, since I've seen much funnier comedies than this still make me care about the cast without lobotomizing them for the sake of a "powerful and dramatic" ending as The Gokusen tries to do.
Given the popularity of the live action television franchise based on the Gokusen manga, I am left to speculate that the anime adaptation is simply an inferior remake of a far better story. The careless production makes it feel like a sloppy addendum to a larger and superior work: a messy and poorly-conceived story whose occasional bright spots speak of something more. I really can't recommend this show, however, and those looking for the next Great Teacher Onizuka should turn away before they become disheartened.
Too many repeated jokes, too many illogical shifts in personality, and too much fluff. There's enough good material here for a second star, but I was pretty bored by the end of it. — Nick Browne
Recommended Audience: There is frequent but not particularly graphic brawling, while sexual content is limited to some ogling and one lewd (but poorly-drawn) picture of Yankumi. The show sanitizes Yakuza to the point where they might as well be rival corporations, but younger kids might not understand it. The profanity, however, is enough to make this a teenagers-and-up outing.
Version(s) Viewed: R1 DVD, Japanese with English subs only
Review Status: Full (13/13)
The Gokusen © 2004 Kozueko Morimoto / Shueisha • NTV • VAP
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