The Gokusen Vol. 3
Even with the impressive breadth of subject matter covered in anime, every once in a while a series comes along that seems a little too close to another anime for comfort. RahXephon's similarity to Evangelion may be one of the highest-profile examples of this, but it happens with other series as well. It's not exactly surprising when a show as popular as Evangelion inspires a generation of shows. Just as the two giant robot productions, The Gokusen seems uncannily close to Great Teacher Onizuka. I can't say with any certainty where the idea for The Gokusen came from, but it's hard to avoid drawing comparisons between this and the other tale of a teacher gaining the trust of a delinquent classroom.
After all, both of the characters -- Kumiko from The Gokusen and Onizuka from GTO -- have ties to a gang, which comes in handy when they need to pull in extra resources. Both of them wanted to be a teacher, despite having a somewhat sordid past. Both are immediately saddled with one of the worst classes in their respective school's history. They're both superlative martial artists, though Kumiko relies more on finesse than Onizuka's use of brute force. And of course, even though they may have some morally gray areas in their personalities, they're ultimately good people who care more about their students than anything else.
Luckily, there are key differences between the two shows that elevate The Gokusen above mere imitator status. First of all, Onizuka is well meaning, but really dumb. Perhaps that's a bit too harsh; he's more naive than stupid. Onizuka just doesn't have that much real-world experience. Sure, he was the leader of his very own biker gang, but he's fresh out of college and jobless when he applies to work as a teacher. Kumiko, on the other hand, is shrewd, intelligent, and the heir to one of the most powerful and respected crime syndicates in the nation. She's also less motivated by the prospect of seeing young girls in their panties.
Another distinguishing trait of GTO is the depth of the characters in the show. However, there's no way that a thirteen episode show can squeeze in as much character development as GTO, which spans ten DVDs, based on more than twenty manga volumes.
Comparisons to GTO aside, this is actually a very entertaining show, with enough unique aspects to make it enjoyable throughout its relatively brief run. Like many releases from Anime Works, it seems to be one of those series that hasn't received nearly the amount of exposure that it deserves.
As mentioned above, this series follows the life of the heiress to the Ooedo clan. She's always wanted to be a teacher, mainly because she feels bad for all of the troubled kids who end up getting kicked out of school. Most of these kids end up as gangsters because their teachers never try to understand them, and Kumiko wants to change that. Even though she's the acting leader of a major yakuza family, her clan favors order and peace over constant fighting. It's hard for crime organizations to operate in the modern world, and Kumiko brings an element of legitimacy to her clan that benefits her men as much as it does the general populace.
She quickly earns the trust of her students -- even the quiet, too-smart-for-Kumiko's-own-good Shin, who hasn't trusted teachers since he was thrown out of school for attacking one years ago. The class affectionately calls her Yankumi, a combination of "yankee" (slang for gangster) and her name. Whether she's protecting her students from the bullies in the senior class, from a vice principal with dark ulterior motives, or from their own hardheaded-stupidity, Kumiko's class has a stronger ally in her than they realize.
Naturally, as this disc contains the final four episodes of the show, there are some big-deal events transpiring. There's the resurfacing of a student who was once expelled and strongarms the entire student body with gang-related threats, an event that threatens to reveal Kumiko's heritage to her employers, and the introduction of the principal's older brother -- a man who plans on shutting the school down and replacing it with an office building.
The character designs in The Gokusen are very unusual. There are many bishonen and bishojo archetypes (that is, very attractive guys and girls), but then there are some just plain ugly players in the show as well. Kumiko can be rather plain-looking when she's in her track outfit teaching class, but when she puts on her ojou persona, her cold beauty as a yakuza princess commands the respect of anyone who sees her. Shin, one of the few people at the school who knows her secret, is prettier than her most of the time. Most of the students and yakuza characters are caricatures, rather than realistically-designed protagonists, but even though many of them are ugly, it helps to differentiate them from their classmates rather quickly.
Although the character designs make the show look like it was produced fifteen years ago, the animation is good enough to correct that assumption. It isn't the smoothest series that I've seen, but fight scenes are well-choreographed, which is all that's really needed in a comedy. Incidentally, the manga that spawned this series came out in 2000, with the TV series following in early 2004. There is also a live-action version, started in 2002, which has followed in GTO's footsteps by becoming one of the highest-rated series in Japanese history.
Voice acting is very solid on the Japanese side. Kumiko's seiyuu, Risa Hayamizu, puts on an especially impressive performance, considering that she appears to be a relative newcomer to the business. Kenichi Suzumura provides the voice for Shin Sawada, and the more-experienced actor does not disappoint. It's possible that my favorite character is Kumiko's dog, Fuji, who has a Garfield-like sentience. He can talk (voiced with a great attitude by Seizo Katou), but no one seems to hear him. He wears a jacket that is very similar to Kumiko's and occasionally walks on two legs. Bipedal dogs are always entertaining.
The quality of the translation is generally good, although I have to say that it bothers me whenever Japanese slang is translated into someone else's idea of an English equivalent. It gets really old seeing "fuggedaboutit" and other stereotypically Italian phrases swapped in for yakuza-speak. Maybe it's okay to do that in the dub, but please leave the subtitles out of it -- they didn't do anything to deserve such punishment. I just don't like seeing one culture being swapped out for another; it smoothes out too much of the Japanese flavor for my comfort.
Extras are rather slim, but I enjoyed the outtakes on each of the three discs. I guess I don't really expect bonus material with most DVDs (not real omake stuff, at least), but if a company doesn't have anything to provide, it's nice to see something scraped together for the sake of value.
There are a few hurdles that viewers must jump before they'll let themselves enjoy this series. First of all, one has to overlook the obvious similarities to GTO. Secondly, going into this thinking of the manga or live action drama is going to create some unfair preconceived notions about the show. Third, this is a smarter, shorter series than most comedies out there. If you're looking for panty flashes and explosive fights, this isn't the series for you.
That said, there's quite a bit here to enjoy, and this show might scoop up some people who didn't like GTO due to its fundamental differences. In the end, they far outweigh the similarities between the two. After all, if you didn't watch any show that borrowed an idea or theme from an older series, you would probably be limited to about eight things you could actually watch. Originality isn't determined solely by a show's premise, but by the way in which the series is executed. And I have to say that The Gokusen kept me on my toes wondering what was going to happen next. I like it when that happens.
For a different take on the gangster-gone-teacher theme, The Gokusen is very much worth watching. It's short, sweet, and gets its point across clearly without being heavy handed. Perhaps it's because I wasn't biased by the original manga or live-action incarnation of the show, but I really enjoyed Kumiko's exploits. Too bad they only spanned three discs.