Anime Review

Upcoming Netflix Anime Series GTO: Review

What happens when you take a situation comedy, a schoolyard farce, and a stiff shot of hard-hitting commentary on modern youth and the issues facing the Japanese educational system, mix them together in one anime series, and shake vigorously? You get something wonderful, and that something is called GTO. The series tempers itself with a grounding in reality and addresses serious social issues, but by mixing raunchy humor with a bit of an edge, Onizuka’s lovable-loser-with-attitude persona, and a collection of wild situations that any prime-time comedy would be proud to sport, GTO distinguishes itself as a creative, enjoyable, and very funny show.

At first, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of GTO; the sexual themes come on pretty strong, and between Onizuka’s skirt-chasing and torturing his students, this didn’t look to be a series in very good taste. Actually, I was missing the point: GTO is less a schoolyard drama and more like a modern-day fairy tale about a very human knight in all-too tarnished armor, fighting against conformity and the “right” way to do things. Once I stopped taking it too seriously, I started having an absolutely grand time.

The characters are what make almost every good anime comedy work and GTO is no exception, featuring an unusually broad range of minor players. With everything from anime-standard biker-gang members to much more normal folks like Onizuka’s used car dealer friend and an assortment of dysfunctional parental relationships, the characters run the gamut from broad stereotypes and hilarious anime favorites to surprisingly realistic everyday folk. What stands out in particular, though, are the kids that Onizuka has to deal with–far from the stereotypical blushing anime schoolgirls, the majority of these normal-seeming kids are world-wise and have a vicious streak that can be downright scary, particularly since their tactics are rarely as simple as mere violence. Aside from being a sadly accurate reflection of modern Japan, it does make for an interesting change of pace, as does Onizuka’s less than conventional methods of dealing with them.

This eclectic collection allows for plenty of humorous situations while also providing the serious ones that give the series its emotional heart. At the center of all of them, however, is none other than the Great Teacher himself, and Onizuka Eikichi is, more than anything, what makes GTO as much fun as it is.

Onizuka at first may look like a simple skirt chaser, but there’s oh-so-much-more to him than your average skirt-chasing creep, even though the TV version has less character development than in the comics. On one hand, his main interest in teaching seems to be the (female) students (and fellow teachers, for that matter), and he’s certainly got a wandering eye, summed up in a hilarious scene early on where he surveys a schoolyard filled entirely with high school girls–the pan was captioned with “There are boys, but he only sees the girls.” On the other, he’s a hard-driving Karate champ badass with plenty of biker gang leader attitude to back it up. In between, he’s an emotionally fragile loser with no life, less social skills, a good heart, and an honest desire to give kids a better educational experience than he had.

If you put it all together, you get a dirty-minded punk who’s not too bright, but can’t help being a good guy from time to time, and more importantly he’s one heckuva funny guy to watch. The most memorable (and funny) moments in the series revolve around Onizuka’s unending capacity to absolutely freak out–aside from a variety of near breakdowns we’re treated to sudden interjections of Onizuka’s flights of fancy, usually offset immediately afterwards by harsh reality. He also seems to get that his interest in the students isn’t exactly a good thing (but amusingly hard to resist), and his violent outbursts and “unorthodox” (read: “Suplex!”) methods aren’t something he’s necessarily proud of later–he just gets carried away from time to time, and violence is the only way he knows how to solve things. Fortunately for him, his unique style is just what some of the kids he meets up with need, and his determination, street-earned wisdom, and bottomless idiocy are enough to make it work.

Although things settle into more situation-comedy territory once the series is well underway, the early plot of GTO looks like a classic–a teacher who really isn’t comes into the “tough class” and busts some heads, whipping the students into shape and earning their respect in the process. But unlike the action movies that make the rounds on late-night cable, GTO brings together wacky anime-style sensibilities, an edgy sense of humor, and enough meaningful drama and social commentary to keep things plenty interesting in one confidently directed episode after another. The more dramatic scenes are sometimes a little on the stereotypical side, but were still well handled and at times surprisingly powerful, and more importantly the series never seems to take itself too seriously–it’s all one big romp in the end. Perhaps most impressive of all was how comfortably the series flowed; the episodes effortlessly weave between drama and outright slapstick, and each has a lively pace that keeps you wanting more but never feels the least bit hurried.

GTO was not without flaws, though even the worst of them was only minor for me. My biggest problem was with the dub, but I’ll cover that later. More generally, I was bothered by some of the art; the series is stylistically similar to adult male-targeted “businessman” manga (artists like Ikegami Ryoichi), which was most noticeable in Onizuka’s frequently exaggerated facial expressions. I personally find that particular style of exaggeration unpleasant to look at more than funny, but in this case the situations were good enough that I was more than willing to forgive once I got used to it, and I wasn’t even noticing after a half dozen episodes.

The only other fundamental complaint that comes to mind is with some of the rather dirty-minded subject material; those sensitive to that sort of thing, particularly as it relates to student-teacher relationships, might not be able to see past it. The first two-part episode in particular featured several scenes that seemed to pander to the male portion of the audience that thinks the same way as Onizuka does, but it didn’t really bother me. In fact, that was probably the best way to establish his character (and to snag a TV audience), and as long as you don’t take it seriously it should all be very funny (Akemi, to offer one female viewpoint, didn’t find it offensive at all). In any case the rest of the series isn’t all like that, though it doesn’t lose its edge either, and it’s all tempered by dealing with some real (and often related) social issues.

The artistic style is, as I mentioned, in the same general vein as a lot of other manga series aimed at older males. This means that the characters tend more toward realistic faces and proportions, although in this case the influence is mostly visible in the exaggerated facial expressions. Even so, there is still a wide variety of character looks, made even more impressive by the fact that they all look, more or less, Japanese. Even Onizuka’s blonde hair is pointed out as being dyed, and is a distinctive part of his rebel character. The backgrounds tend to be rather bland, but if anything that puts more focus on the antics of the characters. The animation, at least, is smooth enough, and the character animation was extremely expressive, not to mention very funny.

The background music consists of a variety of amusing mood-enhancing tunes, and the intro and end themes were decent modern selections. The first season’s intro animation, by the way, is the most artistically creative part of the production–an edgy, hard-edged, black and white montage of scenes capturing Onizuka’s bad-boy persona.

Now for the one thing that made or broke GTO: The acting. Let’s start with the Japanese, which is, in a word, perfect. The casting and acting in the variety of bit players is funny, but Takagi Wataru truly put the Great in GTO. Covering everything from mildly dramatic to ultra-stud to bad boy to blubbering idiot to near-breakdown hysterics, the quality with which every single facet of Onizuka’s personality is portrayed was absolutely brilliant. I rarely heap praise that freely, but Takagi’s performance alone was worth the price of admission. The subtitles, incidentally, were translated quite accurately, though the English is a bit stiff and does a poor job of capturing just how rough Onizuka’s dialogue is.

The dub is an entirely different matter. Serious creative liberties were taken with the translation, which I was willing to forgive since the dialogue was fairly witty and had some modern flair, although much of it also seemed to be noticeably more gross. More importantly, though, David Lucas’s take on Onizuka just wasn’t great. Not that there was anything wrong with it, but his range wasn’t particularly broad, so much of the humor in the series was based on his antics, and Onizuka’s Japanese voice was so good, that anything less than a truly amazing performance would have felt like a major letdown. Slightly choppy directing may have also contributed to this.

I’m an established sub fan, so maybe I’m being too harsh on the dub, but what I found particularly interesting was how much less funny the English version was. Part of it was the acting, a little bit was due to choppy writing, a little more came from the fact that the background music and sound effects were quieter in relation to the dialogue, which drained some of the mood out of several scenes, but more than anything the English version just felt more… embarrassing. Maybe it’s just in my head, but it seemed to me that the combination of less broad acting, less noticeable music, and somewhat more crude dialogue gave the whole production a less silly feel, which in turn made Onizuka’s behavior less funny and more distasteful. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but at least I’m confident in saying that the Japanese version is much funnier than the dub.

All in all, GTO is not a wildly original series, but like some of the best modern anime it takes tried and true concepts, gives them a good, hard shake, and shoots in a stiff dose of fresh, funny attitude to create a thoroughly enjoyable show. It’s definitely not appropriate for younger viewers, and it’s going to appeal more to the older male fans, but if you give GTO a chance, almost anyone who enjoys some mature (and relatively intelligent) but silly fun with should have a grand time. Personally, I can’t get enough.

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