Great Teacher Onizuka
is the story of Eikichi Onizuka, an unorthodox high
school teacher whose decidedly unusual teaching methods
make him a hero to the kids, but a menace to the establishment.
Conceived as a Japanese manga by Toru Fujisawa, the
saga of Great Teacher Onizuka achieved phenomenal
success in Japan, spawning an animated television
series, a twelve-episode TV drama, and a TV special.
Finally, in late 1999, the braintrust of Fuji TV brought
us GTO: The Movie, which is what this review
happens to be about.
Unlike the usual GTO
storylines, the film takes place as far away from
the big city as possible. The setting is the rural
town of Horobonai, which is located on Japan's northern-most
island of Hokkaido. The local high school has a trouble
class, which is mostly due to the presence of Ayano
Katsuragi (Rena Tanaka), the local ice princess, whose
dad ran a theme park called "Canada Land."
Unfortunately, said park went bankrupt and the town
is now experiencing a depression, of both the economic
and emotional variety. The kids (including Ayano)
frequently threaten suicide, and the teachers are
your usual motley band of useless types.
Enter new substitute
teacher Onizuka (Takashi Sorimachi, returning from
the TV series), who rides into town on his motorbike.
Within minutes, he bullies a couple of kids, insults
most of the teachers, and generally acts disrespectful
and obnoxious. Things are the worst for Raku (Hideyuki
Kasahara), a mousy kid who has no friends and contemplates
suicide of his own. Onizuka steals money from the
kid, accidentally pushes him off a roof (don't worry,
he survives), and even badgers Raku into giving him
room and board.
Still, it's all good.
Onizuka may seem like your bargain-basement thug (the
character was previously in a biker gang), but this
is all standard operating procedure for "Great
Teacher Onizuka." The popularity of the character
is well-documented and actually easily understood.
Onizuka may be a societal castoff (he attended a fourth-rate
college and is actually dumber than most of his students),
but his brash, honest and utterly righteous ways make
him a hip youth icon for our troubled times. Considering
that Japan's educational system is polluted with corruption,
abuse and student-teacher improprieties, Onizuka makes
a decidedly refreshing anti-hero.
Except, that's in the
manga, anime and TV series. And despite being cleaned
up when adapted from its original form (there are
some things you just can't do in live-action), the
Great Teacher Onizuka TV series managed its own
charm and effective drama. Actor Takashi Sorimachi
brought a cool, righteous attitude to the character,
and the show managed to find some affecting social
commentary. The live-action version proved funny and
touching, and though sometimes cheesy (this is Japanese
TV we're talking about), the end result was generally
The film takes a different
tack. At less than two hours, characters and storyline
can't really be developed, so the filmmakers put Onizuka
in a completely different situation and have him act
as weird as possible. The result is that he appears
to be an annoying, obnoxious screwball who nevertheless
works miracles. Unlike the TV show, where the character
grew thorough his experience as a teacher, the movie
Onizuka is basically a superhero who knows what's
wrong and will go to any length to correct it. And
even if the solution involves mugging, police car
chases and attempted kidnapping, that's okay.
Onizuka basically annoys
and assaults everyone in town into admitting their
personal faults and needs, which promotes "healing"
among the town. Yeah, it's all as false as your average
John Hughes movie, and the production echoes that
with a bouncy tone that makes light of teen suicide
and other attempted crimes. The social commentary
and vaguely real situations that made the Great
Teacher Onizuka franchise great are gone from
this film, and what we're left with is a Capraesque
fable, which is magnified by the film's framing device.
Supermodel Norika Fujiwara (of China Strike Force
"fame") plays reporter Kaoru Kitajima, who
went to Horobonai to track a criminal, and ended up
with a story on the "miraculous" recovery
of a town and its people. The reason for that? Onizuka.
The suspension of disbelief? Nonexistent.
As a standalone film,
GTO: The Movie can never be termed "good,"
as it's nothing more than manufactured platitudes
surrounding a bizarre central character. Where the
film can actually entertain is as another installment
for diehard fans of the Great Teacher Onizuka
TV show and star Takashi Sorimachi. The situations
may be worse, but Sorimachi does bring the same charismatic
physical presence to the character that he did on
television. Still, it helps if you've actually seen
that series, as an understanding of Onizuka's character
and history will likely make some sense of things.
Without seeing the show, Onizuka can seem bizarre
and borderline insane, and will probably prove more
annoying than anything else. GTO: The Movie
is basically manufactured J-Pop crap which is meant
to feed a Japan-specific target audience. With that
in mind, the film was likely a success to the intended
audience, though why Pony Canyon put English subtitles
on the DVD release is a mystery. (Kozo 2000/2002)