Everyone has a favorite teacher; that dedicated, funny, sympathetic role model who helped shape your formative years and provided comfort from the often callous and vicious world of school angst and the pitfalls of growing up. Think about that person for a moment, and what made them great. Picture them in your mind, hear the memory of their voice in your ears. Got a clear image of them? Good.
I bet your mental image looks nothing like this:
This man is Eikichi Onizuka, age 22, virgin, and for a class full of misfits and “social rejects,” he was that favorite teacher, the man who challenged and taught them all about the “real world.” How? By just being himself, and teaching them how NOT to act.
Great Teacher Onizuka was one of those “unlikely anime,” the type that is completely devoid of fantastic elements, lolicons, twenty minute power-ups and skimpy clothing, but still manages to pull the viewer in and keep them interested. Rather than deal with otherworldly enemies threatening human existence, it focused more on the trials and tribulations of being a high school student, which at times could be just as chaotic, and just as terrifying. It lacked “good guys” and “villains,” eschewing instead for a whole lot of gray-shaded cast members who were as petty as they were devoted to their jobs. In short, GTO (as it was so fondly referred to) was a sort of “dirty shonen” slice of life series, more concerned with its world and residents than impressing its reader base.
And that was not a bad thing at all.
A lot of that appeal centered around the aforementioned Onizuka, himself a social misfit more concerned with sex and violence than educating the youth of Japan. A former biker gang leader, he somehow managed to leave the “thug life” behind, enroll in a “5th rate college” and graduate with a degree in…something. You never really find out how studious he was, nor where his “academic” inclinations actually lie, given his preoccupation with porn, fighting and “keeping it real.” But next thing you see, he’s trying to find gainful employment, and failing miserably. Blame his bleached hair, his “yakuza tendencies” or the constant mountain of arrogance that he’s the proud king of, but poor Onizuka can’t seem to catch a break.
All that changes the day he meets, then loses, the “girl of his dreams:” a spunky high school student whom the future Great Teacher is absolutely positive he will finally lose his virginity to. And just as they’re about to do the deed, she literally jumps out a window and into the arms of another man. Who does he lose this wellspring of sexual energy to? Her high school teacher, a dumpy, bespectacled man with a sour face and apparently all the pull in the world. On that day, he swears to become the best teacher in Japan. Why? To get laid.
Let’s put aside the blatantly horrendous motivation for this decision, and focus on Onizuka for a moment. What does he have to offer his students? Forget about the three “R’s,” as Onizuka can barely read himself. Valuable lessons on life? Does one really want to accept the words of a “reformed” biker and generally viewed “lowlife?” Common sense? Not at all, since he’s doing this for the worst reason possible. For all intents and purposes, this man should never be anywhere near children, let alone given the task of teaching them. And yet, that’s exactly what he does.
Finally scoring a job at a prestigious private academy, Onizuka is immediately given the worst class in the school, made up of people either just like him, or well on their way to becoming just like him. Wannabe gang-bangers, unmotivated geniuses, promiscuous girls, awkward kids, and all manner of students who just don’t fit in. These are the students destined to fall through the cracks of the educational system, that the rest of the faculty have given up on, but can’t simply expel because their tuition checks have already been deposited. So, shunted off to the side and ignored, they plod through one ineffective teacher after another, until Eikichi ends up at their door one day, the latest in a long line of schmucks suckered into teaching the class. The “Great Teacher” brings in bluster in the door with him, trailing arrogance like a proud bridal train, ready to talk some “sense” into these students. How do they take to this new teacher, so completely “different” from any they have ever encountered before?
As far as they’re concerned, Onizuka isn’t any different from the others, except maybe that he’s dumber than any one of them, and starving for respect and attention. And they hate him.
Why? Because they can see right through him. They know he’s not a teacher. They know he only cares about having fun. From his “tough guy” facade to his horrible sense of humor, this is a man worthy of only their contempt, which they heap on him in droves. hell, the only reason he’s even in this class is because they’ve driven off every single other teacher assigned to them, and the administrators hope that they will do the same to Onizuka.
Until he starts saving them, one student at a time. Whether it’s giving them a reason to live, putting their problems into perspective, telling them to get over themselves (often with associated punches, kicks and getting his own ass handed to him), helping them get “revenge” on those who wronged them, teaching them to stand up for themselves or just not take any s**t from “the man,” the Great Teacher imparts whatever wisdom and street smarts he can, while often taking lumps and plenty of attitude along the way. It’s like the School of Hard Knocks, 90210-style.
His tenacity eventually overcomes even the most stubborn (or stuck up) of the students he encounters, and by year’s end, he manages to reform the worst class at the academy into something resembling a productive learning unit, while teaching even some of his “colleagues” the value of knowing themselves…or at least giving them lessons in self-extracting their heads from their own asses. A little humility goes a long way, and while Onizuka might not know the meaning of the word, he sure can impart its value on others.
That tenacity is the key to GTO’s appeal. Knowing from the outset that Eikichi Onizuka is an “eternal f**k-up who just doesn’t give a s**t” lends him a certain humanity that drives the story. You know he’s going to fail, yet you cheer for him anyway. When he occasionally succeeds, you celebrate with him. When he gets caught with his pants down (literally, on more than a few occasions), you feel for him, but also realize that it’s only going to make him more careful in the future. His crass manners have a certain charm to them, you root for him to find the “right girl,” and when he finally gets the better of his naysayers, you want to clap him on the back and buy him a drink.
Onizuka is the ultimate underdog. And like most underdogs, you want to see him win, regardless of whether its against “corrupt” educators, “conniving” students, or even his own shortcomings. You want Eikichi Onizuka to win. And I guess in that regard, he already has.
You can consumer GTO in a number of ways: the 1997-2002 manga, while out of print, is excellent. The 1999 anime is a faithful adaptation of the manga, and easier to track down. The 1998 J-Drama (with 99 sequel film) is a bit short on the plot, but the actor who plays Onizuka is phenomenal. Or you can look for the 2012 reboot. Honestly, it doesn’t matter: any version of GTO is worth consuming. Honestly, how many properties can say that these days? There is also a prequel manga “GTO: The Early Years,” and sequel”14 Days in Shonan,” both available now from Vertical Publishing.