Gokusen by Morimoto Kozueko is one of my all time favorites, but it took a bit of unpacking for me to figure out why. The ah-ha moment happened when I was watching the drama adaptation. Something was missing. Something even the ultimate cuteness of Matsumoto Jun couldn't make up for. That something was Attitude with a capital A.
The story revolves around a high school teacher and her class of delinquent students. The students are one step away from a correctional facility, and Yankumi, their homeroom teacher, aims to keep them that way. Usually, this would be a Herculean task, but Yankumi has a secret advantage. She is a third generation Yakuza heir, so delinquents are milk toast compared to what she deals with at home. The stories are episodic, switching between Yankumi's struggles at school (Will her class pass basic arithmetic?) struggles at home (How will she stop a rival gang from encroaching on her turf?), and of course, the ever present difficulty of keeping her identity secret.
Unlike Superman who becomes shy and unassuming as Clark Kent, Yanikumi's personality is not under wraps when she assumes the mantle of math teacher. She cheers on classroom fights, knocks her students into line, and uses Yakuza slang liberally. If you're looking for a strong female protagonist, look no further. Yankumi has a personality empowered by iron, if slightly questionable, morals and backed up by a powerful right hook, and that's her charm. She is unapologetic about who she is. She won't compromise her integrity even to achieve her lifelong goal of becoming a high school math teacher. The administration might frown on her beating up rival gangs, but they don't have to know. After all, it's for the good of the students.
All the strong morals run the risk of becoming preachy, but the manga successfully balances Yanikumi's moral lessons with a liberal helping of humor. The delinquents live in more fear and awe of Yankumi than of the police. It's not often you hear an aspiring stickup artist ask himself, "What if my homeroom teacher found out?" Similarly the depiction of the Yakuza is both romanticized and comic. The hardened gangsters weep openly at the ideal of brotherhood displayed by Yankumi's students. Gokusen runs more to giggles than adrenaline.
So what went wrong with the Drama? It had so much going for it. Matsumoto Jun plays Yankumi's most important student Sawada Shin, the son of the police inspector, and he's a favorite here at Manga Meditation, well, at least with me. Polecat bought me his calender for Christmas, so he's smiling down on me as I type. In the manga, his character is the alpha in the student pack. Apparently, he can beat any other student in the class though he's never called upon to do so, and he gets straight A's without studying. His academics and family connections contrast strongly with his personal goals; he wants to be a Yakuza lawyer. Why? Because of his one-sided love for Yankumi. But even my favorite actor as the love interest, couldn't redeem this one.
The first weakness is the ensamble cast. There were simply too many students to develop characters for all of them. Shin is reduced to a cute and enigmatic face sitting in the back row. The rest of the class play up the slap stick without the self awareness of the original. And worst of all, Yankumi's spine collapses into a saccharine puddle of speeches about friendship and loyalty. I did watch it all the way through to the end, but mostly out of fan loyalty. I have no desire to see the two subsequent seasons or the movie. This is a definite case of the book being better than the adaptation.
So here's the final scoop: I would highly recommend Gokusen to anyone looking for a comedic plot with a strong female lead. I promise you'll laugh out loud. And if you want a inspirational drama, with cute boys, I'd recommend you go ask Polecat. She's the expert, and she'll be able to help you find something more worth your while.
p.s. thanks for the images goes to MangaFox and Tobidasu