GTO Anime Review
US Release By
43 25 minute episodes
1999-06-30 - 2000-09-17
Onizuka Eikichi, Age 22, is a former biker gang leader who came to Tokyo six years ago with his best friend in the hopes of making something of his life. He hasn't gotten very far yet, but he's fresh out of college now and has found his calling: Becoming the greatest high school teacher ever--Great Teacher Onizuka. Of course, there are a couple of minor problems to work out--he's foul mouthed, has a problem with authority, major anger management issues, and he's more interested in the students' miniskirts than in passing along his hard earned wisdom to them. But Onizuka doesn't give up easily, and his in-your-face way of getting things done might just make him a better teacher than he has any right to be.
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Great Teacher Onizuka effectively mixes raunchy humor with a bit of an edge, a huge amount of hilarious scenes involving Onizuka's unstable lovable-loser-with-attitude persona, a collection of wild situations that any prime-time comedy would be proud to sport, and a stiff shot of hard-hitting commentary on the frightening issues surrounding modern youth and their education. The result is sometimes touching, occasionally eyebrow-raising, and always very funny. Add to that clean, effective art, quality directing and writing, and absolutely spectacular Japanese dialogue, and you've got yourself an instant classic. My only complaint is that the dub, though not bad, is a bit dirty and somewhat of a letdown when compared to the sub.
Highly recommended to anyone who's not overly sensitive to mature humor and unflinchingly harsh portrayals of the grown-up-too-fast nature of many kids, GTO is uproariously funny and still manages to say something serious quite often.
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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, it didn't look to be a series in very good taste. 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. The characters run the gamut from broad stereotypes and hilarious anime favorites--for example, the collection of anime-standard biker gang members--to surprisingly realistic everyday folk, like the broad assortment of dysfunctional parents.
What stands out in particular, though, are the kids that Onizuka has to deal with. Far from the stereotypical blushing 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 leering creep, even though the TV version has less character development than 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 is captioned "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, even 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 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 (yet 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 are still well handled and at times surprisingly powerful. 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 is how comfortably the series flows; 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 is not without flaws, though even the worst of them is relatively minor. My biggest complaint is with the dub, but I'll cover that later. More generally, I was bothered by some of the art; the series is based on a seinen manga--adult male-targeted "businessman" fare by artists like Ikegami Ryoichi. Stylistically this is most noticeable in Onizuka's exaggerated facial expressions; I personally find that particular style of exaggeration unpleasant to look at more than funny. In this case, however, 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 features 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. It clearly and quickly establishes his character (plus snags 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. It's further tempered by dealing with some real (and often related) social issues.
The artistic style is, as I mentioned, in the same general vein as most seinen manga. This means that the characters tend more toward realistic faces and proportions, although in this case the influence is mostly visible in the most cartoony sections. 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. To that end, the animation is smooth enough, and the character animation 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 are 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 can make or break 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 puts the Great in GTO. Covering everything from mildly dramatic, to ultra-stud, to bad boy, to blubbering idiot, to near-breakdown hysterics, every single facet of Onizuka's personality is portrayed brilliantly. I rarely heap praise that freely, but Takagi's performance alone is worth the price of admission. TokyoPop's subtitles, incidentally, are translated quite accurately, though the English is a bit stiff and does a poor job of capturing just how rough Onizuka's dialogue is.
TokyoPop's English dub is an entirely different matter. Serious creative liberties were taken with the translation, which I was willing to forgive since the dialogue is fairly witty and has some modern flair, although much of it also seemed to be noticeably more gross. More importantly, though, David Lucas's take on Onizuka just isn't Great. Not that there's anything wrong with it, but his range isn't particularly broad; since so much of the humor in the series is based on his antics, and Onizuka's Japanese voice is so good, 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 I found it interesting 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 are quieter in relation to the dialogue, which drains some of the mood out of several scenes. But, more than anything, the English version just feels more... embarrassing. Maybe it's just in my head, but the combination of less-broad acting, less-noticeable music, and somewhat more-crude dialogue gives the whole production a more realistic feel, which in turn makes 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 injects 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 most to 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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The first series that comes to mind as having a lot in common with GTO is the mature comedy Sakura Diaries. That series, however, has a much more consistent sexual theme, more overt mature content, and is also more dramatic in general. As far as the young, unconventional teacher thing goes, The Gokusen is very similar with a female yakuza boss replacing Onizuka--the result is less clever, more violent, but also fun. I Me My, Strawberry Eggs also has quite a bit in common, though it's much cheesier. The little known Shonan Bakusozoku is also worth mentioning as the only other biker gang anime to make it to US shores; it has a somewhat similar take on not-what-you-were-expecting bikers who really aren't that bad (and Onizuka's old gang was also in Shonan).
Notes and Trivia
GTO is based on a comic by Tohru Fujisawa, also available in English from Tokyopop. Fans of the comic (or those interested in checking it out) might be interested in knowing that the stories in the TV series are mostly abridged versions of the comic stories, but generally faithful to the originals. The character designs are almost shockingly accurate when compared to the originals.
The GTO anime, like the comic version, was tremendously popular; so much so that a live action TV series was produced not long after the animated version. Though it hasn't been translated into English outside of fansubs, it is also quite good, and was very popular in Japan, though the in-the-flesh version of Onizuka has a cooler demeanor than the animated and manga versions.
Although the translation (in the subtitled version) was mostly quite good, there were a few oddities. Most notable was in the fourth volume (though apparently not subsequent ones), where there seemed to be quite a bit of fansub-style Japanese included. Nothing inherently wrong with this, but it wasn't consistent and seemed unnecessary in some cases, for example writing "Ganbatte--(Good luck)" in the subtitles, or leaving Onizuka's trademark phrase "Yoroshiku" untranslated (not that it's an easy word to translate, but they only subtitled it as "Yoroshiku" once or twice, and did so without any explanation).
The other things I noticed throughout the series were more subtle, but also seemingly unnecessary--for example, some of Onizuka's more colorful dialogue could have been translated almost directly into English and still made sense, but a blander, more toned-down version was often used in the subtitles. This is all nitpicking, though--the subtitles were very good, particularly with parenthetical mentions of things like "Oh-toro" being the fatty part of tuna.
Also of note is that the series is full of (very funny) Japanese cultural references and jokes, most of which will be missed by the average non-Japanese viewer. Many are explained in the liner notes included with the DVDs, but here's at least one that wasn't: In the scene in the first episode where Onizuka abruptly changes into a pair of wolf-shaped pajamas, the music playing in the background is a well-known (in Japan) song about how men are all wolves.
US DVD Review
The DVDs, though the look and content of each is pretty much the same, are impressive productions. To start with the video is sharp and cleanly encoded, as is the two-channel audio. The subtitles are well done, with soft-titled sign translations that the menus even give the option of turning off (though you'll miss a few jokes if you do), although it'd have been nice if they had used a couple of different colors to distinguish. The creative animated menus (which look like paraphernalia from Onizuka's school) offer access to well indexed episodes, plus a selection of goodies: Character sketches, the Japanese language opening, and a selection of scenes of The Teacher going nuts (in both languages, no less). In addition to these standard extras on every disc, 4 and 5 also include an original video interview with the original creator of the manga. There are even full dual-language credits (the English credits are toward the end). The sole flaw is that the discs default to Tokyopop's preview set when you first play them, but at least you can skip that. The DVDs also include some very handy notes on the case insert about cultural jokes, puns, and other things that don't translate well that are well worth a look.
There is a lot of mature humor, but a relatively limited amount of graphic content; Tokyopop's 16+ rating is appropriate.
Violence: 2 - There are plenty of people being beat up, but it's mostly very exaggerated.
Nudity: 2 - Some underwear, Onizuka's tastefully shadowed frame in the intro, and his much less tastefully portrayed body elsewhere.
Sex/Mature Themes: 4 - Borderline pedophilia and visual jokes involving bondage, plus a variety of other mature humor.
Language: 3 - The sub is surprisingly clean, but there is some coarse (and just gross) language in the dub.