GTO: Great Teacher Onizuka
With summer coming on strong here on Manga Island, perhaps the last thing students want to think of are teachers and school, unless of course you are looking for great manga you may have passed up. Teachers may want to put this manga on their summer reading list. The story of a lecherous street punk and his decision to become the greatest teacher in Japan, is a humorous look at the Japanese school system and delinquents in and out of it. “Great Teacher Onizuka” (aka “GTO”) is a manga gem, sure to please student and teacher manga fans alike. And, since it lasts over twenty-five volumes of manga, ten anime DVD volumes, and several live action features, there is more than enough “GTO” to last the summer and beyond.
When I first started reading “GTO,” I couldn’t believe that I had passed it up for so long. Being one of the longest running Tokyopop series and one of the most popular series, I can certainly see why it had been recommended to me on so many occasions. Eikichi Onizuka is, by all accounts, a character I would normally find to be a lecherous jerk and easy to dismiss. However, creator Tohru Fujisawa is gifted in his ability to take a character like Onizuka and make him likeable, despite his flaws. This is one of Fujisawa’s main storytelling strengths, creating well-crafted characters with pasts that are larger than life, but believable. He is able to craft characters and situations that allow the reader to empathize and care for even the nastiest, most annoying or seemingly unredeemable characters. While in real life most of the characters in “GTO” would be people I would never want to hang out with, I found myself spending hours doing just that as their struggles played out over the course of the manga.
“GTO” has a lot going for it art wise as well. The overall production is handled really nicely, with well rendered characters, cool contemporary styles and some fantastic depictions of stereotypical Japanese characters from all walks of life. Slackers, cultists, students young and old, teachers and a variety of biker thugs, background characters, and vehicles, all feel like they are part of a real life in Tokyo, even when situations take dramatic (and often hilarious) larger than life turns. I also enjoyed that the comic elements that Fujisawa often employs with facial features and expressions. He never goes for the typical funny face clichés that most manga fans are used to. Rather, he uses tricks like portraying Onizuka as a diminutive old man for a panel, to stress the age difference between Onizuka and the high school kids he ogles at the beginning of the manga. Fujisawa takes full advantage of the fact that Onizuka is a comic character and will stretch out his face (or the face of others) in visual shorthand to represent salarymen, perverts, old people, the mentally challenged and even Onizuka as a pretty unattractive high school girl. The results are instantly recognizable in context and are farcical, but realistic. I got the impression I had seen each of those faces in various live action movies and anime, just not on the same character. It’s nice to see an artist who can combine realism and caricature so fluidly.
On the production front, “GTO” also benefits from a lot of variety of both word balloon and panel layout tricks that separate the conversations, thoughts, action elements and sound effects from one another and allow for a lot of complexity in the storytelling. Internal dialog, flashbacks and delusional daydreaming all play a big part in the “GTO” story and are each given their own visual shorthand. Although it may take a little adjustment to get acclimated to these elements, dark affected balloons for thoughts, black negative space between panels for flashbacks or daydreams, and tiny balloons for whispered or ancillary dialog become second nature to recognize. All of this combined makes for a very cinematic story, where the balloons direct one’s eyes while reading the way a good 5.1 sound system directs your ears while watching a movie. My only negative critique is that a lot of the smaller balloons used to indicate side dialog or background conversations tend to be really tiny. There is funny stuff in a lot of these balloons, but those with any trouble reading fine print will have to get out their magnifying glasses for a fair amount of it. When these small balloons or the copious (and often very amusing) side notes (both between panels and on top of art in many panels) and labels fall into the inside of a page, it becomes even harder to read all of the painstaking detail put into “GTO.” I wish this particular comic had a larger format print so that it was easier to get to all the great stuff without as much re-reading. This kind of detail must have been a real challenge to work with and do right for the Tokyopop layout artists, but it’s well worth taking the time to slow down and take in all the extras in the panels. A good example is the two-page spread of Onizuka’s well unkempt bachelor pad in issue one. All of the gross and sordid details of the scene are labeled, worthy of some of “Mad Magazine’s” finest features.
Of course there is more to “GTO” than just the cinematic panels and cool art. Onizuka himself is a hero for the slacker in all of us. He decides to take charge of his life and do what he feels is right. When we meet him, he is simply a pervy ex college kid with a bleached street punk hairdo and a resume padded with his martial arts prowess as filler. After trying his hand at teaching mainly to pick up girls, we start to see him shed his street gang persona a bit and really go after his ultimate goal– to be “Great Teacher Onizuka.” Not to say that he completely gives up his rough and tumble ex-bike gang mentality, but as the manga goes on we can see that Onizuka really does have a big heart and that his street thug past gives him a perspective on teaching that his peers are lacking.
Onizuka is also a great anti-hero for slackers who want to rise above their stations, and for authority figures such as teachers who really would like to fix things “their own way” one day. As a less violent (or less overtly violent) version of what makes movies like “Falling Down” so appealing, watching Onizuka solve his problems his own way is a rewarding guilty pleasure. I taught school as a sub for a while, so the escapism of watching Onizuka do his thing is a pretty great read sometimes. I hope that his attitude stays firmly in the realm of fiction for teachers, but it is part of what makes it such a great story. I do still marvel at how likeable Onizuka can be despite how reprehensible his actions are sometimes. Perhaps it’s that as a reader we can see his growth (albeit often in a one step forward, two steps back progression) and really want him to succeed. I can’t recommend that anyone emulate Onizuka, but he is a great anti hero for the eternal slacker college kids, growing up, finding their place in the world, having actual relationships and trying to better their lives.
Whether you are reading “GTO” for the humor, for escapism, because you just miss school so much over the break (yeah right), or are a slacker who wants pointers on how to be the “Anti-Hero with the heart of gold,” “GTO” has what you are looking for. Stories of street punks with a heart of gold have worked since Dickens time and “GTO” is no exception. Of course, Dickens never had his street kids suplex a teacher, knock down part of a troubled teen’s house with a sledgehammer, or pass the time watching skirts go up an escalator, but I guess times they are a changin’. I’ll take the contemporary Onizuka over Twist any day.
“GTO” is a long series (one of the longest brought over to the US next to “Lone Wolf and Cub” and a few others; I still haven’t made it through all of it), but it is well worth reading. Once I got into it, I kept wondering how I had missed it in my travels over Manga Island. I found myself furiously turning pages and picking up the next volume after each cliffhanger ending. It is also dense enough that it’s worth going back over each volume for a second read, which I don’t often find in a lot of the manga I come across. If you have the time and money, be sure to pick up “GTO” and the accompanying anime series. I’m sure there will be a large stack of all things “GTO” piling up here on the shores of Manga Island.
Volumes 23 available (out of 25)
Rating OT (older teen 18+)
Links of interest:
Tony Salvaggio has been a fan of anime and manga from an early age. He has been an animator in the video games industry and is currently co-writing an original graphic novel for Tokyopop, PSY-COMM. He regularly hosts anime and Japanese related shows in Austin and his passion for all things anime and manga related is only excelled by his quest to become King of the Monsters.