Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2012 April 02 • Monday

The 211th Soundtrack of the Week is Michiru Oshima's music for one of my favorite television shows of all time, Gokusen.

Is there any more compelling universal fantasy than the one about how an unimpressive looking person turns out to be superhumanly powerful? From Greek gods walking among us as mortals to Christ doing the same thing, from Odysseus returning home pretending to be a weak old man to the Bixby/Ferrigno Incredible Hulk TV show and the present day popularity of superhero movies, we love the idea that we might be gods underneath our fatigue and neuroses. And Dr. Banner encapsulated the most basic appeal of this conceit when he said, "Don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry".

The first season of the live-action Gokusen TV show—there were at least two other seasons, anime, manga and a feature film—is one of the most charming and satisfying variations on this basic story.

Plotwise it's similar to the American movie The Substitute or, perhaps less coincidentally, the earlier Japanese TV show GTO, which stands for Great Teacher Onizuka. That show was about a former motorcycle gang leader who gets hired by a short-handed high school. In desperation they give him the worst class, all punks and delinquents on their way to lives of crime.

Of course Onizuka knows more about crime and the street than any of the students, and he's able to outmaneuver them while helping them with their problems.

According to the invaluable Dorama Encyclopedia by Jonathan Clements & Motoko Tamamuro, GTO is itself a remake of an earlier school drama called Kinpachi Sensei, "a fact acknowledged by the program makers in the first episode, when Onizuka turns away from his habitual schoolgirl porn in the video store and asks to rent copies of the famous classroom drama instead".

Gokusen is more or less the same story but with a female teacher. Orphaned at a young age, she was brought up by her grandfather, the boss of a powerful crime family. It's either her dream or her dead parents' dream (or both) that she would become a teacher, so she takes a job at a desperate high school and gets handed the class that nobody wants to touch, a class full of punks and delinquents on their way to lives of crime.

The wonderful Nakama Yukie plays the teacher, Kumiko Yamaguchi, nicknamed Yankumi by the students. "Kumiko" is a feminization of "kumi", which means gang or group and is the term used by actual yakuza organizations. One such organization is the Yamaguchi-gumi ("gumi" being the same as "kumi"). So Yamaguchi-gumi becomes Yamaguchi Kumiko.

"Yankumi" has some similar meaning, but I can't remember it at the moment. It has "kumi" in it again, of course, but I think it was also supposed to suggest Yankee, though I can't remember why.

So she shows up for her class, the students try to intimidate her and she kicks their asses. In addition to knowing all the tricks of the criminal trade, she's also a near-invincible martial artist. Her greatest weapon, though, is her compassion. What wins the students over to her is not that she's tougher than them but that she proves that she cares about them and sticks her neck out for them—every week.

It really is a great show. The other characters are all great and the production is flawless, a mixture of action, adventure, intrigue, comedy and romance so breezily put together that it belongs in the pantheon with Hergé's Tintin and the Diana Rigg episodes of The Avengers.

The first season, anyway. The second season is, strangely, a remake of the first season, and the third season is another remake of the first season. The feature film is also a remake of the first season and by that time I wasn't sure I could sit through it. I'd rather just watch the first season again, since the result of the remakes was little more than a demonstration of the law of diminishing returns.

At least half of the success of the show must go to Nakama Yukie's brilliant performance. A significant chunk rightly belongs to Michiru Oshima's music.

As in every Japanese drama I've seen, the music functions as a cast of characters itself. You have a dozen or so cues and you'll hear them in each episode, always in the same sort of place. You might think this would get boring but it can be very effective, if the music and the show hit it off.

Much of the music is stirring and anthemic and relates to Yankumi's great and sincere effort to gain her students' trust, to protect them and demonstrate the values of honesty, fair play and hard work.

One of the greatest cues is "Yankumi's Visit". The title sounds harmless enough but it's the action cue for the show, when Yankumi is racing to rescue one of her students from danger, probably by running all over Tokyo before bursting through a warehouse door and beating up a dozen yakuza thugs. The startling thing about this piece is that it's in 11/4. How many TV shows have an action theme in 11/4?

There's also a Gilbert and Sullivan type piece and some similarly light and comic pieces of music that usually accompany Yankumi's nemesis, the vice principal. See, like any great superhero, she has a secret identity. If her connections to a powerful organized crime family were known to the school administration, she'd lose her job. This is a real danger as when she gets excited she blurts out rough yakuza slang, to the bewilderment of the other teachers.

Another favorite cue is the haunting and sinuous music for the character of Sawada Shin, the kid who leads the other students.

Such a great show and such great music. I got a new iPod a month or so ago, after a few years without one, and the Gokusen soundtrack was the first thing I listened to on it.

Check it out. There's a ton of it on YouTube. Click here to see the first episode of the first season subtitled in English.