Friday, September 5, 2008

GTOh My God, You're Here!

While shopping at a closeout book sale the other day I came across an amazing sight: my favorite manga series from Japan, GTO, selling in the bargin bin for only $2 an issue! GTO is the mind-blowing manga whose title character Eikichi Onizuka, teaches the roughest and baddest 3rd graders at Holy Forest Academy, a fictional junior high school located in Tokyo. The students in Mr. Onizuka's class are vile to the extreme and show no mercy when it comes to bulling the teachers, causing one teacher to commit suicide and driving another teacher insane. But while these students are nasty, they're about to meet a new kind of teacher who doesn't care for traditional forms of discipline and smokes in the classroom; in short they're about to meet GTO: Great Teacher Onizuka!

Manga, for those who don't know, simply refers to a Japanese comic book. In America the term can also denote an art style characterized by more edgy and oftentimes noseless figures with big eyes and hair, i.e. Dragon Ball and Yugioh. The style stands in sharp relief to American style comic book art which aims more for realistic proportions and detailed anatomical bulging muscles, like Superman and Batman. Yet in Japan, manga just means comics because, quite simply, there's no other drawing styles to compete with it.

Although I've been a regular fan of American comics since I was in middle school, during my two years in Japan I never really got into the manga scene. GTO is the only manga series that's ever interested me, mainly because I can both empathize with and look up to Onizuka. He's just a normal dude devoid of super powers (powers really aren't required to catch the reader's attention, but character development is, take note America) facing a group of heathens who make him wish he could zap them all down with heat vision. What he does have though is a black belt in karate, a kick-ass crotch rocket, and a killer German suplex. He uses all these tools to defuse heinous classroom eruptions and after school attacks.

The majority of my time in Japan was spent inside Japanese junior high schools teaching on the JET Program. Most of the students were well behaved, some were superstars, and others may already be in prison. The fact is, Japanese junior high school students aren't much different from their American counterparts. Most early teens worry about the same things and tell the same dirty jokes no matter where they live. I think there is a western image of Japanese students all being straight-laced, robot designers in the making. This image is more fiction than fact, and unfortunately, when confronted with those troublesome students, there is no way to react in Onizuka fashion and keep one's job. When I read GTO I tried to learn from what he did. How he was creative and genuine before he was physical and snide.

And speaking of reading GTO, I always read from the bilingual editions I occasionally came across in Japan's massive manga stores. The bilingual Japanese/English edition is shown on the left while the American all English version is on the right. I never picked up any of the Japanese editions because my Japanese wasn't, and still isn't, good enough to follow along. The bilingual edition was great for learning Japanese and my students really got a kick out of thumbing through it and seeing a major part of their culture being translated for the rest of the world.

Here's a sample of a bilingual page from GTO vol. 3. To set up the scene for you, Onizuka just a had an after school run-in with Kunio, his most troublesome student, at a video arcade. After demolishing Kunio during the non-violent arcade challenge, Kunio handcuffs Onizuka to a Buddha statue and makes a break for it. Onizuka, using his karate muscles breaks the Buddha and chases Kunio down an alley before Kunio's mother breaks up the commotion (I don't know why she's there). Well, needless to say, Kunio's mom is a looker, and Onizuka wants to see more.
In the scene all three of them, Mom, Kunio, and Onizuka are eating at a restaurant. The page on the right shows you exactly what Onizuka is thinking about. English is placed in the speech balloons and Japanese surrounds the frame. It's a really great approach to selling manga and a fun way for both Japanese and English speakers to study languages.

I loved reading GTO in Japan. Unfortunately I was only able to find the first three issues of the series in the bilingual editions so I kept reading them over and over. When I left Japan I thought I was leaving Onizuka behind with me. But at that book sale my world was rocked. Seeing GTO in that manga bin put a big ol' Texas grin on my face. I didn't think Onizuka would appeal to an American audience, but I'm extremely glad he did. The closeout bin only had volumes 16-19 so I've got a big gap in my collection; but at least I know my collection will survive across the Pacific, though I do miss the Japanese translation. Who knows, if there's enough interest in GTO stateside maybe they'll air the translated Japanese TV series and keep the Great Teacher Onizuka kicking ass on the boob tube as well.

Stateside, GTO is published by TokyoPop and carries a 16+ age warning on it for sexually sugestive themes and a lot of rough language. The bilingual edition is published by Kodansha in JapanI highly recommend it to all educators, and to everyone else looking to step into the world of manga but worry about finding strange un-dead Japanese zombies with blasting powers. At base, GTO is the story of an unlikely teacher making a big impact on a troubled class written off by the rest of the school and society. Check it out.
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If you didn't check out the link to the GTO TV series above, click here to watch segments of the show on YouTube. You're sure to love it.

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