They’ll eat her alive! New math teacher Kumiko (Yukie Nakama) has been assigned to class 3-D, the most notorious group of troublemakers in Shirokin Academy. They stare her down, they throw anything that comes to hand and they just plain ignore her. But Kumiko is tougher than she looks, and she isn’t taking any crap from a gang of teenagers. She’s used to dealing with gangs, after all – she’s the heir to one of the biggest crime syndicates in Japan. This is no normal classroom drama, this is Gokusen.
Yamaguchi Kumiko (the pun only works if you say it in the Japanese name order), is actually a Yamaguchi-gumi Ko, the grandchild of a gang-boss in the yakuza. Her parents tried to go straight, but ended up dead anyway. She was reared by her grandfather and groomed for gangland succession, but the sweet-natured girl prefers to live a normal life. However, when she gets angry, she stops talking like Miss Math, and instead adopts the guttural slang and rolled R’s of a yakuza tough guy.
She wants to teach children, and she wants to fall in love. She even thinks she’s found her man – that sweet Mr Shinohara (Ikki Sawamura) who gets the same bus as her. Except Mr Shinohara is actually Detective Shinohara… can you sense trouble ahead?
Gokusen started life as a manga by artist Kozueko Morimoto, whose early work focussed on the interaction between women and children. Her first big title came in 1990, with the publication of I’m a Mother! by You Comics. No gangsters here; instead Morimoto’s seven-volume classic compiled a series of humorous essays about child-rearing, taking female readers through the post-natal process from birth to a child’s first day at school, and beyond. She followed it up with Medical Intern Nanako in in 1994, a comedy about a student doctor who finds a place in a university teaching hospital after graduation. The 1990s also saw a couple of mini-stories This is Lady Mama and Mystery Mama.
As the 1990s drew to a close, Morimoto gave up on the whole motherhood thing. She’d found something else to interest her. In 1998, heart-throb Takashi Sorimachi shot to unprecedented heights of stardom as the hero of the tough-guy teacher series GTO. Meanwhile, Japanese satellite channel WOWOW began airing an American series whose translated title meant Sorrowful Mafia – you may know it better as The Sopranos. Gangsters out of their natural habitat were cool, they were in fashion, and Morimoto’s Gokusen was born.
For the live-action version on the NTV channel, actress Yukie Nakama had to ditch her previous M.O. as someone who chased crooks. Best known as the crime-fighting circus conjuror of Trick, she also played the photofit artist and sometime sleuth of Face. But Nakama is no stranger to playing roles with something to hide; her finest moments include her turn as a woman whose husband has accidentally married someone else in False Love, and the mind-boggling entanglements of a girl with a yakuza boyfriend whose sister is dating a Russian assassin in Love 2000. Her most prominent co-star in the series is Jun Matsumoto, who plays the unofficial leader of 3-D. A pop-star in the Arashi boy-band, Matsumoto is no stranger to manga adaptations, having starred in the live-action versions of both You Are My Pet and Young Kindaichi Files.
The Gokusen series isn’t afraid to throw in a number of storylines that have nothing to do with gangsters. She may be able to have people taken away and killed, but Kumiko prefers to fret over her pupils’ education like any number of TV teachers. When 3D are forbidden from participating in the school volleyball tournament, she enlists them as male cheerleaders (but only by promising them the chance to meet the more common female variety). She defends her school’s shoddy reputation, even if it means dumping a potential suitor from a snooty prep school. And all the while, she tries to hang onto her place in the everyday world, desperate for her criminal origins to remain in the shadows.
Of course, it’s a rare Japanese TV classroom that doesn’t have a dark secret lurking in it somewhere these days. The medium is also no stranger to gangsters trying to go straight; Kumiko’s TV ancestors include 1991’s Downtown Detectives, in which two yakuza make a buck as private investigators. Then there’s The Quiet Don, about a salaryman with a “Family” business on the side, which was made into both anime and live-action versions.
Gokusen has followed suit. After the success of the live-action TV version in 2002, it’s back as an anime on NTV, further strengthening the connections between the worlds of animation and Living Manga. The role of Kumiko is taken in the anime version by Risa Hayamizu, who has previously appeared in anime such as Kaleidostar and Kiddy Grade. She also had a cameo in a series that sounds just like something a gangland teacher might say to her quivering pupils – Read or Die!
(This article first appeared in Newtype USA magazine, June 2004)