Jesus is My Flatmate

Morning Two’s greatest success story was a manga that began running in its very first issue, Hikaru Nakamura’s Saint Young Men. At one level, it is a slice-of-life comedy about two with-it hipsters sharing a Tokyo apartment. They squabble over vegetarian recipes; they experiment with a boutique T-shirt business, and they go shopping for noodles at the corner store. But Nakamura’s high concept has incredible bite, because these young men are really Buddha and Jesus, roughing it in an earthbound vacation.

In this month’s chapter, they argue about the washing up, and then go on a trip to Ikea, because even God-made-flesh needs a working hob and an extractor fan. Buddha enthuses about how idyllic life must be for all those Viking gods and Valkyries in their beige Swedish wonder-kitchens. Jesus goes a bit crazy in Home Furnishings, and then realises he has to carry his purchases home.

Nakamura’s storyline injects a much-needed humanity and humour into figures usually viewed only through translations of ancient books. Jesus is a resolutely happy person, who can laugh at the fact that schoolgirls mistake him for Johnny Depp. He runs a blog about TV drama, and frets about how to keep his crown of thorns dry in the shower. Buddha likes reading manga (particularly Osamu Tezuka’s famous Life of Buddha), and has an irritating ability to somehow get infinite lives whenever he plays a video game.

This could have all too easily gone horribly wrong. Nakamura is well aware of this, and has been reluctant to allow her manga to receive an English-language edition, because she is afraid of the likely knee-jerk reaction from the Christian Right in the USA. This doesn’t appear to have stopped it getting translated in Italy (the home of the Pope), or in Spain (the home of the Spanish Inquisition – nobody was expecting that). This is a sad state of affairs, because Saint Young Men is a truly charming story, rich with humour and compassion, and oddly respectful of its protagonists. Its satire is not directed so much at them, but at the modern world in which they find themselves, repeatedly confronting 21st century customs and attitudes with the nature of old-world religious figures.

If you think that gay marriage causes hurricanes, that tattoos will send you to Hell, and that a prawn cocktail is forbidden, then you are never going to like Saint Young Men. If you believe that “reverence” means never laughing at absurdity or imagining “what would Jesus do”, then this manga is certainly irreverent, and that makes it literally blasphemous. Nakamura is an equal opportunities satirist, and throws in a bunch of other gods and goddesses – this is typically Japanese eclecticism, but unlikely to play well with anyone who refuses to accept that others believe differently.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #144, 2015, and is reprinted now because of the Saint Young Men live-action TV show, currently creating waves online.

Yae no Sakura

6e9509ddc8In Japan, currently in a hotel in the middle of the Inland Sea, with giant tankers gliding past a backdrop of green, hilly islands, stretching back into the mists. And because I’m been busy writing all year, I haven’t been following this year’s Sunday night taiga drama, Yae no Sakura, all about a gunsmith’s daughter from Aizu-Wakamatsu, who gets dragged into the Boshin War — the last gasp of the samurai. This is a topic I have written about twice already, as it was also a proving ground for a young Admiral Togo, and I’ve got all the materials assembled for another book about its end, called Samurai Republic, which I have yet to sell. But today it’s mainly an excuse to print a picture of Haruka Ayase with a gun, in her role as “the Bakumatsu Joan of Arc.” The titular Yae (Yaeko Yamamoto, a.k.a. Yae Niijima, 1845-1932) went on to become the first non-imperial woman to be decorated for service to her country, serving as a nurse in the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese Wars. Then she helped found Doshisha University.

Don't You Know Who This Is?

mito komon

I wander a traditional Japan of backstreets and stone lanterns, with wooden buildings and paper walls. I think I took a wrong turn somewhere by the blacksmith’s, and need to retrace my steps if I want to get back to the pleasure quarter. As I head back towards the Yoshiwara, I bump into a samurai leading two associates across a stone bridge. We bow at each other curtly and he rustles onwards with a scowl. The lower-ranking lieutenant behind him rolls his eyes at me playfully, pointing at his sullen associate as if to say, “Bad Agent Day.”

Toei’s Kyoto studios, a series of nondescript warehouse buildings in a long line by the railroad tracks, is closed to the public, but literally anyone can walk in off the street to wander the neighboring Movie Village backlot. Comprising several blocks of period housing, the Movie Village stretches from a Victorian-era town square complete with trams and coffee house, to a sector of samurai-era Tokyo that includes an attractive replica of Nihonbashi bridge, a pleasure quarter, merchant housing, a courthouse, and a prison. Wait for a gap in the milling school children and tourists, and the opportunity presents itself for a snapshot of the Japan of two centuries ago — a situation helped greatly by the many samurai, artisans, and geisha wandering the lot in full costume.

The Movie Village isn’t so much a theme park as a working studio. Sure, there’s a museum to the Power Rangers and their greatest enemies, some of the houses have been turned into snap joints where you can have your photo taken in samurai get-up, and there’s a ninja booth where you can throw shuriken at targets to win prizes, but all the minor attractions play second fiddle to the Movie Village’s true function, as a giant location set for samurai dramas.

Attend the Movie Village on any given day, and you can easily find that the courtroom area has been cordoned off to shoot a finale for next season’s Toyama no Kinsan. Don’t bank on always seeing the robotic sea monster that pops out of the SFX lake, since there remains an eternal possibility that it will have been turned off for the day so that someone can film a dockside sequence for Ooka Echizen. On the day I’m there, they are recording the latest episode of Mito Komon, a series that has been running intermittently since 1969. Mito Komon is the apocryphal tale of Tokugawa Mitsukuni, uncle of the Shogun Tsunayoshi, who wanders seventeenth-century Japan in disguise, observing criminals as they prey on the innocent. At the right moment towards the end of each forty-five-minute episode, Mito’s retainers will stop proceedings and brandish the Shogun’s seal. They point at the unassuming old man and bellow: “Don’t you know who this is!?” and Mito throws off his disguise.

A runner with a loud speaker tries with increasing panic to control a group of bewildered kids from San Francisco, who still think this is your average run-of-the-mill theme park, and don’t understand why they can’t cheer every time the samurai on the other side of the square fight each other.

There is a rustle among the Japanese crowd and a series of excited “Ooohs!” as a man in peach-colored robes and a white goatee rides onto the set on a small silver scooter ready for his next scene. It is Kotaro Satomi, the latest of several actors to play Mito Komon, who has been with the series for so long that he also played one of Mito’s young companions during the 1970s and 1980s. He stares in bewilderment at the San Francisco school kids, who stare in bewilderment back. As the seconds tick by, it becomes obvious that if someone were to brandish the Shogun’s seal at this moment and ask the 64,000 yen question, these kids wouldn’t have the faintest idea who he was.

“This man is very famous,” explains their tour guide desperately. “He’s a very famous actor who plays a very famous person in a very famous series.” He says this all with the characteristic vagueness of many Japanese tour guides, who have long since given up trying to get foreign tourists to remember people’s actual names.

The Americans nod excitedly and immediate start demanding to have their pictures taken with Satomi. Perhaps realizing that this is celebrity snapshots for the sake of it, and that none of them know who he really is, Satomi agrees with a weary smile. But he has the magnanimous charisma of a true professional, and the tourists go away happy, ready to tell all their friends that they met “someone really famous” while they were in Japan, and that he was “really nice”, whoever he was.

The peak rating for Mito Komon is 43.7 percent — a night in 1979 when almost half of all the TV sets in Japan were tuned to the show. Satomi knows that there are already plenty of people in Japan who know exactly who he is. San Francisco’s chance will have to wait.

This article first appeared in Newtype USA, July 2003, and was reprinted in Schoolgirl Milky Crisis. Mito Komon finishes its decades-long run on Japanese television this month.

Things I Learned From Japanese Television

Rain makes you sneeze.

Any injury can be healed with a white sticking-plaster on the cheek.

Sex always leads to pregnancy.

Nothing good will come of foreign travel.

Women in white are psychos (unless they are getting married).

Old women are either mad or Kaoru Yachigusa

Every Japanese home has a spare green-ink divorce application form.

It’s impossible to find a deserted roof-top from which to throw oneself.

If you have a college reunion, someone is going to have an affair.

If you have a college reunion, someone is going to die.

Episode one marriage = episode one widow.

End with a wedding, but not the one everyone expects.

(Originally printed in the Dorama Encyclopedia: A Guide to Japanese TV Drama Since 1953, by Jonathan Clements and Motoko Tamamuro, 2003).

If Shakespeare Wrote Japanese TV

As an exercise, imagine a familiar storyline, after 15 minutes with a Japanese TV script editor:

Romeo Tanaka is a young business executive at Montague, a prominent Tokyo trading house. He sneaks into the latest product-launch by rival company Capulet Inc, only to fall in love with Juliet Nakamoto, a pretty marketing executive. After an initial set of misunderstandings, the two begin a clandestine affair, aided by Romeo’s comedy sidekick Mercutio, who is secretly in love with Juliet’s personnel manager Nurse. Meanwhile, sneaky Capulet manager Tybalt has taken an undercover job at Montague. Things appear to settle down, until Romeo’s ex-girlfriend Rosalind reappears and tries to lure him back.

Juliet wrongly believes that Romeo loves Rosalind, and gives in to her father, the chairman of Capulet, who wants her to go on a date with Hong Kong business associate Paris Wong. Meanwhile, scheming Capulet manager Tybalt plots to get Romeo thrown out of the company.

Discredited at head office, Romeo is offered a foreign business placement, but turns it down, not realising that Juliet has taken a similar post in order to be with him. Romeo’s friend Mercutio finds Tybalt doctoring company documents, and is injured in a fall when he tries to stop him. Reunited at Mercutio’s bedside at Apothecary Hospital, the cast realise that Romeo is innocent. Romeo is exonerated of all accusations, but Juliet slips away, to prepare to fly abroad for her posting in Taiwan. Romeo rushes to the airport, where he stops her just before she gets on her plane.

In a surprise twist, Rosalind meets Mercutio as he is discharged from hospital, and confesses that she has fallen in love with him. At the double-wedding that follows, Juliet and Rosalind both throw their bouquets, which are caught by Nurse and Doctor Apothecary, who smile shyly at each other.

(Originally printed in the Dorama Encyclopedia: A Guide to Japanese TV Drama Since 1953, by Jonathan Clements and Motoko Tamamuro, 2003).

Next Season's Japanese TV

The Japanese TV world moves fast; there are approximately 30 new series each season, of which perhaps a dozen will go out in prime time, and only a handful will comprise remakes or sequels to earlier shows. In order to help you guess what the storylines might be for as-yet unmade series like Hairdresser Detective, My Boyfriend is an Alien, Get Away From My Husband You Bitch, and who knows, perhaps Undertaker Cop, we offer this handy plot generator. Delete as applicable, or add your own variables:

Janet is a (reporter / photographer / traffic cop / nurse / princess / florist / teacher / stewardess / designer) who finds herself falling for John, who is a (detective / bail jumper / salaryman / architect / doctor / samurai / pilot / musician / student/ undercover alien / terrorist). After first meeting during a (wedding / crime investigation / blind date / robbery / swordfight), they initially fail to get on with each other, but are miraculously thrown back together by their (interfering parents / shared interest in an unlikely hobby / unexpected relocation to shared lodgings).

However, their burgeoning relationship is threatened by (old flames / intrigues at their workplace / the fact they’ve switched bodies / their removal to a different time period), and by the fact that Janet is (already married / a celebrity / impersonating someone else / on the run from the police / diagnosed with only three months to live / on an undercover mission / pick one from the next list) and that John is (leaving the country / in love with someone else / supposed to defend the world from attacking aliens / pick one from the previous list).

Nor is anyone expecting the sudden mid-season appearance of (an old flame / a long-lost relative / an ultimatum that could ruin their careers). They must also deal with a dark secret, because one of them is (also married / still getting over the death of a loved one / a parent / suppressing the memories of a terrible trauma / actually a ghost / hell-bent on revenge against the other’s father). Luckily, they grow closer thanks to an incident involving (zany friends / a talking dog / someone’s parent / a wacky DJ) and the fact that they are forced to cooperate on (rearing a child or children / chasing a story / an arrest / saving the planet).

Though the story appears to resolve itself, a surprise twist involving (another murder / a revelation about the boss / a sudden hospitalisation) leads to a last-minute reunion at (Narita airport / a wedding / a sports meet / the hospital). And everybody lives happily ever after, including two supporting cast members who have unexpectedly fallen in love, unless there is a second season, in which case at least one of the leads will (turn up with an unexpected spouse / change jobs / lose their memory).

(Originally printed in the Dorama Encyclopedia: A Guide to Japanese TV Drama Since 1953, by Jonathan Clements and Motoko Tamamuro, 2003).

Pure of Heart

Sachiko (Ryoko Shinohara) has a problem child. Her son Hikaru (Ryusei Saito) never seems to pay attention. Whereas his kindergarten classmates can’t stop talking, he sits in silence. He develops strange obsessions with drawers and closets, and delights in creating a mess. If she tries to stop him, he throws a tantrum, and when she scolds him, he stares idly into the distance, not even acknowledging her presence. Sachiko simply doesn’t know where to turn…

NTV’s Wednesday-night drama In the Light: Living with Autism might have seemed to be an unlikely choice for the 2004 schedules. It lacked both the tacky high-concept of TV Tokyo’s Vampire Gigolo, or indeed the slavish fad-following of the spring season’s two (count ’em!) unrelated fire-fighter dramas. But it was also the latest in a long line that stretched back almost 20 years to a distant Hollywood ancestor.

Barry Levinson’s 1988 road movie Rain Man featured Tom Cruise as a car-trader who discovers that he has a long-lost relative, and Dustin Hoffman won an Oscar for his portrayal of Cruise’s autistic brother. Rain Man’s plaudits helped usher in a new age of worthy disability-centred dramas in Japan, starting with a wheelchair-bound cast member in Under One Roof. Before long, the “rain man” element had been taken perhaps a little too literally, with the release of From the Heart, the tale of an autistic weather girl. From there it was a short while until 2000’s Pure, the show by which all other subsequent disability dramas are judged. The tale of down-at-heel photographer who falls for an autistic artist, Pure was such a success, that it even lent its name to the genre. When producers say their next show is going to be “Pure”, they mean that it will hinge on a handicap – blindness, deafness, personality disorder, you name it, it’s been the subject of a drama series.

Considering the number of disability dramas on Japanese TV, In the Light requires considerable suspension of disbelief – has Sachiko really never heard of autism before? Unfamiliar with the term, Sachiko first assumes it is some form of disease from which her son can eventually be cured. When she is told this is not possible, she enters a state of desperate denial, trying to convince herself and others that Hikaru’s behavior is completely normal. Her family are little help. True to Japanese TV tradition, her mother-in-law is a heartless harridan who blames Sachiko for Hikaru’s condition. She turns to her husband for comfort, but eventually he admits that he, too, regards Hikaru’s handicap as her fault. It’s only when she meets a kindly therapist that she finds some solace… and hope.

Sachiko’s ignorance, however, is a benign trait. It was designed from the very beginning to create a character who would ask questions on behalf of an audience, because In the Light began life as an educational manga.

Creator Keiko Tobe graduated in economics, and first found herself a job in public relations. She moved to Tokyo when she got married, and discovered that the capital city offered her opportunities to turn her manga hobby into a job. In 1985, after working as an art assistant in girls’ comics, she enrolled on Princess magazine’s annual Manga School program. . A year later, Princess Gold published the result, the marathon-runner story Aki’s Goal. Tobe stayed in girls’ comics through the late 1980s, following a contemporary fad by writing a story set in the world of women’s wrestling. The same era that saw the Dirty Pair parodying lady wrestlers also saw Tobe’s Dream Warrior Shadow appear in several instalments in Princess Special.

Towards the end of the 1980s, Tobe began writing titles such as Glass Staircase and Mystery Theater, and her most prominent early work Bakumatsu Sorcery. Set at the end of the samurai era, it told the story of a surgeon trained in ‘Dutch’ (i.e. Western) medicine, who becomes involved in lifting curses from unlucky people. But she followed it with a very different form of affliction – she turned from girls’ comics to women’s comics, and picked a new way of haunting her lead character.

In the Light began running in For Mrs magazine, a title aimed at young mothers. The manga aimed to educate its readers with steely fervor, regularly running additional features on real-life mothers whose children suffer from autism, tracking their progress from birth, through school, and into the workplace. In Japan, of course, getting a day-job is a happy ending. The TV version, however, sticks resolutely to Hikaru’s early years, as Sachiko fights to put her son into a normal school, deals with the prejudices of the people around her, and observes his separation from the everyday world. It doesn’t take long before her son goes missing, and she is forced to deal with the worry of how a boy who can barely talk can somehow navigate his way back home. In regularly returning to the concerns of every parent, Tobe’s story skillfully reminds viewers that Hikaru is not all that different from other children after all. It’s an unusual addition to the world of Living Manga, but its motives are pure of heart.

(This article first appeared in Newtype USA magazine, August 2004, and was subsequently reprinted in the collection Schoolgirl Milky Crisis. Keiko Tobe died last Thursday, aged 52).

Pretty Boy

It was one of the earliest anime ever made, a ten-minute short from 1939 in which a handsome young boy faced a giant robber with a pole-axe on Kyoto’s Gojo bridge. Much to the giant’s surprise, the boy defeats him, snatching his naginata from him and threatening him with it himself. The giant pleads for his life, and swears to serve the boy until his dying day.

Kenzo Masaoka’s early anime talkie, featuring Masaoka himself as the oppressive giant Benkei, was based on the legend of Yoshitsune (1159-1189), a figure fated to come back into fashion in 2005. Already, there is a Story of Hero Yoshitsune game on the PS2, and the fateful fight scene was recently re-animated by Tezuka Productions for screening at Kyoto’s ultra-modern train station, a few minutes’ walk where it is supposed to have really taken place.

Yoshitsune is the subject of this year’s taiga, the year-long Sunday night historical blockbuster on national Japanese network NHK, designed in equal parts for all the family, so that Dad can watch some swashbuckling samurai action, Mom can see some courtly romance and the kids can learn a little Japanese history. But Yoshitsune stands a good chance with the younger audience who normally regard taiga-watching as a chore rather than a treat. The hero was still a baby when his father was executed for opposing the ruling faction at court. His youth is shrouded in mystery, but he is believed to have been raised by fighting monks in a temple north of Kyoto. As a child (played in the NHK series by Ryunosuke Kamiki), he took the name Ushiwaka, and supposedly sneaked out of the temple grounds to learn martial arts from tengu crow demons in the forests.

NHK’s greatest coup comes in the man they have cast to play the adult Yoshitsune, heart-throb actor Hideaki Takizawa. A former pop idol with the boy-band Johnny’s Juniors, Takizawa graduated to TV stardom with a series of high profile appearances in primetime drama serials. Takizawa is a bishonen made flesh. His androgynous good looks gained him an enthusiastic female following in Strawberry on the Shortcake, in which he played a withdrawn schoolboy who falls for his stepsister, and the manga adaptation Antique, as a retired boxer who goes to work in a cake shop. He played a put-upon student in the Maison Ikkoku-inspired And I Love Her, and managed to tick almost everyone’s wish fulfilment boxes when he got to play a schoolboy who has an affair with his teacher (the gorgeous Nanako Matsushima) in Forbidden Love.

Over the next year, Takizawa will have to prove himself as a serious actor, alongside Yoshitsune’s giant bodyguard Benkei (Ken Matsudaira) and the first genuine samurai warrior-woman, Tomoe Gozen (Eiko Koike). He has the required pretty-boy looks to play Yoshitsune (who died in his thirties and remains an eternally youthful icon to the Japanese), but his role will also demand extensive battle scenes, and the charisma of a natural leader. Can Takizawa (Takky, to his fans) lead cavalry charges down perilous hillsides, and act his way out of the intrigue, as Yoshitsune’s brother becomes Shogun and orders the capture and execution of his popular sibling? The Yoshitsune legend is one of the best to grace taiga drama, but it will be a test of fire for its leading man.

(This article first appeared in Newtype USA, January 2005)

Project Mayhem

Detective Yosuke Kobayashi is losing his mind. A malicious killer has been mailing him dismembered parts of his murdered girlfriend. The shock drives Yosuke over the edge – he tracks the criminal down and slays him himself. On trial for the revenge killing, his personality cracks up and he claims to be a psychological profiler called Kazuhiko Amamiya. Released after years in prison, the disgraced and still troubled man finds a job doing the only work he knows: as a freelance private eye where his conflicting identities can at least do what they do best. That’s right, he teams up with himself. Until one fateful day, when Yosuke begins to suspect the unthinkable, that there is yet another personality in his shattered psyche, a brash, violent identity that calls itself Shinji Nishizono, and which may be responsible for the very murder case that the other identities are trying to solve.

In the late 1990s, as The X-Files made spooky forensic procedurals the new TV cool, and David Fincher’s Se7en did likewise in the cinemas, Japanese writers responded with their own variants. 1997’s Gift starred Takuya Kimura as an amnesiac courier. 1998’s Sleeping Forest starred Miho Nakayama as a girl whose true self has been buried beneath a false personality since a childhood trauma. 1999’s Unsolved Cases featured Mulder-and-Scully lookalikes trailing the perpetrators of gory crimes. And then, in 2000, the WOWOW channel screened MPD (Multiple Personality Disorder) Psycho.

The story had been around for a while, first premiering in manga form some three years earlier in Shonen Ace magazine. MPD Psycho the manga was written by Eiji Otsuka, but drawn by Sho-u Tajima, an artist best known for the anime and manga Madara, and for the distinctive character designs in Production IG’s Kai Doh Maru. The manga didn’t pull any of its punches, with infamously graphic depictions of violence and torture. It was hardly the kind of thing likely to be picked up for Japanese terrestrial TV. However, the more forgiving satellite networks found a home for it.

In a tip of the hat to Fight Club, Takashi Miike’s TV version begins inside its protagonist’s brain, riding along his sparking synapses as he duels with his mental problems. Credited with adapting Otsuka’s treatment himself, Miike rearranges some elements of the original story. The above synopsis is taken from the manga, whereas the TV variant keeps the girlfriend around for a while after Yosuke’s personality starts to fall apart.

Despite this major change, many of Otsuka’s grotesque crimes remain: a massacre at a Catholic girls’ school, a woman who kidnaps foetuses from their doomed mothers, and a victim found with a missing brain replaced by flowers. Needless to say, such twists forever confine MPD Psycho to the late-night slot, where its six episodes played to an audience of shocked channel-surfers.

Fresh from directing the infamous movie Audition, Miike continues to play with the notion that everything might be a surreal hallucination, shooting one scene in MPD Psycho on a beach littered with half-buried iMac computers, and deliberately lighting his actors to suffuse them with bright, unreal colors.

In the leading role of Yosuke (and Kazuhiko, and Shinji), Miike cast Naoki Hosaka, an actor who was no stranger to living manga. Other comic adaptations in which Hosaka has starred include the sorcerous Master of Yin and Yang, and four seasons of Miike’s long-running Salaryman Kintaro series. But playing Yosuke and his other identities creates triple the demand for an actor – what’s the betting that Hosaka was still only paid for one role…?

The sleuthing finally pays off when Yosuke, his other personality, and his fellow investigators find a university under siege. The students give the Nazi salute to their principal, and spend their lunch breaks marching in the school yard – someone has been tampering with their brains, and it turns out to be the same individual who is behind other incidents in Tokyo. It’s only with the case of the students that Yosuke realises greater forces are at work. What first appeared to be isolated incidents are all part of a larger plan, steered by Lucy Monostone (Tetsuo’s Tomorowo Taniguchi), a religious cult leader who recruits killers from his followers, replacing one eye in each recruit with nifty a barcode crystal that allows him to control them remotely.

MPD Psycho’s run on TV was surprisingly short, and the story continued in print form, albeit no longer as a manga, and in a different publication to the one that birthed it. In later years, after the TV version brought in an audience with weaker stomachs, the series continued in serial novel form in the Japanese edition of Newtype. Creator Otsuka worked on the principle that pictures really weren’t necessary, not when the readers could use their imaginations to produce images scarier than anything an artist could imagine. Or at least, that’s what Eiji Otsuka claimed. Some say he was in two minds about it.

(This article first appeared in Newtype USA, September 2004)

Married to the Mob

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)