Across The Pond

I’ll admit it, I’m a slut. Not in the sense of someone who spreads their sexual favours more thinly than the communal jam in a boarding house, but in the sense of overdoing things. Going from comics starvation in Japan to libraries that have beautifully-looked after collections in Australia, I’ve gone on a binge. My day at a library goes something like this. Pop in. Think “I’ll just have a little look at the comics”. Decide yet again that I can’t face the heartbreak of borrowing the huge Cerebus collections and reading the point at which Dave Sim went completely berserk and pompous. Dismiss some cool, indy looking thing for being possibly boring. Shy away from Neil Gaiman yet again. Scour the place for ‘100 bullets’ collections. Leave one hour later with a Justice League of America: Year One book, an Essential Daredevil and Batman: Halloween. None of which I have time to read. Read them anyway.

Another development is that I recently discovered that an acquaintance has a collection of about 150 Captain America comics, all of which he’s loaned to me. All of which, combined with my recent foray into the superhero-fetishsizing John Byrne forum, has had the effect of giving me a bit of a super-hero overdose. I’ve had enough of them! With or without the hyphen! It’s all my own fault for being so immoderate, but they all look a bit silly en masse.

Is there an alternative? One possibility is dark, adult comics. But a lot of those are superhero stuff dressed up in dark adult colours to make over-30s like me feel mature. It’s really the same thing. There is admirable realistic stuff like Joe Sacco’s the Fixer and Palestine, but I’ve read that.

So I thought I’d turn from all this abundance to enthuse about GTO. Anybody heard about it? It stands for Great Teacher Onizuki.

A brief synopsis. Onizuki is a layabout who likes karate, working out and looking at young girls underpants. When we first meet him, he’s standing under some stairs so he can look at schoolgirls undies. He then beats up a guy in a BMW, so he can steal the car and impress some young babe who has an improbable interest in him. Onizuki almost gets to have sex with this girl but at the last moment, she jumps out of the window of the love hotel into which he has inveigled her and lands in the arms of….her high school teacher.

I should explain here that one great unreality of the series is that Onizuki, despite being not bad looking and amoral thug never actually gets any sex. Just as Nobita never grows up, Bruce Banner should never be cured of being the Hulk, Onizuki’s thwarted and repulsive quest for sex defines him.

Anyway, watching his teenage lovely disappear with her middle-aged boyfriend, Onizuki has an inspiration. He will become ‘Great Teacher Onizuki’ (hence GTO). He signs up as a trainee teacher at his local high school. In the school, you’ll be unsurprised; he wins the local students over with his unconventional teaching methods, occasionally using his karate skills to scare the crap out of bad kids. He tries and fails to get off with various schoolgirls and female trainee teachers. At one stage he even gives up and decides to be a truck driver (leading to a banner headline in his talk bubble “I will become Great Truck Driver Onizuki!”) only to return to teaching. In one of the great comic moments, he is about to perform ‘chikan’ or groping on the train (there’s so much of this in Tokyo that there are peak hour women only carriages). Just as his hand is about to close on the rear in question, another man gropes her and Onizuki is so outraged, he beats up the other guy and becomes the young woman’s hero.

Like all anti-heroes, Davros, Flashman, Hannibal Lecter, Onizuki starts off awful and becomes nicer as time goes by. At the end of the first book he grabs a hammer and breaks down the wall between a young woman’s bedroom and her parents room because her real problem is that her parents never talk to her. It’s a great corny moment and was repeated in the TV series and the movie. I think it was also repeated in the animated series. Breaking down the wall is a very American moment – Japanese people are more into building increasing numbers of nice-looking walls, but it’s his great ‘nice guy’ act of the first volume. Happily he’s still a bit awful in volume 2, using instant noodle boxes for most unsavoury purposes and failing to get off with the high school lovelies.

It’s ridiculous that such a lout would be allowed to be a high school teacher. It’s unbelievable that he wouldn’t get some sex some of the time. And Japanese people don’t respond to having their inner walls broken down by embracing their daughter and promising to really be there for her (my guess is that they would scream and run away). All up, though, the series is very realistic. The high school, the young thugs, the people are real. There are nice little touches, like the schoolgirls coming into school murmuring about how cute Takuya Kimura was on TV last night (Takuya Kimura or ‘kimutaku’ is the loveliest member of an aging Japanese boy band, who are sort of like the Back Street Boys except they can act and they’ve been around forever). Little touches like that place the series squarely in the lives of the under-twenty Japanese person and make it very realistic to people outside that life, like me.

Why aren’t there western comics that are good in this way? Well, there kind of are, if you’re prepared to read Viz and/or Posy Simmons, two names which don’t often go together. Simmons deals with middle-class English people who work in the fields of literature and journalism. She’s a genius, but not much closer to my life than Onizuki is. A great shame about western comics is that they don’t deal with everyday life. I can still pick up about twelve different superhero comics in my local newsagents but nothing about actual people. In Japan, out of the huge variety available in any railway station kiosk, there are comics for business people, comics for schoolgirls, (millions of) comics about schoolgirls, comics for baseball players….. Out of this abundance comes some quality. Check it out.

Anyway there’s no point wishing Australia and/or the English speaking world was more like Japan. It isn’t. By the next column I’ll have exercised some moderation and will be up to facing the wonderful world of superheroes again.

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