This is really a delightful little show. And at just 13 episodes (on 3 discs), it doesn't require a huge investment of time. It's silly, cute, charming and hilarious. For some reason I seem to have a sort of romantic fascination with the yakuza (thanks to Yoshiki Nakamura's Tokyo Crazy Paradise), so I may be a little biased toward a show like this. I should note now that the show does contain some language, and that tends to turn some people off. But it is about the yakuza after all, so what did you expect?

Well, alright, it's not strictly about the yakuza. Gokusen (based on the manga by Kozueko Morimoto) follows 23-year-old Oedo clan heir, granddaughter of the current Kumicho, Kumiko Yamaguchi. Her dream in life is to become a teacher, so with her grandfather's blessing, Kumiko heads off to Shirokin High School to teach her very first students - the troubled delinquent outcasts of class 3-D. Though her desire is to become a teacher and not the clan heir, and she hides her family from the school, her previous life has made her remarkably well prepared for dealing with such a class. Fortunately her students aren't as bad as their reputation. Though they talk and act tough, deep down they're caring and loyal. Unfortunately, they don't trust adults, especially teachers. So Kumiko must prove to them that she truly cares for the well being of each of her students, a challenge her background has made her apt for. It's especially challenging when vice principal Sawatari is doing everything in his power to to find a way to shut down the school.

The show focuses not only on Yankumi (the nickname given her by her class), but the students themselves. A core group of them in particular - quiet and cool Shin, quick to fight Minami, purple haired Uchiyama, large and tough Kumai, and Noda. Kumiko is seen most often pulling them out of trouble and teaching them various lessons. Though poor Shin, who develops a very cute little crush on Kumiko, is always being rescued by her, even when he tries to be the hero instead. Off to the side is Kumiko's yakuza family - Kumiko's grandfather Kuroda (the Kumicho), tough-looking Kyo, the enthusiastic Minoru and Tetsu, Kumiko's dog Fuji (who will sometimes provide a sort of narration for the series), and the family's lawyer Shinohara (who Kumiko has a crush on).

I really loved Kumiko's yakuza group. Tetsu and Minoru are great comedic relief, and their devotion to Kumiko is hilarious and sweet (as is Kyo's). I also thought it was great that Kumiko's students sort of become her own mini-yakuza group. The best parts of the show of course are the moments when Kumiko gets really fired up about something and forgets herself, slipping into gangster speak or becoming violent, right in front of everybody. And then does a complete 180, returning to her sweet and cheerful self like it never happened in an attempt to cover up her actions.

There's a 3 season Japanese live action drama to amuse yourself with as well, although only the first season focuses on the students from the manga/anime, and she gets a whole new class after that. There was also a theatrical LA movie that came out this July. I currently have plans to talk about the drama at a later date, when/if I get around to the second and third seasons (I recently completed the first, but as the other two are about different students, I don't have much interest at the moment).

Media Blasters released the Gokusen anime on DVD in America. Extras included clean credits and English voice actor outtakes. I watched the show in English (I think I watched 1 episode in Japanese, for comparison), and was pleased with the dubbing (though there's nothing wrong with the Japanese dub either).

In other news, FUNimation is releasing the live action Mushi-Shi on DVD at the end of the month! Hooray! I was so disappointed I couldn't go see it at the film festival last month, and thought I'd never get to see it. So thank you FUNi!


Bikes, Cakes and Promises

A live action trio of films is what we'll be looking at this week. First is Kamikaze Girls, a live action film based on the light novel of the same name by Novala Takemoto. Then we'll go to Korea to look at the Korean film version of the manga Antique Bakery (by Fumi Yoshinaga). And lastly, a Chinese Chen Kaige film called The Promise (Wu ji).

Kamikaze Girls:

We'll start with this absolutely delightful story of the friendship between two unlikely teenage girls. The film reminded me a lot of Amelie in terms of style, and if you've seen this amazing French film, you'll understand what I mean. Momoko is an anti-social young girl obsessed with 18th century France, wishing she had been born in the Rococo-era instead of modern day Japan. Her love for the period has resulted in a deep love for Lolita fashion, and actress Kyoko Fukada is adorable in the doll-like outfits that she wears throughout the film. Ichigo, played by the excellent Anna Tsuchiya, is the complete opposite of her frilly dressed counter-part - a bōsōzoku, a yanki in a female motorcycle gang (although Ichigo herself rides a customized Honda Lead scooter). The two meet when Momoko attempts to sell her father's left over knock off clothing (from his time as a low-class gangster) to help support her Lolita clothing purchases, and Ichigo shows up to buy a jacket. Both girls are taken by each others eccentricities, and loner Momoko is dragged into a friendship by Ichigo's incessant appearances and outlandish attitude. The movie is great fun, and is a wonderful example of the deep friendship that can be formed between girls, even girls as inherently different as Momoko and Ichigo. It's hilarious, charming, and has just the right mix of bright cheer and morbidity. The film is available with sub titles from Viz Media in America.

Antique Bakery:

I talked about the anime version of this manga last year, and this Korean version keeps the main story points, but changes the location (to Korea), and the names of the characters (to Korean names). As I only reviewed the first episode before, here's a bit more on what the story is about (with new character names). Kim Jin Hyeok (Tachibana) opens up a fancy cake shop for mysterious reasons of his own, considering he hates eating sweets. He hires Min Seon Woo (Ono), an excellent, and gay, pastry chef, who also happens to be an old classmate of Jin Hyeok's. Seon Woo, known as the gay of Demonic Charm, has been fired from all his previous jobs for causing romantic arguments with his fellow employees. Soon they hire a promising young man named Yang Ki Beom (Eiji), a former champion boxer who can no longer fight due to a serious injury. To complete the group, Jin Hyeok's klutzy childhood friend and bodyguard Nam Soo Yeong (Chikage) arrives to help watch over his master and work in the cafe. The film hits the major story points, though Ki Beom is often pushed aside as a minor character while the film focuses on Jin Hyeok and Seon Woo. It's well acted (with at least one completely gorgeous guy) and well made, with the exception of an early opening musical sequence that is bizarre and seems out of place. Also, near the end, the story becomes a little confusing regarding a character from Jin Hyeok's past; I wasn't sure if I was watching two different characters with similar looking actors, or the same character which would make things a bit off. The movie (for the sake of time) cuts out a chunk of the story where the characters attempt to garner publicity for their shop, and other than the aforementioned confusing character and cutting off some of Ki Beom's development, it's the same boy's love story that you'll get from the anime and manga.

The Promise:

I was less pleased with The Promise. The story had a lot of potential, but it fell a little flat for me. I do wonder though if this had to do with the fact that the American release of the film had 25 minutes edited out of it for some reason. In The Promise a little girl named Qingcheng survives by stealing off the bodies of corpses in a battle field. She is caught by a boy of about the same age who accuses her of stealing, and makes her promise to be his slave before releasing her. However after she is released, she hits him on the head and runs away. While crossing across some water, she meets the goddess Manshen, who offers her a deal - she will never again starve, she will wear the most beautiful clothing and eat the best food, and countless men will fall in love with her...but she will never experience true love herself, for if she finds it, she will lose it. Qingcheng agrees, and the goddess informs her that this agreement cannot be broken until snow falls in the summer and time flows backward. Many years later a battle rages between the armies led by General Guangming and Duke Wuhuan. Qingcheng, now grown, is swept up in a war between the Duke and her King's men (which the General leads), as is the mysterious servant of the General, Kunlun. The past comes back to haunt them, as the mysteries of the people from the Land of Snow are revealed, and the goddess Manshen's prophecies start coming true. This is a story of love, sacrifice, mistaken identity, loyalty and betrayal. It sounds like an excellent set up for an incredible film, but it just isn't as good as one would hope. For a film from 2005, the special effects are a bit substandard in quality. Something as simple as falling cherry blossoms look incredibly rendered, never mind the super fast running Kunlun. Fortunately the amazing costumes and combat that we've come to expect from these kinds of films are there and look great. In the end, I still think it was an interesting story that was underdeveloped (or edited out, possibly); but at least the acting (Dong-gun Jang, the beautiful Cecilia Cheung, and the very handsome and talented Nicholas Tse) is great.