Time for some J-Drama! My previous J-drama watching experiences have been few (alright, only two others - Nodame Cantabile and Zettai Kareshi), but they're well worth looking into. This time it's the Gokusen live action series. Given the nature of these things, there's really only a couple of ways to view them. You can import the DVDs, torrent the episodes from fansubbers, or (if you're, or rather, I suppose, the show, very lucky) watch them on a streaming site like Crunchyroll.com (where they are not hosted), or here, where I did find them.
I was able to watch all three seasons and the season 3 special via torrent, though they did not have the season 1 graduation special (the linked streaming site does, and I'll watch it later). Nor have I seen the new movie that came out this summer (it's not out on DVD just yet). As I reviewed the anime version of this just last week, please refer to that review for a basic summary. The live action has the same basic story. The only major difference is that while the anime (and manga) follow a single class, the live action show follows a different class at a different school each season.
The adorable and talented Yukie Nakama is spot on as Kumiko "Yankumi" in each season. A young veteran actress who also stared in the Basilisk live action film (called Shinobi: Heart Under Blade...it seems I didn't review it when I saw it, but Jay-san talked about it in one of his posts). The hilarious Namase Katsuhisa plays the head teacher/vice principal in all three seasons as well, and he and Yukie-san play great off each other. It's easy to tell he's a natural comedic actor. Several of the actors in the series have been together before in other shows, including Zettai Kareshi, Trick, Kamen Rider, and Boys Over Flowers. Several of the lead male students are also members of music groups.
The only recurring characters are Kumiko (obviously), the yakuza gang members (her grandfather and the four live-in members, like Tetsu and Minoru), the head teacher/VP, the coach from the second season (he also teaches in season 3), and Kuma from the season 1 class (who makes a surprisingly large number of appearances in seasons 2 and 3). She goes to a new school each season (about 7-8 years of time within the story pass within the three of them), with a whole new class, new teachers, and a new love interest (it's Shinohara as a detective in S1, a neighboring teacher in S2, and a doctor in S3).
It's very well done, and the comedy is excellent. One of my favorite bits is how Yankumi just sort of appears randomly in the middle of her students, while they're having a discussion. They hear her voice out of nowhere, and she's just THERE all of a sudden, and it's hilarious. Yankumi's total disregard for any male other than the one she's in love with is highly amusing as well, especially when she ignores the coach's obvious advances in seasons 2 and 3.
I only had one real issue with the first season. They're always zooming in on Shin's face for reactions, but he's always got the same damn look on his face, so I'm not sure why they bother. He's only got 3 real expressions - bored, amused but still bored, and angry in a bored sort of way. It's hard to know what he's supposed to be thinking, though I guess if you want to explain it away technically, part of his character is that people never know what's he's thinking.
I didn't like the third season as much as the others. The characters were not as interesting (or as cute!), and the formula was starting to get a little dull. What I mean by that is, basically the same thing happens in every single episode (in all 3 seasons). They just change some characters around. Yankumi goes to school, one or more students is having some kind of personal problem, Yankumi tries to figure it out, the student or students in question get into some form of trouble, Yankumi has to go to the school or police station to straighten it out, student(s) mouths off, Yankumi talks with her grandfather for advice, the shit hits the fan, the boys get into a fight and get their asses kicked, Yankumi shows up to rescue them, everyone learns a lesson. That's the basic plot of every single episode. As amusing as some of the situations can be, I just don't think it holds for 3 seasons. If you don't mind formulaic stuff like that, or if you're a Bernard Cornwell fan, then this should be fine for you. But I'm not much of a fan of sitting through the same story over and over again. Fortunately the comedy remains consistent and funny.
I was also a little bothered in the third season by how no one really bothered to find out why Yankumi was the way she is. In the first two seasons the kids find out pretty early on that she's yakuza; either by complete accident, or because they're actively trying to find out. And eventually EVERYONE finds out and Yankumi has to resign (again, same basic story element in seasons 1 and 2). But in season 3, they don't really seem to care. They make one early comment about her strength, then they let it drop for most of the season, but attempt to find out about it near the end (kind of randomly). The main boys find out, and then it's never mentioned again. I know I was just complaining about how formulaic everything is, but if you're going to do it, then do it all the way. Deal with her identity completely, or just don't bother.
The show is great fun, Yukie-san is fantastic, and most of the time the students are great as well. Finding a large group of talented young men who have such great chemistry together can't be easy. There is one final thing I was curious about; in each season the classroom and the desks have different designs (like graffiti, etc). I wondered if a production crew did this, or if the actors got to customize their own desks and room, to give it their own personality (or what they felt was the personality of their character). I'm not sure how one would go about finding that out, but if anyone knows, that would be some interesting trivia.
Members of the season 1 cast above.