28a. How [Not] to Contextualize Morimoto’s Gokusen

Nakama Yukie as Yankumi in the Gokusen TV drama

Nakama Yukie as Yankumi in the Gokusen TV drama

As we begin this our second year of the What is Manga? blog, I come back to a recurring problem in manga studies–or rather one I consistently return to, because I feel as if it’s not treated with sufficient thoroughness outside of the veritable minefield that is theoretical approaches to shōjo manga, namely the question of demographics.  Particularly unplumbed are the depths of these things called seinen and josei (or sometimes redīsu), which are incredibly arbitrary categories yet with significant implications for how comics are marketed in Japan and thereby broken up into meaningful conceptual categories.  Of demographic categories for manga anthologies, josei is both the smallest and the most recent to appear–in fact that latter point may have a great deal to do with the former.  The most widely circulated josei anthology, YOU, only approaches 200,000, whereas the most widely circulated seinen anthology, Shūkan Yangu Magajin, is around 800,000, though has on occasion approached 1 million.  For purposes of comparison, the most recent circulation figures for MAD magazine are around 150,000.

The reasons for this are rather straightforward: while it’s perfectly acceptable for girls/women to read texts marketed toward “male” demographics, there is a strong social stigma attached to boys/men reading texts marketed toward girls/women.  However, today I’d like to deal with these demographic issues from a view askew, the much neglected demographics of comic artists themselves.  By this I don’t mean the, to my mind, rather tired question of whether women are sufficiently represented among artists–an important concern, to be sure, but about which pretty much the same things are always said–but of those whose work crosses the demographic divide and, in a sense, elides those arbitrary distinctions upon which capitalists and theorists equally rely.  It is with this in mind that I would like to consider one of my all time favorites, Morimoto Kozueko’s Gokusen.  I apologize wholeheartedly, dear reader, if this disturbs the rigid sense of objectivity and fairness that this blog has become synonymous with, but it cannot be helped.

Hell Hath no Fury…

Yamaguchi Yumiko, whom her students nickname Yankumi, is a recently graduated mathematics teacher at what is ostensibly an excellent private high school (with one important exception).  She is also the granddaughter and heir to the Yakuza boss who raised her, after her parents died in a car crash.  Though there are many themes in Gokusen salient to the ongoing discussions of this blog (in particular, the variation on the theme of the class at an elite school where all the shit students are quarantined), I’d like to focus on just this one thing and see how it plays out when read against two modes of framing it.

Gokusen vol. 1 p. 42

Gokusen vol. 1 p. 42

Yankumi: The face is all wrong / And the kai in kōkai [exhibition] isn’t the right character at all…

Student 1: She’s in complete shock!

Student 2: She’s so mad!  She’s so mad!

The joke is adolescent at best and the gratuitous use of porn exactly what you would expect from a seinen manga–except Gokusen isn’t a seinen manga.  When I bought the five volumes of Gokusen they had at the Book Off near Toyohashi station in 2007 (for a hundred yen each, far less than their 730 sticker price!), I had no way of knowing the series was originally published in YOU or that its intended audience was young woman, for, while Book Off, like most stores, does break up manga by demographics, but these were on the oversize shelf, where everything gets mixed up.  Furthermore, there was nothing about the wildly popular TV drama adaptation that screamed josei, though with that now in mind the choice to cast boy band idols Matsumoto Jun (of Arashi) in the first series and Akanishi Jin (of KAT-TUN) in the second reads as rather obvious crush bait.

Yankumi’s students assume that she is, in fact, the sheepish nerd she desperately pretends to be.  Yankumi is at pains to hide her true self, a smack talking gruff sort who can give as good as she gets, because, as you can imagine, the granddaughter of a mob boss would never in a million years be allowed to become a school teacher.  Yet, there are times when her instincts get the better of her, as when, on the first day of class, one of her students chucks a pachinko ball at the back of her head, and she reflexively catches it.

p. 23

p. 23

Though her students over time grow suspicious, the ruse does work, well enough, at least so long as they think she’s freaking out over having her face posted on a hea nūdo (i.e. an uncensored nude), even if she, in fact, can’t get over the fact that they don’t know that kōkai is written 公開 and not 公会.  Absent any knowledge of Gokusen as josei manga, it still makes perfect sense.  Yankumi uses her fighting prowess to protect her students from those who want to hurt them (i.e. rival douchebags), and she is caught on tape basically beating up a bunch of teenagers, which, as you can imagine, eventually loses her her job.  In many ways, the story itself is about the importance of context: Yankumi’s behavior makes at least some sense when seen from the “inside” in terms of her affection for her students and her desire to defend them in the same way a mob boss might, ideally, “protect his own,” but decontextualized it merely appears to be senseless violence.  So, the question, then, is how does our knowledge of this text as josei manga potentially change the way we read it?

I had a rather fruitful conversation a few days ago with an English professor here, and in explaining to her something only tangentially related, I think I may have happened upon an answer to this question.  Recall many moons ago, in discussing this Rakuten cartoon, I pointed to a certain unresolved tension in ideals of the modern Japanese woman as devoted wife (i.e. “awakened to the duties of her sex”) and/or liberated women (i.e. “awakened to the rights of her sex”).  Women in white collar employment in Japan are regularly required to perform what amounts to basic domestic labor–making tea/coffee for visiting guests or scolding younger female employees as if they were the company’s “children”–in addition to their regular contractual obligations.  While this is not universally the case, it is prevalent enough to create an atmosphere wherein women are expected to conform to certain extremely conservative notions of femininity even while, on paper at least, their education has afforded them a place “equal to men.”  Of course, this is a total sham, as it is throughout most of the developed world, but it’s easy to believe you have escaped being barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, while you’re gingerly stepping around the blisters on your heels as you put on another pot of coffee in the break room.

p. 21

p. 21

Yankumi, then, is a parodic inversion of this double standard for women in white collar work, for she acquiesces all too willingly to a preconception of women as demur and clutzy, because, if she did not, her true nature might be revealed, that she is much tougher and far more willful than any of the posers at her school.  Unlike her students, she has actually lived the life that they can only imitate, a life that they can only understand as cool, because they have not not truly seen it, a life Yankumi wants to put behind her.  Obviously, Gokusen is a comedy, so little of this ever boils to the surface, but as josei manga it’s difficult not to read Yankumi’s failure to navigate the contradictory expectations in her own life–on the one hand as heir to her grandfather’s “business,” on the other as an ordinary school teacher–as emblematic of the contrary expectations all Japanese women face in modern society.

It’s a Bird!  It’s a Plane!  It’s Yankumi!

I would also like to posit a completely illogical reading of this text, one justified by little beside my arbitrary choice to do so.  I think it’s useful to think of Yankumi also as a parodic inversion of the whole idea of the superhero.  Now, you could be one of those complete idiots who, now and then, I see making the factually inaccurate claim that there are no superhero manga (in the 50s and 60s there were numerous superhero manga, many of which were obvious rip-offs of American comics), but you cannot reasonably make the claim that there is no sense of superhero-dom in the Japanese Zeitgeist.  If that were the case, then a film like Matsumoto Hitoshi’s Dai Nipponjin (or any tokusatsu film, for that matter) would make no sense whatsoever.

Steve Coogan, in his Superhero: The Secret Origins of a Genre, identifies three key traits of superhero characters: mission, identity, and powers.  To this he adds the important qualifier of genre conventions as well, but let’s stick to those three.  The mission component is necessary due to the need for the hero to act selflessly in service of others.  Yankumi selflessly defends her students, even though it jeopardizes her job as a school teacher.  The identity component has two parts, both a codename (I suppose Yankumi suffices for this) and a distinct get up.  For most superheroes this is a costume, but in Yankumi’s case, it is the removal of her glasses and chilling stare that mark her transformation from mild mannered Yumiko to badass Yankumi (or her kimono and dark sunglasses).  The powers aspect should be obvious: Yankumi’s skills in hand to hand combat far exceed any of her opponents, even the thugs in her grandfather’s employ.

Yankumi terrified of being recognized by her student Shin - p. 127

Yankumi terrified of being recognized by her student Shin – p. 127

However, there are two things that make Yankumi a parody rather than an imitation of the Clark Kent/Superman duality: gender and consequence.  One of the events that permanently turned me off superhero comics was the Doomsday/Death of Superman arc of 1992.  I had been subject to the ridiculous marketing gimmicks of superhero comics before (crossovers and what have you), but I had never seen a company shamelessly kill off a character as a PR stunt only to have him return a few months later as if nothing had happened.  Yankumi, on the other hand, cannot simply undo the consequences of her behavior.  Her particular brand of vigilante justice may seem noble and good to her students/the reader, but that does not save her from the ramifications of her secret life being discovered.  In Yankumi’s world, which, I hasten to add, is not unlike our own, you cannot simply retcon everything once the narrative contradictions get out of hand, and while she might superficially resemble a Clark Kent or a Peter Parker, she does not live in their world, where the threat of being discovered has no real teeth.  For, even if you are, there are a number of cheap narrative tricks ready to hand to make certain our beloved heroes only ever have to live the simulacrum of a real life.

p. 10

p. 10

Narration: Newly employed at this school, this spring, two young female teachers

Which brings us full circle to the question of gender.  Now, there is reason to believe that, say, in a man, violent, aggressive behavior would, in fact, be considered a plus in an educational setting, for it conforms nicely with the stereotype of the master who brutalizes and humiliates his disciple in order to push him to the limits of his capabilities.  As a woman, though, and as a woman in josei manga, Yankumi’s aggressive nature plays against different tropes.  It makes a kind of sense, then, that in the image above, she might compare herself unfavorably with her co-worker’s much larger breasts or whine like a “little girl” when one of her students tries to unmask her killer instinct by karate chopping her on the back of the head.  This is how a woman is expected to behave, though Yankumi overdoes it somewhat in her efforts to appear “normal.”  Yankumi’s femininity, like all identity, is a kind of necessary performance, for if she were revealed to be “like a man” or, dare I say, “like a super man,” it could very well ruin her life.

Next week: Yamazaki Mari as seinen/josei manga artist

Stay Tuned!

Ba Zi


  1. I’ve never read the Gokusen manga or seen the anime, but I admit to rather liking the live action TV series – or the first season of it anyway, and bits of the second. In fact, it’s the only Japanese live-action drama series I ever really cared for, since I feel like it’s cheesiness (which is normally a big turn-off for me in any medium) really works for it.

  2. Jakub Makalowski · · Reply

    It’s strange to think people would claim no superheroes in manga when the shonen genre is predominantly stories about superheroes, especially in the case of what is exported outside the country.

    1. Much of modern manga criticism, especially in the Anglophone sphere, involves sifting the useful nuggets out of a great deal of simply inaccurate or misleading claims.

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