Friday, May 27, 2011

[Character Study] Drama is the best teacher- Taisetsu na Koto Subete Kimi ga Oshiete Kureta

“Who am I? I am…” she smirks. Takes off her glasses. Whips her hair around. Gives unruly high school delinquents the all-knowing death glare. “I’m their homeroom teacher.” Anyone who has been keeping up with the Japanese drama scene for the last decade will recognize this rather iconic, episodic revelation on the part of Yankumi, Yakuza family heir and high school teacher. The subgenre of high school teacher-centered dramas are a perennial mainstay on the drama scene, with at least one of its kind cropping up every couple of seasons.
This subgenre of dramas often follow a tried and true formula: enthusiastic, doe-eyed new teacher (of possibly questionable background) turns up at a school full of weathered educational bureaucrats who would rather cover their own asses than teach. Said teacher goes on to hash and rehash moral spiel to their students for the next ten episodes, often in a self-righteous tone with a slap to the cheek (or a punch or two) thrown in for good measure.
This is the kind of teacher I am accustomed to seeing in J-dramas, and to be honest, a little craziness and zaniness is well appreciated now and then, and the first dozen times around, those cheesy inspirational speeches from GTO and Yankumi are more inspirational than cheesy. So imagine my surprise when I sat down to watch Spring season’s Taisetsu na koto Subete Kimi ga Oshiete Kureta (You taught me all the Important Things) and met Shuji Kashiwagi, the disciplined, honest-to-a-fault, and understated teacher. And quite honestly? One of the best of them all.

Our introduction to Shuji Kashiwagi is a rocky one. Bolting out of his bed half-naked, he suddenly realizes that there’s something other than him in his bed—a woman—no, a girl. Someone who slept the night, but that he definitely could not remember. Flustered, he hands her the key to the flat, already halfway out the door in his rush to get to school on time for opening ceremonies. It was the first day of school, and as a teacher, he couldn’t be late.
Haruma Miura as Mr. Perfect
As soon as he steps onto school grounds, it’s clear that he’s a favorite all-around. The veteran teacher teases him about his dashing looks, and student chatter reveals that he and the beautiful Uemura-sensei (Toda Erika) are the school couple. It seems all too good to be true, and this is when the drama part of J-drama kicks in: the girl that he woke up with is a student in his class.
Of course, at this point, it’s hard not to feel slightly disgusted by Shuji’s character. He carries on as he always does, knowing that he personally has no feelings for his student, yet not wanting to cause trouble for anyone, or hurt his fiancée, Natsumi Uemura. The student threatens him with a picture of his slumbering face on her cell phone, seeming to enjoy watching him squirm and keeping him on his toes as phone calls and memos for meetings trickle in. He has to let himself breathe a sigh when he finds out that the call from a parent was about their kids are having sex—they wanted him to address sexual education in class. And his students snapping their cell phones shut in unison as he walked into the class was because someone had left death threats on a fellow student’s profile page. Somehow, he pushes his personal turmoil aside, and manages to speak of sex in the classroom:
“I think that you can have sex at any age. But know, that when you have sex, your relationship changes. You will change something irreversible in your partner.”
He also has something to say about facing one’s punishment and not running away no matter what: After finding out that the one who cyber-bullied girls was in fact her friend, he insists:
“The best thing you can do is to come to school tomorrow. Do not evade her, or any of your classmates. That, I think, is a form of commiseration.”
And although this comes at first as empty words, even only a couple episodes into the drama, Shuji shows himself to be a man who is selfless, if cowardly, always weighing his options and ultimately insisting that he must admit to his ‘crime’, even though he does not remember actually sleeping with his student (albeit, waking up with her in his bed is incriminating enough). In fact, he remained adamant about revealing the truth even when his fiancée wanted to simply put it behind him.
And what’s more—despite his hypocritical words to his students in the first episodes, he bears the taunting and disrespect of his students with his head hung once he is found out, (relatively quickly—this drama certainly doesn’t waste time). He even goes as far as to acknowledge his own two-facedness, when the viewer can very well see that he’s just trying too hard to be the best person he can be. As many characters around him remark, he’s ethical to a fault. Straight as an arrow, and never wavering.
Hikari Saeki (Emi Takei), the student Mr. Perfect
seems to have slept with
A character like Shuji Kashiwagi is refreshing on several levels. First, as his primary purpose as a male lead—seldom in J-drama do we see a love interest who is as completely and utterly… nice as he is. This is probably why the ‘third wheel’ arc of the story doesn’t have to last nearly as long as it does in other dramas—because, not only is the third wheel character equally as genuinely caring as Shuji (in fact, his only fault is that he hasn’t known her for nearly as long as Shuji has), but the female lead, Natsumi, has no ‘psychological-trauma-caused-by-the-callousness-of-her-lover’ to recover from. Hell, not to give away too many spoilers, but he basically becomes a therapist for the girl who almost ruined his life, and when asked to resign with monetary compensation, demands that he be fired with no monetary compensation instead because he doesn’t see being allowed to resign as proper punishment. And honestly, quite realistic in the sense that he seems like someone who is actually easy to fall for— at first glance, nice, charming, and very easy on the eyes. The majority of male leads in dramas may possess all of those qualities, but peeling away their hardened layers of asshole-esque behavior would have any IRL girl running the other way.
Of course, the fact that Shuji is so faultless can get quite annoying. But luckily, this drama has crafted the perfect Mary-Sue rescue team with characters that are self-aware enough to criticize Shuji and his please-all attitude. And although this puzzles Shuji at first, as when Natsumi’s friend calls him up to tell him that yes, she likes him, but his Mr. Goody Two Shoes act annoys her, he slowly begins to grow from a crowd-pleaser to a man who actually accepts and admits his mistakes and is confident in his judgment in spite, and also because of those mistakes.

Drunk Shuji
The growth and the growing down-to-earth feel of his character throughout the drama is what makes him appealing on a second, and what I think is a more impactful manner for the genre of teacher-student dramas. Shuji Kashiwagi is no model teacher, although he tries so hard to be. He imparts what he thinks is the best advice, and often, it is, and truly, he hopes his students will do well in life—better than he has done for himself. When he is discovered doing something wrong, he bows his head and bears it— no complaining, no horrific fits of anger when everyone else has left the room. It’s a simplistic tactic, but it works, and his strange brand of resilience is what makes him such a sympathetic character. Because there truly are so many ‘phony’ people, (and I’m not sure whether it was the real world or the J-drama world that taught me this) his kind of honesty is much more palatable to the viewer. Shuji Kashiwagi is a man like every one should try to be… someone who is trying to be someone greater than who he already is. And truly, this kind of attitude does, despite the initial taunting, whispering, and even a punch or two, earn him the respect of the students. They realize that they listened to Kashiwagi-sensei not because he was just a cool teacher with good looks to match, but because he was unrelentingly honest with them when they asked their questions, admitting his mistakes and showing them that they were his equals in life.

Shuji and his fiancee Natsumi Uemura (Erika Toda)
And truly, the fact that he goes through just about every teenage quandary, from (not really) sleeping with an inappropriate partner to facing the possibility of having a baby out of wedlock while school administrators and parents breathe down his neck, it’s no wonder that students do in fact see him as an equal by the end of the drama. His failures are what make him relatable. The drama that he faces is in fact, very similar to what they must face in their everyday lives.In fact, simply giving the teacher a life and problems outside of those in the classroom and between students gives him so much more depth than most of the teachers in the same category. The fact that this drama goes to the trouble of showcasing Shuji not only as a teacher, but as a boyfriend, fiancé, and the object of unrequited love just further shows his dedication to his job as a teacher and caretaker of his students. After watching this drama, I came to realize why those other teachers from all of those other dramas spoke words that grew stale if you listened for too long. They only existed in the context of their student-teacher relationship, only in the very two-dimensional space of my computer screen. They held no life (or only very superficial, cartoony lives) outside of what they did in the classroom,) and whatever they preached, though morally correct and often persuasive, never seemed quite as convincing as Shuji when he spoke, because we, the viewers, got to spend so much time with him outside of the context of his school teacher role and know that he was not just a teacher, but a person. And perhaps, that’s what makes his parting speech with his students all the more moving as he makes an analogy between scaling a rock wall and life (yes, leave it to J-dramas to come up with the most wonderful analogies.)

Oh, and since he’s a biology teacher, he starts with a wonderful philosophical comparing humans to animals. Good stuff:

“Most animals act on instinct. They already know how they should live. They don’t need guidance. But humans aren’t this way. Humans are confused. That’s why people learn things and imitate others. For instance, if you stand in front of a rock wall, you watch how others before you climb it and try to do the same thing.”
A student asks: “Sensei, what are you talking about?”
“Right. That’s sort of random. Then, let’s talk about your futures. What I wrote on your [career path guidance] papers is meaningless. You can tear it up. Your future won’t be guaranteed even if you get accepted to the college you want. The truth is, you future will be rocky. Even for me, I don’t know what will happen to myself. Honestly, I’m scared. But let’s go back to what I said about the rock wall before. Let’s say when you start climbing, the guy before you falls off. You’d be scared, right? You might be afraid you might fall too. You might be afraid you won’t be able to go back. You wouldn’t be able to take another step. But the man who failed might actually be hanging in there. And even though he’s hurt, he’ll try to find another route, and his life will be okay. If you learn that, you might think, “I guess he’ll be fine. Alright then. Why don’t I give this a try and see what happens? And you would take that next step.””

Cheesy? Yes. Said by any other teacher-in-a-J-drama giving a speech, I would not have blinked an eye. But given the circumstances, I actually found it quite effective. And as if I haven’t already given away just about everything—this is interesting in that this is one of the few dramas where although the ‘star’ teacher is leaving the school for good, he reassures the students that he will again, be moving on with his life. It’s a nice touch once again (although it was somewhat necessary for the conclusion of the larger, overarching romance) to see him actually doing just that—getting a new job and a new life, all with a bright smile and new found faith in himself.

Of course, I will acknowledge that this was not a ‘teacher-student’ drama—Taisetsu was a romance, and is very much sold as such. However, the way that the teacher-student aspect of it played out reminded me of what irked me about teacher-student dramas, and I would really hope that this more human element is something we could see integrated in such dramas in the future.

After all, I love this character. Shuji Kashiwagi’s character made the otherwise possibly 'meh' story for me. His struggles, which ultimately embodied a good man trying to become a better man and really, the best man he could be, is something that is both admirable and easy to root for. Shuji Kashiwagi’s stands and stumbles show that there is really only a thin line between being two faced and being in the process of becoming a better person, and the difference is simply whether or not you want to become what you preach.

Of course, props to Miura for pulling off his first adult role and for Toda as well, as both of them played off each other surprisingly well. And if this wasn’t already TL;DR for you, please leave me a comment below! What do you think about the drama if you have seen it, what you think of Miura’s character, (is he as hot as I think he is? Harhar.) Do you know any too-perfect-to-be-true people in your life? Your thoughts about anything remotely relevant are welcome :)

P.S: I know I sound like I totally just want to sing my praises for this drama in this post. But I promise, my complaints are yet to come. I have a backlog of negatives for this drama, (starting first and foremost with the horrendous use and overuse of grossly imappropriate background music) but for now I want to focus on this.


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