Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Identifying with a Dark Lady

Japanese soap operas differ from their American counterparts in a number of ways. The most obvious distinction is the fact that all of the Japanese ones are miniseries, i.e. they only last one season. If a certain drama is particularly popular, a sequel may appear at a future date, but the single-season run always has a very definite beginning, middle, and climax. That usually means plots that are far more solid and less convoluted then the on-and-on-and-ongoing American soaps. Sure, most Japanese TV dramas are rather cliche love-triangle stories, but a lot of them are very unique and interesting. Some are just plain bizarre.



My wife almost always has one particular drama that is her soup de saison, so to speak. I tend to be rather apathetic toward them. However, every once in a while one of the networks puts on a drama that is either so interesting or so audacious that I wind up getting wrapped up in it. That has happened again recently, and this particular drama is as disturbing as it is entertaining, particularly because of the unique relationship my wife and I have with it.

The name of this drama is "Jo'ou no Kyoushitsu" (女王の教室, lit. "The Queen's Classroom"), and it was apparently taken from a novel. It centers around Ms. Akutsu, a female elementary school teacher who seems to be quite literally a Dark Overlady from HellTM. She dresses all in black, keeps her hair tied up so tight you could bounce a 100-yen coin on it, and maintains an icy glare that would freeze the blood of a balrog. When she walks into the classroom, you can almost hear minor chords and Latin chanting in the background. (In fact, come to think of it, sometimes you really do!) To say that she runs a tight ship would be an understatement. She is ruthless and cruel, particularly to the girl who is the drama's #1 protagonist and anyone who befriends her. However, at the same time she strangely dismisses with icy contempt the class screw-off, a boy with attention deficit disorder (among other problems) who is the show's #2 protagonist. Malevolence personified, some of the things she does are unbelievable in their sheer audacity. While her fellow teachers constantly try to get her to lighten up, first with rhetoric (that only gets them frosted in return) and then with underhandedness (which creates more problems than it solves), Ms. Akutsu drives her charges mercilessly. Any attempt to impress her or get a speck of warmth out her ends in cryogenic doom.



The girl who is the primary target of her wrath has a strong personality and is a natural leader type. Not willing to take Ms. Akutsu's cruelty sitting down, she and her friends are constantly trying to come up with ways to defy their Dark Overlady. It never works. The Black Teacher from GehennaTM seems to have an almost supernatural knack for figuring them out and turning their plots against them. Most of the time the lead protagonist just winds up giving her famous look of imminent doom:



However, Ms. Akutsu always seems to keep turning out to be right in the end. Even her most unbelievably sinister acts have a tendency to come out for the better, with someone learning a very valuable life lesson in the process. The harried students finally figure that out when the Dark Overlady is finally removed, not because of the various machinations of the students and faculty but because of a mysterious illness that has something to do with her shadowy past. As soon as Ms. Akutsu is replaced by one of her more typical, kinder, gentler (and more indulgent) fellow teachers, the students realize just how much they've all grown thanks to the Dark Overlady and try to get her back. In the end, they realize that Ms. Akutsu showed them far more genuine love than anyone else on the school's faculty.

That was the original series. The sequel has just come on, and this time the main point is Ms. Akutsu's strange past, when she started out as a more typical, kinder, gentler teacher herself but learned her own brutal lessons the hard way. Even so, as with the first series, there are two main themes that keep popping up:

1. Love and indulgence are not the same thing.
2. There is far more to education than just passing tests and graduating from a prestigious school.

You have to understand that both of these themes run completely counter to the culture of education and parenting in modern Japan. Overprotection and certification without content are the primary name of the game. (I should know. I teach at a "high-level", college-aimed school.) In the first series, the teacher that tries the hardest to bend or break Ms. Akutsu and then finally replaces her (to the students' eventual chagrin) keeps going on and on about how the most important thing for a teacher to do is to "love the children" (i.e. just smile sweetly and be nice to them all the time).

When I heard that, it immediately struck a nerve because Mr. O (among others at the academy) always spews the same line. We've even had more than one very heated argument about it. Anyway, I responded to what that teacher had said by echoing what I'd earlier said to Mr. O, "Love them? How the hell is spoiling them the same as loving them?"

An instant later, Ms. Akutsu said almost the exact same thing, albeit more dispassionately.

This sort of thing has happened to both my wife and I on several occasions.

You see, that's what's so disturbing about this drama. Ms. Akutsu is a dark demon of a teacher (by design, as it turns out) who thrives on cruel and unusual punishment. However, my wife and I keep finding ourselves agreeing 100% with her philosophies (though not necessarily with her methods). As with Ms. Akutsu, in our respective schools we are surrounded by fellow teachers that seem to live in some vacuous idealist's essay collection rather than the real world, and we find that a constant source of frustration. However, the popularity of this TV drama would seem to indicate that there are people out there that think the same way we do. I'll take that as a hopeful sign.

I don't intend to impersonate Darth Vader in my classes, however.

7 Comments:

  • OMG i used to have an english teacher in grade 10 exactly like Ms Akutsu. She was so extremly strict and scary. But it was weird i felt great respect towards her and so did everyone else. I dont know if it was out of fear. But it was definetly respect. As in all the other classes my grade drove the teachers insane, once a group of boys bought fire crackers and set them in class :s...now would the dare to do that in Mrs. Faye's class (my english teacher) hell no!!!!
    Anways i thought she was an amazing person and whenever i needed academic help she was there for me. Especially when i was writing my university entrance essays. im curious though what are the philosophies that you agree with?

    By Blogger saba, at 2:42 AM  

  • You know, especially in Germany we could use Teachers like her. Send her over..

    And same questions what are the philosophies :)

    By Blogger Tanker Angel Nelly, at 7:05 AM  

  • The philosophies that I agree with are mainly the ones I have always stated. I have never agreed with the dumbing down of education that has been taking place in the name of some misguided notion of "humanity".

    Back in the 90s in the US (with me already here in Japan), the Clinton administration's education policy (which was eagerly taken up by the superintendent in Oregon) was one of "encourage, don't correct". Basically, the idea was that teachers, particularly in the elementary and junior high level, weren't supposed to tell the students they were wrong or correct their errors. Instead, they were just supposed to praise them for their efforts (even if they didn't make any). The theory was that such an approach would increase motivation, particularly among lower-level students.

    What they found out was that the reverse was true. Since the students got the same reward whether they tried hard or not, there was basically no reason to try. Academic levels plummeted, and the hideous spelling and grammar that has become so typical on websites these days is pretty much testament to the errors of that whole approach.

    Unfortunately, there is a movement here in Japan (especially in my school) now to adopt such an approach, and they're spewing the same sort of rhetoric. My urgings for them to look at what happened in the US fall on deaf ears.

    Another area I agree with strongly is the statement that love and indulgence are not the same thing. Modern Japanese parents are unbelievably overprotective. We're at the point now where asking 15-year-olds to sleep in sleeping bags in tents sends the PTA into a frothy fit. (Heck, I did that in my elementary school days...in the snow, to boot!) Then there are teachers like Mr. O who think the best way to deal with problem students is just to recite repeatedly the same meaningless "You know you're not supposed to do that," and then smile sweetly and pretend there is no problem. From what I've seen, more often than not the result is that the students have no respect for him whatsoever (sometimes to the point of telling him to f*** off and run away from his smiling face in class. Thus far that has never happened to me).

    When I first came to Japan, I vociferously protested against the sometimes brutal corporal punishment that went on around me. Corporal punishment of any kind is now flatly illegal, and some schools don't even allow teachers to scold their students. Compared with ten years ago, student behavior has become so atrocious that total breakdown of classroom order is now a common occurrence. The main theme behind the elimination of corporal punishment was "violence begets violence" (a cliche I used to say a lot myself, I admit), but bullying among students is actually worse now than it used to be (another theme of that TV drama). While the idealists continue to spew their "love the students" rhetoric, the kids are coming out far weaker and far less capable than ever before. They are also far less capable of dealing with life in general (i.e. a failure of education). That makes me begin to wonder whether doing away with corporal punishment completely was really such a good idea.

    After all, ironically, I have actually been praised by some of the more obsessive members of the "love the students" faction at my school for one extreme act I did last year. I was the assistant homeroom teacher of a class that had more than its share of problem students and was hopelessly out of control. What did I do? When the spoiled brats in the class finally caused the homeroom teacher to break down, I went in there, told the students I had something to say, and then threw a desk across the room. That got their attention. Once I had vented enough anger to calm down, I then said the following:

    "If you were tossed out of this school right now, how prepared do you think you would be to deal with life? What would you do? Would you just sit around saying, 'Mommy, daddy, help me'? Ridiculous. Are you ready to pull your own weight? Think about it, because if you're not, you'd better wake up, get out of your video game and cell phone world, and start looking very seriously at life."

    (Tellingly, Ms. Akutsu gives more or less the same speech to her students in the drama.)

    Anyway, the students' reaction was dramatic. The first thing they did was apologize to the homeroom teacher. Then they got together and solved the problem that had created the crisis in the first place. After that, their maturity level appeared to have gone up several notches. I don't work with those students anymore, but their grade chief says they still appear to have grown since then.

    I can't claim to be a perfect teacher. Not by any stretch. For one thing, I'm too moody and not very patient. However, in this one case, it seems I did the right thing...even if it did earn me the notoriety of being the only Seishin teacher who has ever thrown a desk!

    (Hmm...I seem to have written a whole new post here...)

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 9:41 AM  

  • HEhehehehe u actually threw a desk!!! i sooo wish i was there...omg that would ve been amazing. YEa i remember our grade driving teachers insane, our physics teacher just stood in the middle of the classroom once and started pulling her hair and yelling. Wasnt a nice scene. We had the principle come in, the class was quite while he was there but as soon as he left it all went crazy again. Its so immature and it was so unfair for us students who actually wanted to learn something and paying loads of money to learn something. But it all changed in 11 grade where the split us into three categories the "dumb", "not so dumb" and the "nerds". I was in the "nerds" category. Got me to Canada so im a happy nerd :P

    By Blogger saba, at 1:26 AM  

  • 'I don't intend to impersonate Darth Vader in my classes'

    hmm.. how about Yoda???

    hehe

    By Blogger Robin, at 11:44 AM  

  • Education in America is appalling. I have three degrees and still can't get a job:)

    By Blogger Pa've, at 12:42 PM  

  • Saba
    Yes, I really did throw it. Apparently they put it on display somewhere on the campus so other faculty members could look at it because no one could believe it. (I have a reputation for being mild mannered.)

    What you said about your physics class is one of my pet peeves. Teachers here are no longer allowed to boot out disruptive students, since that qualifies as corporal punishment and is therefore illegal (though I know some teachers that do it anyway). The argument is that, if a student is sent out of class, his right to an education is being violated. However, I have to wonder: what about the other students whose right to an education is being violated by the disruptive punk? Do they not matter?

    (Mr. O and I once had a very heated argument about that. He told me that the bad students needed "special attention", therefore their rights were "more important" than those of the good students. Oh, really? So you're saying criminals have more rights than innocent people?)

    Robin
    Do that sort of thing I will not.

    Pa'va
    It appears to be becoming more and more appalling here in Japan, too. Last year we brought in a new part-time music teacher who came highly recommended by the prestigious music college from which she'd graduated with honors with a degree in piano performance. She turned out to be more or less musically incompetent. I could play piano better than her, and piano's not even one of my main instruments. Needless to say, she didn't last long.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 3:17 PM  

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