Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Thursday, October 24, 2013

For the Love of Violence

Teen thug dramas are definitely a phenomenon here in the Land of the Rising Sun.  They have been around for at least a few decades, and they are still extremely popular here.  Most if not all of them started out as manga series and then moved to the TV and/or big screen.  Amazingly, they seem to have appeal throughout the Japanese social spectrum; even people who you'd think would be the last to enjoy extreme violence and gore (such as my wife) just thrive on these things.

Though the names and settings vary, the basic premise of teen thug dramas tends to be more or less the same:

  1. The focus is on teens (usually boys, but sometimes girls) with really bad attitudes and some serious issues.
  2. The thugs usually have really obnoxious hairstyles but otherwise wear their school uniforms as if it were their gang symbol...and quite often the war for dominance centers on their school (or between rival schools).
  3. The whole point is to see who can be the "big men/women" by beating the shyte out of everyone else.
  4. Most of the time there really are no "good guys"; pretty much everyone is a hopeless lowlife, though the protagonists usually aren't quite as evil as the opposition.
  5. Pretty much everything is decided through violence...sometimes quite extreme violence involving deadly weapons.
  6. Violent confrontations of some kind happen in just about every scene.
  7. It's not uncommon for characters to get horribly beaten - or even stabbed - to the point that gore flies all over the place and/or they're left looking disfigured, but yet they're usually right back in the action again after a short hospital stay.  It's only rarely that a character dies, and even then it's usually only when that character's death is an important part of the story, i.e. it gives cause for revenge.
  8. Authority of any kind is rare if not absent.  You have the ubiquitous police sirens that bring a particular battle to a halt and send everyone scattering (except those unconscious on the ground), but you almost never see actual policemen.  Even if a punk winds up in the hospital after being beaten half to death with baseball bats, there's never any investigation.  And when things happen on a school campus, you almost never see teachers, and there's almost never any action taken even if thugs rampage through the school smashing things.  In fact, when you do see teachers, they usually just to try to cover everything up and pretend it never happened.  At any rate, no one ever gets caught or punished...except by other gangs.
  9. There never seem to be any parents, either.  Even if a punk winds up in the hospital nearly dead, the only people who show up to visit are his/her friends or girlfriend.
  10. It's also not uncommon for thugs to ambush one character and either beat him unconscious or kill him in broad daylight in front of dozens of witnesses who completely ignore the whole thing.  The sight of a character weeping next to a comatose if not dying friend or lover while the city crowds walk obliviously by is all too common in these dramas.
I'm generally against censorship, but I have to wonder whether these things are really a good idea.  Considering their popularity, considering how impressionable young people tend to be, and considering the tendency of Japanese teens to mimic their idols (real or fiction), how can the companies that produce them not think that kids might wind up emulating them?  And how can they not be required to take responsibility for it?

One of the earliest teen thug dramas I know of is "Be-Bop High School", which started as a manga in the 1980's and later became an animated TV show followed by a live-action miniseries and at least one movie.  When I first started teaching in Japan, I saw lots of boys who seemed to be trying to emulate the James Dean-esque style, the bad attitude, and the violent tendencies of the lead characters.  But that was nothing.  "Be-Bop High School" is actually tame by today's standards, and the apparent effect of the more graphic modern dramas is far worse.

During the last decade, there have been several incidents around the country where a teen gang lured or forced someone into a secluded area and proceeded to beat them to death with baseball bats or other blunt objects.  In almost every case, arrests were made.  Tellingly, the perpetrators in every case were said to be shocked, not only that they were actually caught and punished for their deeds, but that their victim died.  Apparently they thought that their target would be up and about again after a few days in the hospital, just like in their favorite teen thug dramas.  I'm sure the authors and publishers of the latter would say something like, "Dramas don't kill people, people kill people," but is it responsible even to allow it to happen?

One notable exception is "Rookies", a recent and staggeringly popular teen thug drama which has also been made into a live-action TV soap opera and movie.  Unlike most thug dramas, "Rookies" focuses on the reform of a gang of hopeless lowlifes by a teacher's determined efforts to shape them into a school baseball team.  Although there is still plenty of intense and very graphic violence, the whole point is that the "good guy" punks are given a better goal to work toward and, in the process, come to learn to believe in themselves...and to trust each other.  It's a very positive message, especially when we come to learn that the steadfast teacher is actually a reformed gangster himself...with plenty of fighting savvy despite his eternally positive demeanor.  Even so, even "Rookies" has a scene where, while a rival gang rampages through the school smashing windows, doors, and passers-by with baseball bats as they chase the protagonists down with openly murderous intent, a teacher who tries to call the police is told to stop by his colleagues...lest he humiliate the other students !  Even a teen thug drama with such a very good theme still winds up sending another very bad message:  that bad guys will always get away with it.

Is that really a lesson we want kids to learn?


  • Thanks for another reason to stay TV free.

    A long time ago I used to watch a crime drama called "Hagure Keiji Junjoha" with Fujita Makoto playing Detective Yasuura. Wise, compassionate law enforcement and good values portrayed at home as a single step dad raising two teen girls.

    I struggle with the issue of censorship for media aimed at kids, but it is a tough call. Who decides what is or isn't OK? I'd like to see an approach that includes shaming the producers of such material, maybe enlisting idols. (I know, dream on...)

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 6:02 PM  

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