Cover of the first volume of Dragon Zakura manga
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The scene: a highschool gym which also serves as assembly hall. The hall is filled with rowdy students.  A stranger takes the podium. No-one pays him the slightest attention. He stands there gazing around at the chattering students. “Why don’t you say something?” asks a girl at the front, “you peed in your pants?” “Teachers are teachers, students are students. Pay attention to what I have to say, damn you!” he shouts. The crowd goes silent.

“You all look really stupid. You are going to be losers all your life! I mean, you will be cheated and tricked. Society is run by clever people: they make the rules so that they come out winners and you come out losers.  They create complex systems that are deliberately hard to understand, like taxes, insurance, pay scales, especially for idiots like you for whom thinking is just too much trouble! You end up paying your hard-earned money to the clever folk; they will always be taking you for a ride. If you don’t want that; if you don’t want to spend the rest of your life on the losing side, then there is just one way out: STUDY!!! And I’ll tell you one simple way: go to Todai!”

So begins “Dragon Zakura“, the 2005 TBS drama (based on a manga by Mita Norifusa) of a man who dreams up a scheme to save his lawyer business by turning around a failing high school that he is assigned to close down, and sending 5 of its students every year to the most prestigious university in the country – Tokyo University (Todai).

The series gives an interesting insight into the realities of high school life in Japan, as well as common attitudes towards education and society. I found Sakuragi’s attitudes and values refreshing: he hates the word “gambare”; he refuses to run after tearful students who run out of the classroom; he frequently makes bets with others about student outcomes; rather than supporting students with “encouraging” words, he prefers them to face reality as quickly and directly as possible; he believes, and tells students, that society is run by the clever, who make the rules and exploit the others; if students want to change this, they have only one choice: educate themselves.

The strongly individualist and rational lawyer Sakuragi Kenji himself takes on the job of teaching the “special class” (those going to Todai) , as no-one else in the school will take the responsbility. In the process, he comes up against a lot of opposition: from the other teachers, the students themselves, the chair of the board of governors, and the students’ parents. Each of these people or groups of people represent different philosophical positions; they act as philosophical “foils” for the lawyer Sakuragi, and help to clarify the principles his values are based on.

Here are a few points of opposition. The interesting thing about these is that they are mostly drawn from “mainstream thinking”; they represent the “norm”, the majority opinion, the accepted wisdom of today.

  • “Adults should always praise students/children”. Sakuragi’s communications with his students are frequently shouted and often contain the word “idiot!” (In a scene with the students’ parents, he challenges them on their ways of raising their children.)
  • “Teachers should devote themselves to students and do whatever is necessary to help them learn”. This is a recurring theme, and a sentiment frequently repeated by Sakuragi’s unwilling assistant (or slave), Ms Ino. Sakuragi has occasion to throw back at her her own phrase “my beloved students” in a manner which makes clear his contempt for people who use such expressions. At one point he asks, “how long are you going to go on helping them? After they’ve graduated, even?”
  • “An attractive school (i.e. a “good” one)  is one which respects students’ individuality and develops their humanity, empathy and kindness”. This sentiment is expressed in similar language in just about every school’s prospectus around the country. Sakuragi pointedly asks the teacher who proposes this kind of educational philosoph what her particular value as an educator is – her individuality? Her humanity? As she stumbles for an answer, Sakuragi dismisses her proposal as vague and such thinking as partly responsible for bringing about the school’s ruin. She demands to know what HE thinks would make the school attractive to prospective students, and he replies “getting 100 graduates into Todai.” Education is a business, he states, and figures prove competitiveness.
  • “Adults should not raise false hopes in students but should keep their ambitions realistic”. Sakuragi – people underestimate students and then they can’t see their unlimited possibilities.
  • “Heart is more important than the head.” There’s  a scene where the students get emotional and angry and confront Sakuragi. His response: “that’s right – let yourself be ruled by your emotions. That’s the way to stay stupid and exploited like you have been up to now!” This is unusual for a Japanese drama, in my limited experience: most of them rely on sentiment to attract viewers and create the dramatic highlights (when this series was on telly 4 years ago, I ignored it, thinking it was another one of those sentimental school stories filled with the usual platitudes about “sentiment is more than skill” or “heart is more important than academic knowledge”.  (Tangential point: a commenter to a review of a book about problem-solving for Japanese teenagers pointed out some revealing sentences in the foreword to the Japanese version; the sentences reveal a common Japanese attitude towards logical thinking).
  • “Sympathy, empathy, supporting each other (i.e. the group) is more important than personal desires or ambition.” In one episode, the students rally round to help out one of their number whose single mother is hospitalized. Ms Ino, predictably, thinks it’s a noble gesture. Sakuragi is not impressed and worries they will merely waste time that could be more profitably spent studying. Contrary to his nature, he is strongly tempted to intervene, but decides against it, well aware of the risk. The arguments pro and con are discussed in two separate conversations Sakuragi has with a couple of teachers.
  • And of course, almost everyone in the drama is intimidated by Todai’s reputation. Sakuragi knows differently. First, Todai these days is not that hard to get into (Sakuragi has done his homework and has the numbers memorized). Secondly, he has little respect for those who are intimidated by reputation: “Most people in Japan suffer from ‘Todai disease!'” he sneers.

The bulk of the series describes the various scientific methods, tricks and tips that Sakuragi and his cohort of eccentrics lay out as a year-long plan of study for 5 (later 6) students who, for various reasons, decide to take up Sakuragi’s challenge (although acceptance of his plan is conditional on getting at least 5 students, he does not make it easy for any of them and lays out their choices with sometimes brutal frankness). The series developed a cult following, and the Mita, author of the original manga, came out with several follow-up books on how to study effectively. The TBS drama starred the 6′ 5″ model and actor Hiroshi Abe as the charismatic Sakuragi.

The DVDs on sale in Japan only have Japanese subtitles (of course), but someone has kindly created English subtitles and gokuesen2gokusen kindly uploaded some (first 3 of the 9) episodes to YouTube. Click the link below.

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