Oh for the love of...well, I mean come on! How many school dramas am I gonna come across? Don't answer that. Japan is in love with the school-based drama and this time they didn't pull any punches and just called the show SCHOOL!! (スクール!!). As you can probably assume, this is very familiar territory but it ever-so-slightly manages not to fall into the been-there-done-that pile largely due to strong performances. Still, this drama won't set the world on fire.
Naruse Seiichiro (Eguchi Yosuke), is a man just brimming with personality and beloved by his co-workers in the underground tunnel construction business. He knows how to run a crew and he's great at what he does. Professionally speaking, things seem to be as they should until he and his crew get the news that the company has gone bankrupt. Naruse is now without a job but luckily his unemployment is short-lived as he is soon approached by a friendly face from his past. Takeichi Mikihiro (Kishibe Ittoku), used to be Naruse's teacher in his elementary school days and asks Narsue to take over as principal at his old stomping grounds, Shingu elementary. Having no prior experience in being a principal or working at a school, Naruse takes the position in order to fulfill an old promise to Mikihiro and hey, let's face it, the man needed a job. He takes up room and board at Mikihiro's house, alongside Miki's two daughters, Kanoko (Kitano Kii), a teacher-in-training at Shingu elementary, and Yuriko (Horiuchi Keiko), who's currently separated from her husband. The teachers at Shingu are a bit hesitant to take Naruse seriously as the new man in charge and reluctantly find themselves following his orders. Naruse may not have any experience in this line of work, but he certainly brought his passion and free-thinking to an otherwise sterile, by-the-numbers environment. Kirihara sensei (Nishijima Hidetoshi), is one teacher in particular who seems completely at odds with Naruse's manner of running things. He basically disagrees with everything Naruse deems right and assures the new principal that his methods will be his downfall. What a delightful man.
Sure it's a pain having to deal with subordinates who don't respect or understand you, but the real problem here is the 5th grade class. To say this class was troubled with some nasty, unruly child-demons would be an understatement. Of course they're not all horrible, after all, there have to be one or two that are bullied. That's where Hara Shoko (Arakawa Chika), and her two cohorts come in. She makes sure that there is always one student in class at a time that is referred to as "kuki" (air), meaning that whoever is air doesn't exist. They aren't seen and always ignored. Oi, kids can be so cruel. Shoko is a total nightmare, but she isn't the only source of trouble in this class. Naruse, with Kanoko almost always by his side, have to tackle a number issues; bullying, both amongst students and towards Ohashi sensei (Tsukamoto Takashi), a boy who doesn't eat lunch with the other kids because he can't afford to, a girl that tries her best to be an ideal student but suffers on the inside due to family issues, and most importantly, the future of Shingu elementary due to budget cuts. All of this while having to manage the personalities of the teachers working under him, parents who don't understand him, a school board who also question his decisions and his own inner demons that continue to haunt him. Talk about having a lot on your plate.
SCHOOL!! has to be one of the more frustrating dramas I've watched in recent memory. Not because it was terrible per se, but because of the obstacles Naruse's character had to overcome to get things done. Yeah, I know there are cultural differences going on here that my American butt isn't used to having to deal with, but I admit that and there were times in this series where I wanted to pull my hair out. The bureaucracy that they portray in SCHOOL!! (and other J-dramas) can be infuriating for those unfamiliar with it and some of my Japanese friends have told me it's only slightly exaggerated. So while it may drive you insane, I guess it helps in creating more drama right? Anyway, let's not get too heavy with a show review. Make no mistake, Eguchi Yosuke, as the passionate protagonist, is the real star of this show. He plays principal Naruse with a warmness that makes you really believe in his fatherly sensibilities. He's also cool in the sense that you wish you had a principal like that when you were in grade school. He deals with a lot of crap with the teachers and students, but there's also a small side-story about his own family that is quite touching when fully revealed. Naruse's mentor, Miki-chan (as he prefers to be called), is also a great character that Kishibe Ittoku portrays in a way that makes him fun to watch and listen to. On the other hand, I found Ohashi to be an irritating character because he was so weak and pathetic to the point where you almost stopped feeling sorry for him. I understood what they were trying to do with him, but he just came across as, well...pathetic. Kirihara was a character that served to stand as the complete opposite of Naruse, the yin and and yang situation, but he was so one-note and robotic that he just annoyed the heck out of me. By the time they told me what his deal was, to make him so cold, I didn't really care. Too-little too-late, and it didn't really excuse his behavior. Kitano Kii was her bubbly and charming self as Kanako. A bit annoying and nagging at times, but more cute about it than bothersome. I should also point out that while I absolutely couldn't stand the 5th grade girl, Hara Shoko, I'm willing to say kudos to young Arakawa Chika for creating a character so vile, that a grown man like me wanted bad things to happen to her. The sign of a true villain. She did her job well.
I can't really say that SCHOOL!! was a great drama, mostly because that horse has turned into a fine mulch at this point due to the beating. However, there are some character highlights and some performances that are fun to watch. There's also a lot of frustration as well but it's as if the creators knew this and made it only nine episodes long. If you haven't gotten your fill with school dramas, then I suppose you can check this one out. Otherwise, just leave well enough alone. (Lee)