Eikichi Onizuka is a thuggish 22-year-old biker who mysteriously decides to take up teaching. His main motivation appears to be the chance to ogle schoolgirls, but surprisingly he proves to have a flair for the job. Admittedly his methods are liable to involve sledgehammers, karate, doing dodgy deals with his students and/or peeping up girls' skirts, but in his own deranged way he gets results. He means to become the world's greatest teacher. His pupils think he's nuts. His colleagues' opinions are, uh, mixed. However Onizuka doesn't care, or possibly even realise. You'd need a nuclear strike to force reality into the skull of Great Teacher Onizuka.
My first response: "Bloody hell, this looks awful." In fairness the artists are just being faithful to the manga, but at their worst these character designs look like Beavis and Butthead. However one can get used to anything. After a few episodes I stopped noticing the visuals and just got on with enjoying the show.
There's a lot to love here, but by far the most fundamental is the title character. A karate-loving biker who wants to teach so he can meet schoolgirls? Uh-huh. His friends aren't too sure about this either. Fortunately Onizuka's shameless lechery is just one facet of a half-witted, reckless and surprisingly compassionate idealist who could rival Kodocha's Sana for the title of anime's most dynamic personality. The man's a freak! He always has his students' interests at heart, but he has absolutely no decorum, restraint or self-control. Even after you think you've got used to him, Onizuka's antics can have you scraping your jaw off the floor about twice an episode. Guaranteed to overturn any situation, he couldn't behave normally if you stuck a gun in his mouth. I'm in awe. He's wonderful.
So far, so goofy. Anything starring Onizuka would automatically be laugh-out-loud funny and frequently ridiculous given the situations he lands himself in, but the show also has a realistic edge. It's a feelgood series, partly because it's optimistic but it doesn't flinch from portraying the worst of urban life in Japan during the economic depression. Pregnant thirteen-year-olds. Bullying. Child suicides. Organised crime. Creepy stalker teachers.
Onizuka's pupils are pretty fucked up too. His unique educational techniques are what they needed, since their collective dysfunctions make our hero look almost normal. There's a perverted schoolgirl on a power trip, blackmailing teachers into licking her feet. There's a manipulative sadist driven crazy by her own genius-level IQ. Those are just two examples. Collectively they're frightening, hatching plots far more devious and intimidating than mere violence. Onizuka takes them on and makes them better people, one by one... the timid ones gain confidence, or the aggressive ones become calmer. And only a soulless bastard wouldn't shed a tear for Tomoko Nomura.
Unusually, Great Teacher Onizuka was a manga and a live-action TV show before it became an anime. It even has a couple of lesser-known prequel manga series, dealing with the likes of Onizuka's own high school days. Altogether this franchise has the original manga, 12 regular live-action episodes, a two-hour TV special, a theatrical movie and of course the anime I'm reviewing here, which is effectively 44 episodes long instead of 43 since its first episode is double-length.
The ending is fairly apocalyptic. The world may not blow up, but people do things that can't easily be undone. This is a strong show, with art as rough-edged as Onizuka himself but full of energy and bite. It can be shocking, hilarious, tragic or the coolest thing on the planet, as Onizuka does something no sane person could have imagined as the kick-arse incidental music starts playing. It's ugly, silly and heartwarming all at once. It's a deliberately unpolished series that certainly won't play to the Cute Brigade, but I think it's astonishing.