35 sai no koukousei is an 11 episodes Japanese drama that aired in 2013 on NTV. It was written by Yamaura Masahiro and Takahashi Yuya, and was directed by Sakuma Noriyoshi, Gaumon Seiichi and Maki Nishino. It stars Yonekura Ryoko, Mizobata Junpei, Katase Nana, Suda Masaki, Yamazaki Kento, and a lot of people really. Just go on the dramawiki page, you lazy bum è.é
The situation in Japanese schools is getting more and more out of hand. Bullying is rampant, many teachers and kids resort to suicide because of the pressure, etc. In the midst of all that, a new student enters the school the drama focuses on. Her particularity ? She’s 35 years old. And apparently on a mission. Maybe. You’ll have to watch the drama to know. It’s not even in the review. I’m not gonna kill the suspense for you. Because I like you.
So I self-convinced me this was a drama adapted from a Minato Kanae novel, like N no Tame ni, REVERSE and Shokuzai (do watch them all)… Turns out it wasn’t. Most probably, I had it mixed up with Koukou Nyushi, because there’s “koukou” in the title, and the poster is high school themed (like the show… “koukou” means “high-school”, so…) (and ”koukousei” is “high-school student”… IT’S ALL LINKED) with a past-30-years-old pretty lady with short hair on it. I’m stupid that way, and easily fooled, please don’t take advantage of it and make me rewatch Nail Shop Paris by convincing me it’s actually a Stephen King adaptation (I mean, NSP does fill my heart with terror, after all). At least, I realized my mistake in episode one, as the drama really didn’t quite feel like a Minato Kanae-adapted drama… but I still stuck with it, because why not, and also I liked the way the female lead made her entrance in the high school. She looked so cool, coming into that gymn, self-assured and unbothered by all the eyes on her. So I thought I’d keep watching her, and see where the drama would take me. I think it was the right decision, as I mostly enjoyed the drama. Mostly.
As the opening sequence reminds us in every episode (I say opening, but it comes at random times in each episode, really, as openings do in Jdramas), the theme of the show is the hell that is high-school. School is a God-forsaken place, hell to kids and teachers. Relationships are shown to be quite shallow, and there’s a lot, A LOT of bullying going around. Seriously. A lot. Bullying, or “ijime” is a recurring theme in a lot of school dramas, Japanese (see LIFE, Ningen Shikkaku, Hana Yori Dango or Nobuta wo produce, as referenced in this drama, which made me go very much “awwww they’re doing the konkon thing >3<”) but not only (see also School 2013, Monstar, Angry Mom, etc), dramas but not only, really (many films on the subject too, one of my favourite being Thread of Lies). You don’t have to go far to see it explored on the screen, because it’s apparently a very serious issue in Japan (and other countries, not only East Asian ones, but we’re talking about Japan today), but I felt there was some small originality here: we had the usual kids-bullying-kids, the usual teachers-being-complicit-by-doing-nothing, the “maybe a little less usual but still seen before” kids-bullying-teachers, and something I feel is less common: teachers bullying teachers. There are dramas about adults bullying adults, but because, in school dramas, the focus is usually kept on the kids, they’re always at the center of all “bullying relationships”, whether they’re victims or persecutors. Now, in the episode focused on the bullied teacher, the kids are still very much part of the equation, they also gave him a hard time and pushed him, but when the teachers try to put all the responsibility and blame only the students, our 35 year old heroin is there to set things straight: the teachers abused their coworker, overworking him, belittling him, harassing him… and blaming the kids is just another form of abuse. I liked that. I liked that the adults (not just teachers, we also have complicit and abusive parents in this) in this show were shown as very active participants in the “bullying atmosphere”, and that they didn’t just fail the kids by standing by, but also by being examples of abusers.
Still, yes, the kids are very much the focus. And our “test class” is divided in castes. Which was taken very seriously, and it was almost ridiculous, yes. They have that website, where everybody is ranked, put into categories, and they have no idea who’s deciding everybody’s ranks, yet they do act on it, it was weird. A part of me really wanted the lead to hire a hacker, and put everyone in group3, and I don’t know, put a chair as class leader, see if that’d confuse the students. Anyway. So we have three castes : group1 are the leaders, the popular kids, they’re calling the shots (at least until the mysterious webmaster puts Mrs Chair in charge) and the main harassers of course; group2 are the “flock”, they’re the nobodies, and the majority of students, which makes them accomplices because they let things happen (and sometimes participate), fearing the consequences of speaking out; group3 are the outcasts and victims. I think you WILL hate some characters in this show. At least I did. Some actors are better than others, but the cast is generally good enough, and so I felt anger towards some characters. To be honest, although violence begets violence and I don’t think an adult (or anyone) should hit a child (or anyone), there were times in this drama I would wish nothing more than for Baba (our lead) to go Yankumi on those brats’ ass, and at least smack them once. Ah wishful thinking… Hum. Back to the review: though the way the castes system was talked about could be a little ridiculous sometimes, I think it was used as a didactic method of clearly showing the viewers who plays what role, and it did the job okay. What didn’t work for me, though, was the “case of the week” format.
We have overarching plot threads, obviously. The bullying issue can’t be resolved in one episode so the class changes through the course of the drama, and there’s the big question of who the lead actually is, for example. But, the drama does have that classic thing where it focuses on one student in each episode, solves one issue, and makes that the reason why more and more student start liking the lead and actually listening to her, which ultimately leads to the whole class dynamic changing slowly.
The thing is, the “case of the week”, when handling such heavy themes, can easily become an issue, and it happens a few times in this drama, starting with episode 1 where the student of the week feels so persecuted, and lonely, and guilty (for reasons I won’t spoil), she’s started to self-harm in a way I won’t tell either, because it doesn’t matter her and it might upset some people. Anyway, she feels broken, and can’t help herself. So when comes the conclusion of the episode, and the lead just… solves it. It leaves a bitter aftertaste. It feels too easy. If it was the Chair, maybe, but there, it just didn’t work for me. I’m not saying there aren’t interesting things in the episode, but it feels too easy, and though we don’t part with the student, and she becomes part of the main cast, the show basically considers that her problem is solved, and it just doesn’t work, not with such a heavy and complex thing. I feel the show wanted to respect its “case of the week” formula and also was afraid to go too dark, and wanted to be uplifting instead, which didn’t work in all episodes. Happy ends sometimes felt too forced, and there are some stupid lines like “all teachers love their students” that are kinda used as “moral of the week” and don’t even verify in the show anyway. Also, to me, there was too much of a lack of consequences and real changes. I was a bit let down by the end. I won’t go into the consequences, as not to spoil, but about those “changes”…
One thing I thought was really cool, was how some characters in the show suggested that maybe the bullying was made worse by the classic school system of having people belonging to one class, versus the university system of people taking some classes, and thus studying with different people each time. That does make sense. I’m not sure implementing the university system would solve bullying (probably not) but I do at least think that putting people together for a prolonged period of time does favor the creation of dynamics that get hard to shake off. Personally, I wasn’t a fan of high-school for example, because (amongst other things)(including the cafeteria food) I spent three years with exactly the same people, and “clans” formed quickly and never budged, creating a toxic dynamic at times (nothing as bad as what this drama depicts, though). What the other side of the argument states, though, is that this system also favors creating relationships with people, and bonding, and is important for kids to learn how to interact and socialize. I thought it was an interesting question to explore, but by the end, I felt the drama was more about glorifying how good the system in place actually is, because loooook, they’re all friends now, and we’ll put lots of over-inspirational music on a mushy and overlong ending to make you cry (which I totally did ><)(#soweak). I sensed a lack of ambition, a lack of actually exploring the question all the way through, and I was disappointed.
Going back to the “case of the week” format, it also forced an “escalation” in the show (well… they could have done without it, but they didn’t). Basically there’s one big theme and that’s “ijime”, and then there are all the cases, that all link back to that theme. It means the show has to find 10 stories about the same thing, but not tell the same story every time. It also goes full force with the first one, so then it starts trying to one-up itself, out of fear of boring the viewer, I suppose. But comes a point where the drama just can’t up the ante without going to ridiculous lengths… which it proceeds to do. And I’m very half and half on that.
To be very honest, some of my favourite episodes are the over the top ones, like the absurd survival camp episode, for example, or the big “trial” at the end. The reason I enjoyed those is because the over the top was kinda fun, but also because it made the “case of the week” thing more okay, I think. The show was slowly removing itself more and more from reality, so there was less cringy moments where reality was badly handled. It felt less serious, whereas when it did, I was questioning a lot of things, like how it was considered good that two friends would resolve quarrels by beating each other up violently (that’s not super-friendship guys, that’s anger management issues o.o). So yes, in a way, I felt okay with the direction the drama took, but… this descent into OTTness also did mean that by the end the drama was harder to take seriously, since the drama itself seemed to have stopped taking itself seriously. Now, let’s be clear: I’m not saying the drama doesn’t have its share of silliness at the start, it never feels realistic, but there’s a very clear shift in tone, I felt, from darker to goofier, and they ended on a “twist” that really made me roll my eyes. How you feel about the shift, and how much, is entirely up to you. Everything you think is up to you, really. It’s almost like you’re entitled to have an opinion. Weird, huh.
Anyway, I rolled my eyes, but still enjoyed the show, and still liked Baba.
As previously stated, at first, I mostly stayed because I wanted to see more of our female lead. Then, I also stayed for other things, but still, I mostly liked her. The Chair had nothing on her. She entered the show like a bad-ass secret agent/super-heroin, and I loved how she just didn’t give a f*** about what other people thought of her, proudly announcing her “Baba” name, despite it being bound to cause laughter (“baba” is a derogatory way of calling an old woman, and her age obviously sets her apart already). There’s a mystery surrounding her too, as we’re shown, in each episodes, scenes of her looking all angsty and reclusive, and they did seem to hint at her being some kind of “special agent”, as in “someone specialized in infiltrating high-schools and setting things straight”. I wasn’t too interested in what all this would lead to, as to me it mostly seemed like a way for the drama to try to have an overarching mystery, and frame its episodes (at the beginning of all episodes, Baba would read a sentence in her secret notebook, and it’d become a theme for the week), but I was still curious enough, and mostly, I thought she had charisma, although she really didn’t have any special abilities. She’s not especially super at anything (in her one Yankumi moment, she does kick a few people’s asses, though), she just has more life experience, and a different outlook on things because of it. I thought she had a nice chemistry with the kids too. I just liked her. And the friends she makes along the way, for the most part. Wasn’t too sure about the male lead though, the new teacher. I’m a little fond of the actor (not a huge fan, he’s no Chair, but I like him okay), but the character annoyed me a lot of the time. He was mostly used by the drama as a way to explain the rules to the viewers, as he had to learn them too, but I don’t feel it was really that necessary, since Baba was also new to all of it anyway. He could be funny at times, and I did like that he evolved during the drama, but he didn’t leave that much of an impact either.
All in all, I did mostly enjoy 35 sai no koukousei. I wouldn’t especially recommend it, though. There are far better shows exploring the Ijime issue, more seriously and more effectively than this one, and I could see this one rubbing people the wrong way or just boring them maybe. There are things to enjoy in it, namely the female lead, the cast, the chairs, and some issues raised by the show (though they’re not all satisfyingly explored after being introduced, at least in my opinion), but still… it’s a forgettable show and I don’t think you’d miss out on much if you ignore it. And now I have to watch Kouku Nyushi. And don’t forget: in the Chair, we trust.