Thursday, March 26, 2015

Majisuka Gakuen 4

Between seasons of American and British tv shows, I oftentimes pick up a Japanese drama or two.  Way back in late 2010/early 2011, when I first started following the Japanese pop group AKB48, I read tons of online recommendations urging people new to the group to watch the drama Majisuka Gakuen. I decided to give it a try and boy was I blown away! At the time, I was used to seeing idol groups play innocent, princess-like characters. In Majisuka Gakuen, the girls of AKB48 portrayed "yankee" high school students, a term which in Japan refers to a delinquent. The all-girls high school named Majisuka houses some of the roughest and toughest yankee students in the area. And while they often fight territory wars against other high schools, there is nothing more interesting than the fight for the top within the school itself. 

The first Majisuka Gakuen featured many of the most prominent girls in the group back in 2010. Its sequel, Majisuka Gakuen 2, had many of these members return with new girls, (who were being touted as the "future" of the group) also being introduced. Majisuka Gakuen 3 took place in a prison and diverted completely from the storyline that had been introduced in the school setting. Majisuka Gakuen 3 wasn't too popular so for the 4th installment, the producers decided to move the setting back to the school and have the girls play student delinquents once again (instead of just you know, delinquents).

From left to right: Magic, Bakamono, Otabe, Yoga
Majisuka Gakuen 4 is set at Majisuka Academy, which houses quite a rowdy bunch. Many "graduates" (older members of AKB who were in the first two seasons) make appearances in the 4th installment and each one declares that they are proud to have graduated from the toughest high school around. Sakura is a new transfer student to the school who is intent on taking the top. But it's not as simple as beating everyone in the school. Majisuka has a power structure in place - the toughest group is Rapapa. It's made up of 5 members, each with incredible fighting techniques. The four heavenly queens guard the steps that reach to the top. These queens are Bakamono (lit. stupid thing), Yoga, Magic and Otabe (name of a souvenir shop in Kyoto). Sakura must defeat each queen in turn. Only once she defeats them all and climbs up to the final step can she face the President of Rapapa, the strongest of them all - Salt. 

There are a couple of pretty awesome things about this drama that I want to highlight. First off, there is the fact that, like in all Majisuka dramas before it, each character is given a "nickname" of sorts that relates to their personality in the AKB48 group. For example, bakamono, played by Rina Kawaei is a perfect name for her, as she is known for being none to bright. In fact, it's a running joke in the group and one that Rina herself, embraces. Another really awesome aspect is that the fourth installment mirrors the first very much. In the first drama, Atsuko Maeda, then ace and center of the group was the transfer student. Now, it's rising star Sakura Miyawaki. The four heavenly queens of the original Rapapa were also each talented in their own way and there was a rival school in the form of Yabakune.  In Majisuka Gakuen 4, we have Gekioko rising to the challenge (although Yabakune makes an entrance at the end - what?!) For someone that has followed the group and watched each installment, these parallels are very fun to watch. The fight scenes have improved drastically from the other 3 seasons although some of the acting is still quite bad. While Majisuka Gakuen 4 has serious plot holes and issues with the flow of the story, I found it enjoyable overall and liked that it ended with an opening for a 5th installment to the series. 

Salt on the left, Sakura on the right
My favorite characters in the original were overwhelmingly Gakuran and Gekikara. They are two of the coolest characters the Majisuka series has produced. But for MG4, we have Salt who is played by Haruka Shimazaki. Salt is soooo cool! Acting wise, I felt like she was the best. Her character just oozed charisma and her fight scenes were always extremely enjoyable. I loved that she seemed bored with being the top because no one proves to be a challenge for her. She wants to feel the pain of defeat in order for her to regain her drive, her inner determination. Sakura seems the only person that can relieve her of her boredom and this is something that Salt points out often. Instead of being really horrified or offended when her queens lost to Sakura, Salt was excited. She was just all-around a well thought out character. Unfortunately, her counterweight, Sakura is not developed nearly as much and I found it extremely hard to be on "her side." In fact, the entire time I was rooting for Sakura to lose (except in that fight against Gekioko). Speaking of Gekioko, my 3 other favorite characters came from the rival school. 

Kobii, played by Miyuki Watanabe was second-in-command in Gekioko and is known for being quite sadistic. She actually schemes behind the scenes and adds a new layer to the storyline without which is would have been extremely bland. Kurobara and Shirogiku join her as my 3rd and 4th favorite characters. I don't know, I guess I have a thing for crazy, scheming, psychotic characters (explains my fascination with Gekikara in seasons 1 +2 ). I honestly think the reason these characters stood out to me is because they're the ones that I could truly honestly see as young delinquents. Kobii has her scheming, Salt her extreme strength, and Kurobara and Shirogiku are just crazy, taking pleasure in hearing the screams of their injured opponents. This gap between the nice and cute idols and these crazier, fight-obsessed characters is what really pulls me into the story and I felt like these 4, by taking it to the extremes, really brought the story to life.

Overall, the drama wasn't horrible, but it wasn't all that good either. If you're looking for a serious drama with fighting high school girls included in it, don't pick this up. The Majisuka series is made primarily for fans who can overlook a lot of the sub-par acting on the series. It's after all, a series used to develop the girls' acting skills. For a fan, it's a pretty fun watch. But it's not as if non-fans can't also enjoy it. If you're willing to overlook some of the bad acting, try watching the original Majisuka and work your way through the series. Each "season" per se is quite short so it's easy to marathon it all. Feel free to skip the 3rd installment however, it's not really necessary to watch in order to understanding the inside jokes and references made in the 4th installment. The ending is not really much of an ending but more of a "to be continued" episode. It was interesting nonetheless and I liked that Yabakune made an appearance. It's great to see that Mariyagi (AKB48 member) arrives as the new leader of Yabakune when she was introduced in MG2, where she was a "general" of the then-leader Shibuya. I honestly can't wait to see what season 5 brings and instead of tons of new characters, I really hope they develop the characters already introduced in MG4. 

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