Greetings, Glancers! It’s time for something a little different in the Sh*t I Watch/Used To Watch series as I talk about my love for the first J-Drama I’ve ever really watched. No Dropping Out – Back To School At 35 is as literal a title as you could imagine, as we follow a 35 year old woman who goes back to high school. Her reasons for doing this are briefly explored in the first episode, but her motives and her history are shrouded in mystery and it is only with each subsequent episode that we get a few tantalizing glimpses into why she does the things she does.
But before all that, why did I (and why should you) decide to watch this? As with anything, we’ll need to wander back down memory lane to my childhood. I’ve always had a fascination with Japan, but really this came about thanks to an earlier love of China. In my youth I was a big martial arts fan, and would watch any movie with nunchucks, fly-kicks, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and so on. When we went to the video store every week or so, my parents seemed pretty liberal about what we would select (as long as it didn’t seem like it would destroy us), which meant a lot of action movies, and whatever had a bad-ass cover. Man punching fist through wall? I’ll take that. Ninjas leaping around some high-tech fortress? Yoink. Anything that suggested a bloody tournament, fight to the death, or noble quest for vengeance? Mine, thank you. While all this led to plenty of ‘Don’t Try This At Home (until Mum and Dad aren’t looking)’ activities, it also gave me an appreciation for other cultures, and I was soon reading through my encyclopedias for sections about China, Hong-Kong, Japan and so on. Later I was introduced to Nintendo with my very first NES (then Gameboy, SNES etc) and I further realized that the world outside of my usual haunts, and of what I saw on terrestrial TV was much wider. Watching cartoons on TV I saw that most of the animators were Japanese. My favourite video games were Japanese. It made me wonder what else those guys could do – movies, books, TV, music. Flash-forward a decade and I was teaching myself Japanese, putting pics of the cutest Japanese actresses onto all of my DJ/CD carry cases alongside horror and heavy metal icons, and enrolling in a Japanese course at University to go alongside my major in English Literature.
So, as briefly as possible, I’ve always had a love for Japan – starting off with entertainment and veering off into language and culture. I quickly found a number of like-minded souls who had varying degrees of appreciation for the same stuff I was into – some people loved the movies, some were obsessed with anime and/or manga, others with EVERYTHING. While I would still say that movies are my favourite, with books closely behind, I never really watched a lot of Japanese Television, animated or otherwise. It seemed too difficult to find, and too time-consuming, plus there are still a lot of misconceptions and raised eyebrows when people admit in their 20s and 30s and beyond to watching Japanese cartoons (where I’m from it’s hard enough convincing people you’re not a rampaging pervert for watching ‘foreign films’ or that you’re some sort of weird flag-burning anarchist for daring to expose yourself to something outside the cultural norm). Mostly I’m good with people thinking whatever they like of me, and I’ve never had a problem being the weirdo, but still Japanese TV seemed a step too far when there was still so much in the West I wanted to watch.
The temptation is always there though, isn’t it? Some of my favourite actors and actresses are Japanese, but for many of them there was a large gap in my knowledge of them because they appeared on TV as well as movies. More and more I saw rave reviews about certain shows and they sounded exactly like the sort of thing I’d love. I kept seeing pop-ups for Crunchyroll on various pages I visited. One day, not too long ago, I gave in and decided to visit the site as it claimed I could watch for free. I began searching at random for shows I’d seen, some I’d heard of, and then for some of those actors and actresses. Lo and behold, results pages came back full. I selected a random episode and it began to play in full HD glory with subtitles. Converted. Hallelujah.
Now, with so many shows out there I was a little overwhelmed. If you’re a regular reader here you’ll know or assume that I love lists. Before I do pretty much anything, I make a list. I started googling for best anime, best Japanese TV shows, best Japanese horror TV etc etc. While I was doing this, I happened to catch one show while randomly scrolling through TV shows – a screenshot of your typical Westerner’s expectation – a hot Japanese woman in a school uniform. Being a fan of lurid fantasy, I naturally clicked on the screenshot and read the blurb:
Heads turn and jaws drop as gorgeous 35-year-old Ayako Baba (Ryoko Yonekura) suddenly appears on the first day of Kunikida High. Her fabulous clothes and stunning figure set off a firestorm of speculation. Is she another one of those diva moms!? Or is she a new teacher!? Everyone is shocked beyond belief when they find out that Ayako is in fact a new student!
Before I (finally) talk about the show itself, that blurb did resonate particularly strongly with me (even though it is by no means a good description of the show). I may not be a 35 year old Japanese woman (yet) but I do have a recurring dream where I have to go back to school. I’m aware that this is your typical stress related dream – the more common one is of people dreaming that they have a big exam or test and that they’ve forgotten to study for it (even though they left school decades earlier). In mine I’m roughly my current age and for some reason me, and everyone who was in my year in school, have to return for one final year. It’s totally bizarre, yet uncommonly real – we all wear our uniforms, we all follow the same morning routine. It’s always the first day in my dream, and nothing different really happens – I saunter into the building via the side entrance I always took (I don’t even think that entrance exists anymore as the school had a massive redevelopment shortly after I left), and I always stand at the radiator near the canteen and wait for others to arrive, just like I did every morning in reality. Friends I don’t see anymore, and some that I do, slowly come in and join me and the usual chatter ensues. The dream rarely goes beyond this point, but when it does it always gets further stress related as the bell rings and I’ve no idea which class I’m supposed to go too. It’s interesting because I didn’t ever worry about stuff like that when I was in school, so why should it feature so heavily when I sleep? I’m not even sure I have anything in my life to be stressed about. Also, my sleeping mind does seem aware that time has passed and (even though I haven’t been back to school since leaving) it attempts to imagine the new rooms and corridors which have been built since the redevelopment. Discuss.
The show stars Ryoko Yonekura as the titular mature student. I don’t recall seeing her in anything else, but she does a damn good job here as both the weary focal point for bullies and incompetent staff, and as a sympathetic shoulder to cry on. The story opens with what appears to be the suicide of a teacher, then we get an intro which highlights the troubles of Japanese schools:
Modern high schools are degenerating into lawless wastelands. Vicious bullying. Absenteeism. Depression. Their lives completely at the mercy of the dreaded school caste system. Everyone is driven to exhaustion by playing their assigned role. These apply not only to students, but parents and teachers too. Perhaps, even to school pets in extreme cases. A cloud of darkness, impenetrable by hope. That may be the case, but that’s why we wonder what will a 35-year-old student experience in that endless void?
Ayako Baba is enlisted by a superintendent to infiltrate the school for vague and unmentioned reasons, aside from that she should see what life is really like for kids and staff in school. ‘Students these days have it really tough’ is a recurring phrase. As expected, the school members all think this is bizarre but take it in their stride and soon Baba-chan is doing her schoolwork and trying to make friends just like everyone else.
I haven’t completed the series yet (I’m over half-way), but each episode follows a roughly generic formula – something bad or unusual happens involving one of the students or teachers, and Ayako tries to resolve the problem. In doing this she makes a friends with some, makes enemies with others, and is seen as a nuisance by the faculty. Interspersed are scenes where she meets with the superintendent who appears to be giving her missions and requesting updates, as well as scenes of Ayako sitting alone in a small room, looknig through what seems to be a box of memories. For some reason these scenes make me uneasy and remind me of Audition. I don’t think that is intended – they are meant to be mysterious, but reflective.
So far the show has had some genuinely touching moments, especially when dealing with issues such as bullying and suicide. The show also has plenty of humour and lots of bizarre near breaking of the 4th wall. Certain characters are only there for exposition purposes, but it’s done in a knowing manner with nods and winks which are quite funny. I don’t know yet if this sort of thing is exclusive to the show, or a common feature of dramas. There has not been any romance yet – which is something I had used as an excuse to not watch Japanese TV – I’d heard of so many shows which seemed to just be awkward boy meets awkward girl and awkwardness ensues. If I wanted that I’d just close my eyes and remember my own past. I’ve also no idea how much of what is explored is accurate and how much is over the top. Bullying, peer pressure, cliques etc are always a part of school and suicide is something which is a serious problem in Japan and is disastrously common in my home country too. The cliques in the show are more clearly, obsessively defined than anything I personally encountered. There are three classes – top, middle, bottom basically, with each student assigned a ranking (and staff too). Those at the top are the rich and entitled, and appear to be in charge of the rankings. They essentially do what they want, make everyone else’s lives miserable, and have the teachers jumping through hoops. The middle kids are the generally regular kids just trying to do their work and get through each day, with a few aiming to please to get into the top class, and a few close to slipping further down. The lower class are the ones that everyone picks on. Somewhere however, there appears to be a headphone wearing person pulling all the strings, and they are not pleased with Ayako’s meddling.
I have to say that I am enjoying the show so far. Maybe it’s because it’s my first, or maybe it’s because I can relate to it, but it is a well acted, generally well written, and entertaining (for me) show. I appreciate that only a little of the over-arcing story is drip fed in each episode, and I do feel like I am getting to know the characters in a short space of time. The upper class bunch seem like a sinister group of wasters, their only fun derived from inflecting suffering on others, while the other students have endearing qualities. Nana Katase is good as the gossiping teacher, while her real life (maybe) boyfriend Junpei Mizobata plays a bumbling, weak-willed but good-natured new teacher. There aren’t any bad or annoying performances.
I don’t have much more to add so far (I like the music), but from what I understand there is only 1 Season of the show, so it won’t take me long to get through the remaining episodes. It does feel like something which may get samey over a short space of time, but at the moment it’s pretty addictive. I’d recommend it if anyone is looking for a not too offbeat, not too serious look at high school life from a different perspective. If anything I’ve written sounds like it would interest you, then give it a shot – it’s on Crunchyroll and it’s free! Let us know in the comments if you’ve seen it, or if you think you’ll watch it in the future. And of course, if you have any suggestions for good TV shows, modern, old, Japanese, or otherwise, let me know!