July 09, 2012

High school fictions

As Kate recently pointed out, a fictional narrative must have structural integrity in order for the reader to buy into the twists and turns wrought by the author's manipulating hand. This structural integrity matters more than real-world facts. A good example is the "cozy" mystery genre:

Despite their illusory nature, Agatha Christie's carefully planned murders work as stories. The murder plan is the structure upon which each narrative is organized. That structure keeps it from running off into digressive pointlessness and gives the narrative a sense of "reality" even when it isn't much.

Likewise, the high school setting lays down "specific restrictions and expectations"--about what everybody is doing there; why they have to be there--that don't have to be explained. As long the reader accepts those assumptions, the verisimilitude of the setting is practically assured.

This structure becomes problematic when those assumptions strain the suspension of disbelief--as in ageless vampires perpetually hanging out in small town high schools (sounds like purgatory)--or don't quite span the cultural divide.

Imagine a Japanese audience trying to deconstruct the American legal system by watching American cop shows (and then watching Japanese cop shows that try to copy the "look and feel" of Hollywood cop shows). That pretty much sums up the problem of figuring out what's "real" about Japanese secondary education from anime and manga.

As with shows like Without a Trace, Criminal Minds, NCIS and the CSI franchise, Japanese television takes often a barely plausible bundle of facts and situations and expands them into whole genres. What bundles of facts and situations can be quite revealing about the social tensions behind them.

Here are a few examples from Japanese dramas with high school settings.

1. Class

A popular subgenre of teen romantic comedies has a poor student winning a scholarship to an exclusive high school populated by rich snobs (as in Scent of a Woman), and wins the heart of BMOC. The Story of Tarô Yamada cleverly turns this formula upside down: the poor girl falls for the young prince, who turns out to be even poorer than she is.

These rich kids invariably live in gigantic mansions (with butlers and maids) that don't exist anywhere in Japan. Okay, I'm sure there are mansions in Japan, and perhaps some of them have butlers and maids. But I'd expect most mansions, like the most exclusive, private schools, to be managed extremely conservatively.

The flip side of this genre has a rich kid (or teacher) ending up at a reform school at the bottom end of the scale, no more realistically depicted (i.e., in apocalyptic terms) than the exclusive schools at the top of the scale.

The anime version of Gokusen, for example, is about as "realistic" as the genre and plot will allow (it's one of my favorites). But the television version was broadcast from never-never land, West Side Story meets The Road Warrior. It was hugely popular in Japan; I found it too excruciatingly awful to watch.

2. Freedom

I suspect many of these fantasies are shaped by Hollywood's version of the American high school, which, as Peter Payne observes, strikes the average Japanese teenagers as a libertarian wonderland. School rules (kôsoku) govern every aspect of a student's life, in and out of school. Compared to Japan, America truly is the "land of the free."

Most Japanese kids growing up today won't get a driver's license until their late twenties, if then.

There are trade-offs, to be sure. Drug use isn't widespread. The teenage pregnancy rate is close to zero. But bullying (ijime) is a chronic problem. Teachers just putting in the time aren't unheard of either. Which is why a good student who wants to get into a good university will spend hours every day at a cram school, no matter how smart he is.

3. English & Exams

Like Korea and China, in Japan entrance exams are the sole means of determining matriculation at the high school and college levels. Thanks to the mantra that English is a necessity in today's global economy, English shows up big time on those examinations. The problem is that "natural, living English has no place on a Japanese-style test."

The test-based "escalator" system and exams that have little to do with the real world make true study abroad impossible. Spending that much time outside the "system" without falling off the escalator is a sure sign of privilege, extraordinary intelligence, or indifference.

On Japanese television dramas, you know a character is super-smart (well-traveled and effortlessly bilingual) when someone says, "He attended Harvard."

There's a funny twist on this in Strawberry Marshmallow, in which a blonde, blue-eyed girl from England who's grown up in Japan can't speak English any better than her classmates and desperately tries to hide that fact.

4. Switching schools

One plot device that is plausible in Japan but not in the U.S. has the father getting transferred, the mother going with him, and the student staying behind to house-sit and attend school. Parents who have gotten their child into a decent school dare not risk pulling him out. High schools often take borders for this reason, another well-used trope.

This makes the "transfer student," meaning a student who has switched schools mid-term, very exotic and laden with all kinds of mysterious subtext.

Although the vast majority of teenagers attend school, mandatory education ends with junior high. Students can drop out or parents can pull their children out of school without legal consequences. We get a two-for in Cat Street. Keito is both a child star and a hikikomori, who at seventeen is socially maladjusted and barely literate.

It's a cautionary tale and a not implausible one. On the brighter side, off the top of my head, Strawberry Marshmallow (elementary school) and the first half of Clannad accurately depict student life and school government, as does Kanon, despite the fantasy elements. And the anime version of Gokusen isn't entirely divorced from reality.

Labels: , , ,