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Friday, Jan. 4, 2013

"Eiga: Suzuki Sensei (Suzuki Sensei)"

TV teacher drama suffers transition to big screen

Nearly all Japanese commercial movies are adaptations of one sort or another and many can be enjoyed — or at least understood — by those ignorant of the original. Which make good business sense on the producers' part: Why limit your audience to fans of the original comic or novel, especially when your film has made a hash of its story?

Eiga: Suzuki Sensei (Suzuki Sensei) Rating: (2 out of 5)
A new lesson: Hiroki Hasegawa plays the titular teacher in "Eiga: Suzuki Sensei," based on a TV series that was in turn based on a manga. © 2013 "EIGA: SUZUKI SENSEI" SEISAKU IINKAI

Director: Hayato Kawai
Running time: 124 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Jan. 12, 2013
[See Japan Times movie listing]

However, film adaptations of hit TV series, such as TV Tokyo's 2011 school drama "Suzuki Sensei," are often feature-length episodes of the show that use the same director and much the same cast, as well as the same TV-style acting, camera-work and editing. There may be more money on the screen, as well as a story more ambitious than the TV norm, but for the uninitiated the experience is often akin to walking into a party of strangers just as the big raffle prizes are being handed out. What, one wonders, is all the shouting about — and who cares?

Based on Kenzi Taketomi's comic, the award-winning TV series and film both center on the title teacher (Hiroki Hasegawa), who is in charge of a second-year class in a middling Tokyo junior high. Instead of the sneering delinquents or preening bullies found in so many local school dramas, Suzuki's young charges have been familiar types in real-world classrooms here for ages (or maybe it just seems that way since they are wearing the same sober school uniforms of their parents and grandparents).

Also, instead of fantasy figures who are either devils (the psychotic sensei in Takashi Miike's "Aku no Kyoten [Lesson of the Evil]") or angels (the ever-enthusiastic hero of the iconic TV series "Sannen B-gumi Kinpachi Sensei"), Suzuki is a mix of the pure-hearted idealist and the fallible flesh-and-blood male.

He diligently prepares his lessons and earnestly agonizes over student problems, even the most trivial, but at night he also dreams of erotic encounters with Somi Ogawa (Tao Tsuchiya), the cool-headed class beauty — and wakes up in a sweat meant to inspire laughs. Undercutting the yuck factor of this unseemly (if harmless) obsession is Suzuki's marriage to the angelically even-tempered Asami (Asami Usuda), who responds to his shop talk as a fully equal partner, not a convenient ear.

All of this, save the pervy crush on the student, made me want to like "Suzuki Sensei" as a rare life-as-it-is view of a typical Japanese school. Instead it reminded me of the 1960s American family sitcoms in which everyone was a bit goofy, but basically nice, and the crisis of the moment was tidily resolved by the last commercial, complete with a moral obvious to a 10-year-old.

In "Suzuki Sensei," the plot at first centers on busy preparations for a second-semester culture festival and a school election that turns contentious when a weirdly prim and chirpy female teacher (Yasuko Tomita) announces that everyone will be required to vote — and a serious-minded boy in Suzuki's class mounts a rebellion, arguing that such compulsion is undemocratic.

Just as this slim story is wending its way to its foregone conclusion, a subplot about two under-employed OBs ("old boys," or graduates) who look on enviously at the carefree existences of their juniors from the vantage point of a nearby park, takes a violent turn.

The resulting theatrics and heroics are straight from a manga all right, but not the one Taketomi created, with its naturalistic incidents and dialogue. Instead it's the sort with panels of knives flashing and kicks thudding, while opponents floridly speechify.

This showy insertion, which the producers may have considered stronger box office than the series' comparatively low-key dramatics, kills the movie — or rather its credibility as anything but cartoony entertainment. Suzuki may be a lot of things, including a good teacher who knows that the job is more about listening than lecturing. But Spider-Man he isn't.

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