A look at the works of Japan's master of delinquency
Hey gang, and welcome to the 7th installment of Monthly Mangaka Spotlight, featuring Tohru Fujisawa!
In the world of anime and manga, Tohru Fujisawa needs no introduction. His opus, Great Teacher Onizuka, is an international sensation which has spawned both animated and live-action adaptations as well as an entire continuity of disgruntled youths. The themes of the uncertainty--and perversion--of youth, rebellion against authority, and acceptance of maturity have struck a universal chord that spans cultures and genres. Himself a member of a delinquent “Yankee” subculture, Fujisawa described school as a negative experience, having a great deal of trouble with its rigid structure and teachers who he perceived to be self-serving salary men only concerned with avoiding a bad performance. Like any number of adages about art and suffering illustrate, Fujisawa’s works about the adventures of the Onibaku have a genuineness that can only be inspired by personal experience.
Fujisawa was born January 12th, 1967 and grew up with his family in Hokkaido, expressing an interest in illustration at a young age. A fan of theater and television, his original intention was to work in animation, but his desire for control over his projects eventually lead to his decision to work in manga. At the age of 17, despite fierce objections from his parents, Fujisawa moved to Tokyo to pursue his dream, working for coterie magazines primarily in the genre of science fiction. It wasn’t until 5 years later, in 1989, that Fujisawa was first published under his own name. In 2010, Fujisawa married actress Ayano Kanagawa and the two had a daughter together in 2011. Ayano has since gone on to play leading roles in the live action adaptations of both Great Teacher Onizuka and Kamen Teacher.
Beyond his more popular stories of chasing skirts and schoolyard rumbles, Fujisawa has released a massive number of individual properties over the course of his career. So many, in fact, that it would be impossible to feature each of them in this article. If that weren’t enough, his penchant for crisscrossing plots, leaving and returning to series, and jumping forward and backward in time make his manga more difficult to follow than the Marvel canon and or to categorize in any traditional manner. Fujisawa seems to take a shotgun approach to writing, throwing out a huge number of ideas to see what sticks. It’s hard to argue with his results, but the collateral damage makes it extremely hard to keep track of all of his individual works. Every resource on Fujisawa seems to have three or four manga that the others missed and, as of this writing, I’m still not entirely certain if I have read all of his material.
Much like the previously featured Oh! Great, Fujisawa’s earliest work was in hentai, unlike Oh! Great, Fujisawa wrote and illustrated them under a pseudonym, Mari Aizawa. He built up quite a resume, releasing a number of works starting as early as 1986. There are a few too many to list here, but the curious will find they have been conveniently collected in a single volume titled Tokyo Sex-Y Club. Fujisawa’s first official release wasn’t until three years later, with the one shot Love You, appearing in Magazine Fresh! in 1989, the story of a Hideki Yuu’s attempt to confess his love to his school crush Miki, who has become an idol, forcing Hideki to rob a bank with his friends to win her heart on national television. The same year he published Adesugata Junjou Boy, a four volume series featured in Weekly Shonen Magazine, a comedy following Jun Akaneya, the son of a prestigious family of kabuki actors, whose father enrolls him in boarding school as a girl as part of his training to “master the female form”. Both manga featured tongue-in-cheek humor to match their outlandish premises, showcasing early Fujisawa’s fearlessness as a writer, defying reason in the name of good narrative.
Shonan Junai Gumi was Fujisawa’s first major hit, running for 31 volumes in Weekly Shonen Magazine from 1990 to 1996. The series established two characters who would become the most iconic of Fujisawa’s career, following the rowdy pair of legendary delinquents known as the Onibaku or “demon bomb”, Eikichi Onizuka and Ryuji Danma. SJG spawned an entire continuity now itself old enough to be a college graduate, spanning years, careers, and campuses. Despite their legendary reputation for their fighting ability, Onizuka and Ryuji had but one humble goal: to lose their virginity. Onizuka is by far the more perverted of the two, with Ryuji acting as a straight man in many of their crazier schemes. SJG is equal parts action and comedy, with the duo repeatedly getting themselves into trouble they must fight their way out of in pursuit of beautiful high school girls. Despite its tongue-in-cheek humor, the series has strong themes of personal development, with the Onibaku slowly forced to confront, and eventually accept, the personal responsibility of adulthood. Following the completion of SJG, Fujisawa released a single volume prequel titled Bad Company, which described the rocky formation of the Onibaku and the origins of several prominent characters in the original manga.
With the more mature Ryuji’s quest for personal development--and sex--largely resolved, Fujisawa decided to make Onizuka the sole protagonist of what became his most acclaimed work. Great Teacher Onizuka was first published the year following SJG and Bad Company, also appearing in Weekly Shonen Magazine in 1997 where it made its 25 volume run before “ending” in 2002. Fujisawa claimed his inspiration for the premise came from his own personal struggle with what he described as the “feudalistic” atmosphere in schools and a personal experience he had in junior high with a math teacher who was able to make Fujiwara interested in the subject by showing genuine enthusiasm. Onizuka’s inspiration for becoming a teacher is a bit less idealistic, deciding to pursue the career after encountering a beautiful student who is sleeping with her professor in exchange for good grades. After some extremely unlikely circumstances land Onizuka in a position of responsibility over an infamous class of middle schoolers with a history of driving teachers to mental illness, the rest of the manga follows Onizuka slowly, almost accidentally, winning his classes over despite their attempts to sabotage, disgrace, and even kill him.
After a hiatus from the Onibaku, Fujisawa returned to his favorite characters with a number of shorter, more experimental series. First came GTO: Shonan 14 Days, a nine volume series published between 2009 and 2011 describing the mysterious circumstances surrounding Onizuka’s 14 day disappearance in GTO. The resolution of this spin-off created yet another addition to the canon, the single volume Black Diamond, following Miko and Riko Sakaki, beautiful twins reformed by their encounter with Onizuka who act as the disciplinary committee for their new school. Fujisawa briefly catches up with Ryuji with a single volume one-shot titled Great Transporter Ryuji, which follows his life during Onizuka’s tenure as a teacher, specifically a bizarre incident in which the descendant of the historic figure Ishikawa Goemon—think a Japanese Robin Hood--takes interest in Ryuji as a getaway driver. Rumor has it the series was meant for a longer run, but was discontinued when Ryuji failed to draw the same attention as his more dramatic counterpart. Onizuka has since returned in GTO: Paradise Lost, an ongoing series running in Weekly Young Magazine since 2014, which opens with Onizuka now a prisoner due to an undisclosed event which is slowly brought to light as he deals with life in confinement in his usual style.
During the course of Onizuka’s extended adventures, Fujisawa continued to expand the Onibaku universe with several additional titles, including my personal favorite, Ino-Head Gargoyle, which follows Saejima Toshiyuki, an old friend of Onizuka and Ryuji from SJG. Saejima has become a dirty, but mostly just lazy, cop since the events in SJG and makes numerous appearances over later iterations. His solo series last five volumes, published in Weekly Young Magazine between 2012 and 2014, following his troubles helping a beautiful female escort escape her abusive boyfriend. From there, Saejima is featured in a number of crossovers, such as battling Onizuka for the affections of a female hostess in Goblin Mad Dog and later, inspired by the movement describe in Kamen Teacher, Saejima decides to become a masked vigilante policeman in Kamen Police. A more tangentially related spin-off has since come out titled Shonan Seven, an ongoing series first published in Monthly Shonen Champion in 2014, following Ikki Kurokami and his struggle to be recognized as one of the Shonan Seven, the toughest fighters in the Onibaku’s old stomping grounds of Tsujido High School. Shonan Seven is also unique for being the only series of the Onibaku canon not illustrated by Fujisawa, who writes the manga along with art by Shinsuke Takahashi.
Fujisawa has stated he is very interested in the genre of science fiction and the end of GTO's run opened up the opportunity to release a number of series less rooted in reality. The first was the Rose Hip series, so named for its protagonist, Kasumi Asakura’s rose tattoo, released under three different titles during the period between GTO and GTO: Shonan 14 Days, it first appears as the two volume Rose Hip Rose in Young Magazine Uppers in 2002, then later in 2005 as the five volume Rose Hip Zero in Weekly Shonen Magazine, and finally two volume Magnum Rose Hip. The first arc is told from the perspective of a student and professional panty photographer who aids Kasumi Asakura in taking down a criminal mastermind and terrorist known only as The Goat. Kasumi has superhuman combat abilities resulting from her background as part of an anti-terrorist child super soldier program known only as ALICE. RHZ is a prequel to the original series which reveals ALICE itself to be a terrorist group which brainwashed children with the use of drugs and hypnosis, elaborating on Kasumi’s escape from the organization and establishing her relationship working with the police present in the original series. MRH is the last of the line, following directly after the conclusion of RHR to complete the original story. The conspiratorial nature of the plot isn’t particularly sophisticated, but provides the perfect narrative platform for what is likely a series created to justify lots of panels with girls flipping while firing automatic weapons.
Tokko was another series to rise during the calm period after GTO and remains Fujisawa’s series mostly firmly rooted in the supernatural. First published in 2003 for a three volume run in Monthly Afternoon, Tokko follows a special police task force of the same name which specializes in demon hunting. The squad is comprised of young adults who have awakened supernatural powers somehow connected with the massacre of their entire community 5 years past. Although the existence of the supernatural is hidden from the public, the task force is seeking to stop a potential apocalypse scenario with a literal hole down to Hell that may expand to swallow all of Tokyo. The second half of the manga follows a brother and sister who survived the same massacre but remain independent of the task force, hunting demons for their own sake after discovering they could absorb their abilities if they consumed their flesh. The series has since be reprised as Tokko Zero, an ongoing series first appearing in Heros in 2013, which takes place 10 years after the events of Tokko. Both manga are moody and focus primarily on action, showing a lot of creative panel work, perspectives, and lots of gore. After Tokko, Fujisawa has had an off and on relationship with demon hunters and exorcists, releasing a number of short series and one shots on the subject, of note if Reverend D, which features a talking pig named Damien who hunts demons by scent.
The final manga making it onto the list is Kamen Teacher, a four volume series published in Weekly Young Jump between 2006 and 2007. A movement of masked teachers with exceptional combat ability have cropped up all around Japan in response to the rising number of dangerous delinquents in schools across the nation. In addition to the previously mentioned crossover with the GTO continuity, a sequel titled Kamen Teacher BLACK was also released, extending the series another 5 volumes between 2013 and 2014. This series seemed like an opportunity for Fujisawa to let loose with some of his more ridiculous ideas, such as fighters only striking their opponents with a basketball or fighting indoors while riding a segway. Both iterations also have a definite sense of style, with the masked teacher sporting a black suit and gloves to go with his mask and the students having a number of outlandish hairstyles and accessories to go along with their already distinct uniforms.
Dedicated to his craft, Fujisawa has continued to read a great deal of manga by other authors over the course of his career, with one of his favorites being Shigeno Shuichi’s Initial D, which has had an obvious influence on his artistic style. Even in Fujisawa’s earliest works as he was still developing as an artist, motorcycles and performance vehicles were lovingly detailed and their appearance almost always resulted in a high speed chase, where Shuichi’s influence on Fujisawa’s detailing and panel work is undeniable. Among the many aspects of his work that Fujisawa attempts to remain most aware of when organizing his pages is the concept of hiraki, which places a great deal of emphasis on the first thing the reader sees on each page to set expectation and tone. His use of this technique seems most prominent in his effective positioning of devastatingly funny facial expressions which act as punchlines to many of his ludicrous scenarios. In contrast to most mangaka, who typically use more simplistic facial features during humorous moments, Fujisawa becomes hyper-detailed, illustrating every bead of sweat and fold of skin to make their exaggerated expressions jump out on the page.
Keeping true to his influences in film, Fujisawa has described his writing style as much like directing. He imagines the story together as scenes, which he then deconstructs into a storyboard that then serve as the framework for his later paneling. In terms of writing, Fujisawa stated that the playwright Kouhei Tsuka was a large influence on him, directing the story toward individual and impactful scenes of comedy and drama. As an avid manga reader, he has many sources of influence, but has stated that Otomo Katsuhiro’s Akira was one of his greatest inspirations and changed the way he wrote. Much of his work is centered around creating a very clear image of what he wants in a main character and then presenting them with novel situations which Fujisawa then tries to predict how they would react to. In GTO specifically, Fujisawa stated he would think up a scenario such as a girl handing Onizuka her panties and trying to figure out what he would do. When it comes to plot, Fujisawa does not strive for complexity, instead focusing on creating high stakes situations and allowing the characters to work their own way through scenarios with a satisfyingly dramatic conclusion.
Unfortunately I’m only able to cover about half of Fujisawa’s individual manga properties in this article, but the rest are definitely worth reading. Not included are more manga about even more fighting delinquents, space sheriffs, demon exorcists, demon hunters, baseball delinquents, school clubs devoted to the dutch oven, sex addicts, extremely unlucky detectives, and aliens. Several of these series, in addition to those noted above, are ongoing, which is strong evidence that, at some point, Fujisawa decided to forgo sleep for the foreseeable future. For someone who has become such a singular icon in a particular genre, the diversity of the total body of his work is incredible. Fujisawa has expressed a great deal of interest both in working in mediums outside of manga, particularly his enjoyment consulting for the live action adaptations of several of his series. Whether or not he pursues future work directing movies or television, even he admits that he would likely return to manga regardless of his success. It’s hard to argue with his success and, given the constant flow of new material he is publishing, Fujisawa doesn’t seem short on new ideas.
That’s it for the 7th Monthly Mangaka Spotlight! What do you think? Would you have turned out better with Onizuka as a teacher? Will the poor guy ever get any action? Is the world ready for Fujisawa the director? Tell us about your favorite mangaka and let us know who else you would like to see featured in the next MONTHLY MANGAKA SPOTLIGHT! Here's your hint for our next feature: