Japanese High School Kids vs. Alien
Adapted from Yusei Matsui’s manga, Assassination Classroom is a sci-fi coming-ofage story with everything on the line.
B ased on a manga by Yusei Matsui, the series Assassination Classroom (2015) lasted only two seasons, plus two feature films and a spin-off series — a short run for a property that’s proved so popular.
The premise is weird, to put it mildly. A staggeringly powerful alien (voiced by Sonny Strait) destroys 70% of the moon, leaving just a sculpted crescent. He announces he’ll do the same to the Earth unless humanity agrees to certain odd conditions. The Alien demands to be made the homeroom teacher of class 3-E at Kunugigaoka Junior High, where the local school administrators warehouse low-achieving kids. If the students can contrive to kill the alien before the end of the academic year, the planet will be spared and the kids will share a ¥10 billion reward. If they fail, Earth gets blasted to smithereens.
The junior high students are somewhat nonplussed when they learn they’re pawns in an interstellar game. They dub their alien teacher Koro-sensei, a play on the words korosenai (unkillable) and sensei (teacher). Koro-sensei looks too ridiculous to be menacing. He’s Day-glo© yellow, with a grin that suggests a toothy version of a ‘60s smiley-face button. His tentacles make him look like a cross between an octopus and a tassel. But it would be a mistake to dismiss him as a comic figure: He can move at Mach 20 (fast enough to pluck bullets out of the air), he’s immune to all poisons and can’t be harmed by ordinary weapons.
Violent ex-delinquent Karma Akabane (Austin Tindle) and small, quiet Nagisa Shiota (Lindsay Seidel) emerge as the leaders of the class, although they can’t come close to damaging Koro-sensei. But as the kids search for a way to do in their teacher, they grow too fond of him to want to hurt him. Like Eikichi Onizu- ka, the thuggish ex-biker in GTO: Great Teacher Onizuka, Koro-sensei conceals the soul of a warmly caring pedagogue beneath a bizarre exterior. As he teaches, he finds his students’ hidden potential, raises their test scores and builds their self-confidence, often without their realizing what’s he’s doing.
The feature 365 Days’ Time is a kind of “Greatest Hits” compilation from the broadcast series. Now grown up, Karma and Nagisa revisit their old school. They walk the grounds, explore the rooms and reminisce. Their recollections of the singular year they spent under Koro-sensei’s tutelage allow the filmmakers to re-use numerous clips from the TV show. In a protracted flashback, the two men tearfully recall how, despite their reluctance, they followed their beloved mentor’s instructions and killed him — before a laser satellite vaporized everything in the vicinity of the school.
Nagisa, who had to deliver the coup de grâce, was so impressed by Koro-sensei, he became a teacher — the highest compliment any student can offer. Karma is a bureaucrat: He told Koro-sensei that the quietly competent bureaucrats managed to keep Japan running after the Fukushima disaster, while the ineffectual politicians postured and dithered.
What makes Assassination Classroom more interesting than many other school comedy-adventure series is the blunt condemnation of the notoriously high-pressure Japanese educational system that lurks just beneath its silly surface.
Starting in elementary school, Japanese kids are subjected to an unforgiving regimen of study, memorization, cram school and parental pressure. A child’s future rests on a series of all-important exams. Children who do well and get into top-rated high schools and colleges can look forward to high-paying jobs in big corporations, universities and government ministries. Children who fail may be shunned by their former friends as they face a future of lowered expectations and limited possibilities. Japanese parents, especially mothers, have a reputation for mercilessly goading their offspring to perform. Every year, children unable to endure the pressure suffer breakdowns and even commit suicide.
Koro-sensei’s unshakable belief that all his students can succeed, despite the “loser” label stuffed-shirt administrators have affixed to them, feels more Western and suggests the traditional program may gradually be giving way to a more humane approach to education. The feature 365 Days’ Time will appeal primarily to fans of the TV series who want to see Koro-sensei one last time. Viewers curious about this outré saga will do better to watch the series, episode by episode.
Funimation is also releasing the two live-action films of Assassination Classroom. At least in films with budgets this low, Japanese effects artists don’t seem able to integrate a CG character convincingly into a live-action scene. Koro-sensei looks like a plastic toy who’s lit differently than his students. The figure is also under-animated, and goes dead when it holds still. At the crucial moment when Nagisa has to kill his beloved sensei, he seems to be stabbing a volleyball with a face painted on it. Viewers should stick to the animated versions. ◆