You’ll have to forgive me for thinking that Suugaku Joshi Gakuen, the winter 2012 J-drama starring the girls of Hello! Project, had anything to do with Majisuka Gakuen, the TV vehicle that was part of AKB48′s rise to fame. After all, Hello! Pro had been dragging their feet for years, and if you do anything that has a similar title to something AKB did, you’re going to get compared to AKB (end of story), and even fans with basic “I took Japanese class for a semester until I gave up” knowledge can see that both shows had something to do with an all-girls school. In Majisuka, a student named Atsuko Maeda (played, cryptically enough, by the real Atsuko Maeda) battles her way past the growling, snarling yanki ranks of Majisuka Girls’ High until she becomes queen of the school. On the surface, Suugaku looks to follow the same premise, as Nina Machida (played by Reina Tanaka, where at least they try to do a little wordplay with her name) challenges her way to the top by battling other girls … at math.
So at about 10 minutes in, I nicknamed it “Mathjisuka Gakuen” … not knowing what I was really getting myself into.
I think, yes, on a basic structural level, both shows are similar: lead character must fight various challengers of increasing difficulty in order to become WINNAR OF TEH SCHOOL. Of course in Majisuka Gakuen 2 this formula is turned on its side a little bit, as Atsuko goes on a soul-searching journey while various factions of rival schools compete on a more chaotic battlefield. But what also links the different series together is the amusing incongruity of “Idols Doing Un-Idol-like Things.” I know a d00d who also follows Japanese entertainment in general, and while he’s not into AKB on a SERIOUS level, he’s actually seen bits and piece of Majisuka Gakuen and gets a lulz out of it because the girls are taking on a role you wouldn’t expect from them. And just as you wouldn’t expect sugary-voiced kawaiiko idols to be fistfighting badasses, you wouldn’t expect them to be math geniuses, either. (Coming IN JAPAN in Fall 2012: Momoiro Clover Z are auto mechanics! No, I’m only kidding, yet I wouldn’t be surprised.)
But where the Majisuka franchise started to collapse in on itself is the way the final story arcs would always take themselves SUPER SERIOUSLY and we’re supposed to learn some important lesson about the value of friendship, believing in yourself, and living life whole-heartedly with a “maji dayo” (YES RLY). It also pulls that Anticlimactic Cryptic B.S. (in BOTH seasons) where the huuuuuge fight everyone was waiting for never actually happens, because everyone had a personal epiphany instead and then Atsuko just walks away, or something.
Take Suugaku, on the other hand, which never tries to be more weighty than it is—a goofy half-hour drama about cute schoolgirl idols being impossibly talented math whizzes. Where Majisuka would have glacially paced slow moments of deep personal reflection, Suugaku skips along merrily, tossing math concepts and proofs at us that are actually true. And we’re not just talking stupid Dora the Explorer textbook math—they cover topics that go all the way up to college-level 20th-century math! It’s like, there’s basic geometry and probability stuff for warmups, but then they start throwing the brainteasers at you, like game theory (Prisoner’s Dilemma) and the Monty Hall problem, and the final fight [SPOILER ALERT - and HEY, at least they actually HAVE a final fight] involves the fricking Peano Axioms! Let’s put it this way, I did Engineering Math all the way up to graduate school and I NEVER even had to touch the Peano Axioms because that was Mathematician’s Math. The only reason I know what it is, is because of a book I’d read in my spare time.
So I’m more forgiving towards Suugaku‘s formulaic plot because it has ACTUAL stuff to occupy one’s brain in the meantime … as opposed to vague self-help mumbo-jumbo about taking life seriously.
But here’s the other thing that sold me on Suugaku Joshi Gakuen. Hello! Project girls can actually act. (About as well as teen/twentysomething idols can act; obviously I’m not expecting Sir Laurence Olivier here.) You know how in Majisuka Gakuen there’s that bumper card at the start where they say “Sorry for the shitty acting, just pretend this is a school play”? Then you start to realize that, aside from moments of genius like Rena Matsui’s role as a laughing psychotic killer, this is actually mostly true. Majisuka is campy in that awkward, feel-kinda-sorry-for-the-actors way; Suugaku is campy in a fun-loving, we-know-it’s-silly-so-let’s-ham-it-up way. And eventually I realized why:
It’s a side of Hello! Project activities that I don’t really follow (I’m more in it for musics and photobooks), but those girls are in stage plays constantly—it seems every season there’s a new promo poster going around about how Berryz and °C-ute are traveling back in time as legendary warriors or Erina Mano is going to be Hello Kitty assisted by S/mileage. Sometimes they even cover the rehearsal footage on Hello Pro Time! And being surrounded by veteran actors as part of those stage productions, they surely pick up a few legitimate tips. So while the all-H!P drama may suffer from cheap visual effects and a terrible time slot, its cast actually brings genuine acting experience to the table.
So think about that the next time Reina Tanaka is chewing up the scenery as a slobby, mentaiko-bread-loving high schooler. (At the tender age of 22 lololololol.) Mathjisuka Gakuen and Majisuka Gakuen are both cheesy as hell, but in the math school we see girls taking on that cheese with confidence—they’ve done it on a theater stage, and they can do it in front of a camera. I guess to a REAL actor who acts in REAL shows it’s all equal crap to them, but when Tanaka finishes that final proof with a flourish and that mischievous, self-satisfied smile of hers, you can’t help but be caught up in her charisma.
Even when they’re just pretend ones on TV, the saying holds true. Smart girls are sexy.