A while back, I finished Great Teacher Onizuka with some of my friends. It is an anime that centers around Eikichi Onizuka, a 22-year-old ex-gangster who decides to become a teacher with the primary motivation of hooking up with cute, barely legal high school girls. He uses his unconventional and often illegal teaching methods to inspire his class of delinquent students to understand the value of learning and respecting teachers. This leads to a fairly straightforward but enjoyable comedy series that involves Onizuka tackling each student’s individual issues one by one as he slowly wins over the class and the audience. It’s a fun show and a classic anime comedy, a nice 7/10.
And that’s… pretty much my review of it. I planned to write something on it but, no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t bring myself to think of anything to say about this series. Yes, it’s fun, it’s enjoyable, Onizuka is a great if sometimes mildly reprehensible character. It harkens back to a 90s style of anime comedy with a good focus on its large cast of characters and manages to make Onizuka himself fairly respectable despite his outlandish methods. The art and animation are some of the worst I’ve seen in a while but they don’t detract from the fact that the content itself is pretty solid. Despite the fact that it is nearly as long as Clannad, I even recall getting through it much more quickly, so I apparently enjoyed it enough to not notice its length. Overall, a pretty decent show. All mild positives with few great, terrible, challenging, or offensive elements.
So I started racking my brain and thinking of what I could say about this show. Weeks passed and GTO started to gradually fade from my memory. One day, while I was driving home, Heaven’s Drive by L’Arc-en-Ciel came up on my Spotify playlist. The series was already fading from my memory but as soon as that revving engine and those first familiar guitar licks came streaming out of my speakers, it all came flooding back. Every moment of the show, all those late nights hanging out with my friends, I felt like I was experiencing it again. Suddenly, GTO meant something to me now and it became an anime I can truly respect and look back on fondly. It’s a bit funny because I remember thinking, “Oh no, not this again,” whenever my friends would suggest watching it. I would almost always rather do something else, but now I can only look back at the series with a nostalgic affection, like an old friend I don’t see too often. Times with Onizuka weren’t always the best but I really appreciate having gone through it.
Another strange thing happened when I got home and looked up the series online. Turns out the original opening only played for the first 16 episodes of its 43 episode run. Despite it being the song I most associated with the series, that brought my vague memories of it rushing back, Heaven’s Drive wasn’t even played for half the show. I found that extremely surprising considering how much that song represents the show and how I felt like it was there all along. Without even looking up the lyrics, Heaven’s Drive feels like a much about freedom, bikes, and, well… driving. It feels like Onizuka’s personal theme and it makes perfect sense to play it at the end of the series. The second opening, while decent, feels like much more of a stock song that, while somewhat representative of the series, doesn’t elevate it in any way. I actually knew of Heaven’s Drive before watching the show but my appreciation for both the song and the series was much lower until I started associating them together.
This is something that I’ve realized over the years is very important for a work, a recurring musical motif. It could be any song but, in an anime, an opening theme tends to stand most out for the audience. There are plenty of anime with great songs that represent the show, from Yu Yu Hakusho to Puella Magi Madoka Magica to Blood Blockade Battlefront. Those series have openings that people remember and that perfectly encapsulate the tone of the show in a quick couple of minutes. Compared to something I recently finished, Keijo, the difference is unbelievable. Not only is that opening unmemorable and tells me next to nothing about the show, it is actively annoying. If anything, listening to it will drive me away from the series and give me a worse impression of it. Songs are an especially subjective art form but I think most people can see the value in most of these other openings over something like Keijo’s.
The thing about people is that we tend to enjoy things more the more familiar we are with them and this is especially true for music. Repetition is boring but reinforcement leads to wholes that are greater than the sum of their parts. A theme that captures the feel of a series inspires emotions in the viewer that make them recall the series itself, all of the times, good or bad, and allows people to gain a greater appreciation for series as a whole. If it’s a song people like, they will listen to it over and over again, keeping the series fresh in the viewer’s mind, resulting in more thought and discussion. And revisiting a repeated motif later in the series is a technique that elicits powerful emotions in the audience and is both effective and very easy to do. So now, by simply having an opening (or ending/recurring motif) and playing it again later, the series has brought things full circle. It has created nostalgia for itself, implanting it in the viewer’s mind, and ensuring a lasting impression. When coupled with the fact that, due to time constraints, people tend to listen to individual songs much more often than they watch individual anime, a strong score that will keep people coming back over and over again keeps the series in people’s minds and increases its likelihood to remain popular long after its run and have enduring success with possible sequels down the road.
I feel like, much with animation, it’s especially telling when works have particularly good music. Obviously, budget restraints and talent play a big part in the production quality of a series but quality aesthetics is more telling than people might think. After all, if a story is good and people want to tell that story, it’s likely that there will be a lot of money and support project. Whether because of the passion behind it or because of the production itself, series with exceptionally good or unique music and animation tend to be worth watching and often excel in other areas as well.
Additions like this may seem unimportant. It’s very easy to slap on whatever J-pop song is trying to climb the charts at the time, but a carefully constructed opening theme, tailored to suit the anime, really drives its creators’ goals home in the minds of the audience, creating a timeless classic instead of a flash in the pan.