God of High School

April 19, 2024 · 0 comments

By Andrew Osmond.

The God of High School is an unusual, perhaps even unique anime, set in Korea, with Korean heroes, a Korean director, and based on a Korean comic. At the same time, it’s unquestionably anime, produced by Tokyo’s famed MAPPA studio. It did much to establish MAPPA’s reputation for frenzied action anime, and it’s a direct precursor to MAPPA’s subsequent hit, Jujutsu Kaisen – which would be started by the same director, Sunghoo Park,

The set-up of God of High School is comically generic. It’s set in the present-day world, but a world where “God of High School” is a massive martial arts tournament. Its contestants are super-fighters at a level you’d expect in a Shonen Jump comic, and its hero is a Shonen Jump type, too. He’s Jin Mori, a scatty, impulsive, good-natured bonehead who’s first introduced oversleeping on tournament day and having to race there on his bike – a situation that puts him in madcap adventures before he even enters the tournament. Equally naturally, he quickly bonds with two more contestants, a far more serious boy (Dei) and a fearsome sword-swinging girl (Mira).

Naturally, there’s more story than that, some involving the youngsters’ respective backgrounds, and signs that there’s more at stake than a mere world tournament. While the original God of High School strip brings in a plethora of different mythologies from around the world, it’s notable that the story hinges on a particular trickster hero who’s iconic in both Japan and Korea, but who’s originally from China. (And if that’s not enough of a clue, then the same trickster also underpins the Dragon Ball franchise, and older British viewers may know him through a live-action Japanese TV version from the 1970s.)

Still, much of God of High School’s appeal comes from its unabashedly stripped-down set-up; a big tournament with big fights. In that way, it’s like another South Korean strip that was adapted into anime, Tower of God (whose premise is “hero fights his way up an endless tower.”) Both series were the result of a partnership between the American company Crunchyroll and a massively popular Korean online platform, Webtoon.

As explained in this blog’s earlier write-up of Tower of God, the Webtoon platform publishes South Korean comics (manhwa) online to be read on smartphones. It’s been available in English since 2014; by 2022, its readership was reportedly 89 million active users. The God of High School strip can be read for free here; its author is Yongje Park, who’s no relation to the anime’s director Sunghoo Park.

In a video interview, Yongje Park says that while he was influenced by a range of media, videogames were a key inspiration. “When I was in middle school and high school, I was obsessed with Tekken, The King of Fighters, and Street Fighter the most. The character designs alone opened a world of imagination. ‘Why did this character join this tournament? What kind of past led this character to use this martial art? This character is really cool – what martial art is this?’ Such thoughts led to inspiration for working on The God of High School.”

On the anime side, one of director Sunghoo Park’s influences was an anime space adventure. This was the 1980s saga Macross – both the original TV series and the film, Macross: Do You Remember Love? That led him to move from his home Korea to Japan to study, and to enter the anime industry. His director debut was a 2017 anime fantasy-action series, Garo: Vanishing Line, also made by MAPPA, but God of High School would put Sunghoo Park on the map. He’d go from that to the first season of Jujutsu Kaisen and its hit cinema prequel, Jujutsu Kaisen 0. He’s since left the franchise; the director’s next series will be Ninja Kamui, in February.

Sunghoo Park is known for his dazzling fast, fluid fights. He’s a fan of Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Ninja Scroll) but he also credits an unnamed director for moulding his style. “There’s a director who really influenced me a lot, and that director’s storyboards too… For action scenes, they were super detailed. Like this happens, then this and this, broken up into frames. For me, they were really easy to work with… It was super easy to understand what needed to be done. It really affected me. So when I do storyboards… the action, the characters’ movements, I’ll draw out each and every one. If I run out of space, I’ll draw rectangles on the side and use those to keep drawing. It’s really a lot of work, but I think it’s also the period that’s the most fun.”

There are also parts of God of High School which bring in motion capture for greater realism, specifically for the fighting in part ten of the series. Sunghoo Park’s comments suggest he knows this could draw ire from purists. “I know how (anime) is usually drawn, but that versus filming martial arts experts… the reality that brings, I really wanted to express all of that. So the timing of 2D, the way that it’s always been drawn, the reality of the martial artists’ action; if you mixed those together, what kind of thing would it turn into?” The motion capture was created not at MAPPA but at the Sola studio, with stunt performers depicting fight schools such as taekwondo (Mori’s style) and taekkyon.

One point of trivia; the American President in the God of High School anime has a different model from the one in the source strip. In the strip, you can guess the President’s real-world model from his name, President Oba Mashariff. However, by the time the anime came out, times had changed, and the President is modelled on… Marvel’s Iron Man, as portrayed by Robert Downey Jr on screen. The character is voiced in Japanese by Keiji Fujiwara, who dubbed Downey Jr in the Marvel films. He also voiced Mira’s uncle in God of High School, while you may also know him as Holland in Eureka Seven, Maes Hughes in both versions of Fullmetal Alchemist, and the big-chinned sage student Higuchi in Tatami Galaxy. Tragically, Fujiwara died from cancer in 2020, aged just 55.

To date, God of High School and Tower of God are the most prominent examples of South Korean strips, or manhwa, being turned into anime. In some ways, it’s strange that this hasn’t happened more often. Both K-pop and K-drama have been exported to Japan with massive success, and manga and anime have been adapted in South Korea – you can find the Korean live-action Boys Over Flowers on Netflix. However, the anime industry is already so stretched with adapting Japanese properties that it may not look further afield. Or perhaps there’s a fear of consumer resistance – that a section of the Japanese audience may reject manhwa adaptions as being “not really anime.”

For the time being, webtoons are often sourced for live-action K-dramas, several available in Britain. Netflix has numerous horror series such as All of Us Are DeadHellboundSweet Home and the medieval-zombies saga Kingdom. Other webtoon adaptations on Netflix include D.P., a drama about police catching army deserters; the ensemble drama Itaewon Class; the romcom Business Proposal; and the office series Misaeng: Incomplete Life. The fantasy-action series Island is on Amazon Prime. 

As of writing, another high-profile webtoon adaptation is streaming – Solo Leveling, from a hit strip on the KakaoPage platform (a rival to Webtoon). Will Japan raid the bottomless well of its neighbour’s comics on a bigger scale? We don’t know yet, but the format’s riding high in the world, and it may climb still higher. Perhaps it’ll end up so big that anime can’t afford to ignore it.

Andrew Osmond is the author of 100 Animated Feature Films. God of High School is released in the UK by Anime Limited.

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