Dragon Zakura 2 Volume 1 Manga Review
Dragon Zakura 2:
Volume 1 (Chapters 1-7)
Synopsis: Prior to the 2020 Education Reform, “our man” is coming back! He’s the legendary attorney Sakuragi Kenji, who will waltz back to the fallen Ryuzan High School where the students’ academic aptitude is plummeting. In opposition to apathetic students and “The Empress” (Representative of the Chief Director) who wields overwhelming authority, he will start a revolution along with Mizuno, his former pupil. Part 2 of Dragon Zakura, the legendary “manga that will help you pass the University of Tokyo entrance exams” — which helped change the landscape of Japan’s university entrance exams — is here at last! Rest assured, entering the University of Tokyo is going to be a cinch. (Official Crunchyroll Synopsis)
Review (Warning: Spoilers to Follow):
The first thing that grabs you about Dragon Zakura 2 is the antiquated visuals. From women with extra large, defined eyes to men with thick square upper bodies, Dragon Zakura ends up looking like a manga from the late 90’s to early 2000’s. It’s an immediate obstacle for would be readers as the art not only looks outdated but also ugly. The series often contains panels that look outright comical or even off-putting due to the stilted art, taking otherwise serious moments and turning them into unintentional comedy.
It might shock some of you (as it did me) to learn that this manga began publication in 2018, barely two years ago. But once you learn that this is a continuation of a series originating back in 2003, things start to make a lot more sense. Dragon Zakura 2 is in fact the third title in the series, despite the number 2 in its title. Don’t let that turn you away though, as Dragon Zakura 2 makes it easy to dive in, thanks largely to an exposition heavy first chapter.
Dragon Zakura 2 makes it clear in its very synopsis that the series was revived in response to the very real 2020 Education Reform in Japan. Set in 2018, the same year as its initial publication, the first chapter has our main character, Sakuragi Kenji working to adapt Ryuzan High School to the impending reforms. One could perhaps criticize Dragon Zakura 2’s opening chapter for being too direct, bursting with exposition on every page, if it weren’t for the fact that the manga is clearly attempting to catch up new fans and remind old ones of everything that happened in the earlier iterations of the story. Given that over 10 years have passed since the conclusion of Dragon Zakura’s first sequel, it feels practically essential.
My research into the previous Dragon Zakura titles also revealed that the original series was lauded for tackling the Japanese education system, as well as the unhealthy attitude of educators and education boards, of its time. I find it somewhat of an oxymoron though that Dragon Zakura 2’s first chapter so passionately defends holding Tokyo University, the national university of Japan, in such high esteem. When the staff of Ryuzan High School talk about how there are new private universities emerging in Japan and grabbing the attention of students and parents alike, Sakuragi reacts aggressively, stating that Tokyo University is the holy grail and the one institute that matters the most when it comes to showing off a school’s abilities and skills at grooming their students for admission. In fact, this point is so pivotal, Sakuragi repeats it across the first three chapters. One could chalk it up to being the series’ attempt to connect with the original run, which was about helping the struggling school of Ryuzen succeed in producing students brilliant enough to be admitted into the most highly sought after and prestigious national university or the real life value given to national universities.
Still, one cannot help but critique this plot point. As a series praised for being so aware of the flaws in outdated education mentality, Dragon Zakura 2 had the opportunity to acknowledge that it can also be extremely harmful to hold a single, particular institute as the make or break standard. In this way, Dragon Zakura 2 shows its own form of stubborn traditionalism. Then, from a narrative point of view, it seems creatively bankrupt and cliche to copy the original premise rather than offering something new. Yes, this time around, Sakuragi has a new opponent in the form of the acting director, Tatsuno Kumiko, who seems hell bent on dragging down Ryuzen’s reputation for sinister reasons. But it’s still about Sakuragi having to bring the success rate of Ryuzen student’s admission into Tokyo University up from 0, just like in the first series. It makes Dragon Zakura feel like a series trapped in time, unable to truly reinvent and invigorate itself, something that one could already sense from the visual style alone.
As the story continues, Dragon Zakura 2 fluctuates between predictable and dynamic. Chapter 1 kicks off as a predictable establishing segment with a painfully obvious villain. Chapter 2 reveals that the Ryuzen school principal, Okuda Yoshiaki is being bullied and manipulated by the villain and acting chief director, Tastsuno Kumiko. A predictable reveal that gets further steeped in tropes when Sakuragi manages to pull Okuda to their side and stand against Kumiko in a critical vote by showing him a sentimental photo from their glorious past. Chapter 3 is where Sakuragi finally gets to address all the Ryuzen students directly and declare his mission to successfully enroll them into Tokyo University. It’s quite a thing to read as he berates them for settling for ‘mediocre’ universities. His speech does have some motivational and encouraging segments but most of it is him calling them pathetic, dull, slow and openly verbally abusing them. It’s a chapter that again reeks of some age old and restrictive mentality where anyone who falls below the highest of high standards is worth no more than scum. Perhaps this is on purpose, done so to make Sakuragi stand out as an unconventional hero. It does work in selling the shocking and hard hitting elements of the story. On the negative side however, it will likely turn off anyone who has faced similar berating endlessly in life and don’t need to see it in something they picked up for entertainment.
Chapters 4 and 5 are where things finally bloom and show promise for more multi faceted opinions and attitudes. Sakuragi is immediately confronted about his harsh speech by the Dean of Faculty, Takahara Hiroyuki. Not only does Takahara admonish him for setting up a coaching class without consulting any of the board members or teachers but also for the cruel things he said to the students. However, Sakuragi stands tall and refuses to apologize, even going so far as to accuse Takahara of assuming things for his students instead of considering individual needs and deviations. Honestly, while a solidly constructed argument, it can just as easily be redirected at Sakuragi himself for berating the entire student body and collectively verbally abusing them, which is clear generalizing of the student body on his part as well.
Despite Sakuragi’s harsh approach, it isn’t that shocking when two students do end up showing for his special coaching class at the end of Chapter 4 as without them there would be no story. As we get to know these two students, Hayase and Amano, the story also gets a lot more interesting. Through Hayase and Amano, Dragon Zakura is able to address the ills of extremity. Whereas Hayase was raised by a laidback and loving family that never admonished her, Amano was raised by extremely strict and overbearing parents. While the hands off parenting caused Hayase to become goal less, the strict parenting made Amano extremely cautious and unable to take bold actions of his own. As different as their upbringing is, both students now find themselves with a similar mission; to overcome their individual hang ups and aim for an intimidating goal. In a society driven by extremes, this push for balanced parenting is a nice message and change from what has otherwise been a manga steeped in aggressive and extreme message. In fact, the chapter goes on to have Sakuragi explain how his line about the students being dull and slow wasn’t an insult but a statement. That nature intends for young ones to be dull and slow as a cautionary and protective measure to keep them from diving into situations too difficult for them to handle. What Sakuragi intends is for the students to learn how to overcome that built-in natural tendency now that they are approaching decisions and actions that will affect their adult life.
Chapter 6 keeps the adrenaline high as we discover that some of the teachers are also extremely upset at Sakuragi and the school board for letting him jump in and start his own coaching classes. Specifically, two of the teachers feel like their authority and competence is being undermined by his actions. This injects more conflict that is sure to lead to bigger obstacles in the future and makes for promising drama. Chapter 7 is where things get a bit strange again as it seems to almost turn into some kind of infomercial for an online teaching platform called Study Sapari, a real life Japanese programme established in 2017. But this is also where Dragon Zakura 2 shows its more modern ideas as we see Sakuragi explaining to the students that times are changing and they need to adapt to that. It’s a little amusing though to see the younger generation say they were hoping for more traditional teaching and that they expected to be learning from teachers in person through dynamic teaching styles. To watch the older generation launch into an internet and technology praising monologue, when I’m sure most of us are used to the opposite happening in real life, is a sight to behold.
Finally, one of Dragon Zakura 2’s biggest obstacle may be its protagonist, Sakuragi himself who is portrayed as such a headstrong individual that some readers could end up finding him offputting. He has tunnel vision and carries out his decisions without every really consulting or explaining himself except when unavoidable, like the time he approaches the school principal to get his vote so he can get elected as a director on the school board. He is aided throughout the story by a co-worker, Mizuno Naomi. She was the first Ryuzen student to get into Tokyo University thanks to his efforts in the first Dragon Zakura and is now working with him as a lawyer at his firm. He constantly embarrasses her by bringing up how poor her skills were as a student before she began preparing for the entrance exams as a means to inspire others. And yet he never apologizes even when he has clearly upset or embarrassed someone. He is bursting with confidence that heavily borders on arrogance. A likeable protagonist can be crucial to the enjoyment of a story and without access to the nostalgia and rapport established in the earlier Dragon Zakura series, Sakuragi comes off as an overbearing lead. As he does mention that part of the reason he wishes to once again revive the school is to ensure it doesn’t affect the success or reputation of his firm, it makes him come off as selfish as well.
Dragon Zakura 2 is quite an unusual offering in the Crunchyroll manga library line up. It’s a bit difficult to peg the exact audience for this besides maybe those interested in learning about the Japanese education system or a education based drama. Though labelled as a drama and certainly containing a fair amount of it, it’s clear that this story is very Japan specific, addressing and tackling issues that are hyper specific to Japanese society. The general, non Japan dwelling manga reader should be able to derive some entertainment from the dramatic conflicts and more nebulous premise of someone trying to resurrect a failing school. However, Dragon Zakura 2’s appeal is greatly hampered by the outdated art style that often turns ugly and the alienating hyper fixated issues making it less likely to end up on manga fan’s reading lists.
Dragon Zakura 2 is available digitally via Crunchyroll.com.