A lesson in murder
A teacher travels back in time to discover which of her students killed her in Japanese murder mystery The Greatest Teacher. Producer Tsutomu Suzuki reveals how the show drew on contemporary themes to turn viewers into armchair detectives.
Blending suspense and murder with a classroom setting, Nippon TV drama The Greatest Teacher begins with the death of schoolteacher Rina Kujo. The action then rewinds to a year earlier, as Rina, aware of her fate, determines to uncover the truth about who killed her and try to avoid it happening again.
Produced and distributed by Nippon TV, the series stars Mayu Matsuoka as chemistry teacher Rina, while Mana Ashida plays Kanau Ugumori, a model student in Rina’s class whose life is made miserable by her bullying classmates.
Following the show’s launch earlier this summer, Nippon TV producer Tsutomu Suzuki tells DQ about the origins of the project, the impact of a shock death midway through the drama and how viewers played detective as the series reached its conclusion.
What are the origins of the project?
My colleague Yuta Fukui spawned the idea at an ambiguous time when the Covid-19 pandemic seemed to have settled down, yet there were still uncertainties. Yuta and I brainstormed drama ideas that depicted countercultures. Out of those, we went with the one whose theme was ‘enduring’ and gaining freedom from having to endure or tolerate something. For three to four years, society under Covid was made to do things in certain ways. Protocols and ‘correct ways’ were enforced in schools, societies and companies. It became a stifling world, but we were told that those were the proper ways to conduct ourselves.
Then, around the summer of 2022, that vibe started to shift. As the feeling of suffocation and having to endure was lifting, we wanted to convey the notion that it is OK to say and do what you want. It was this sentiment that inspired the idea behind The Greatest Teacher. Yuta had created quite a few school drama series by then and I had spent my career producing content featuring youth culture. Students and the youth bore the brunt of the pandemic, more so than the adults such as corporate employees, and this was worth focusing on – how they had to endure and eventually gain freedom from what they were enduring.
Adolescence is also a period in life that hits close to home. I had my fair share of woes during those years – losing a parent was one of them – and I remember I had no interest in anything. In those years, I suffered in my boxed-in existence in school and at home. The youth have a small circle that they live in, and throughout my career, I have always wanted to give them something. If I can save someone out there who is struggling and in pain, someone like the person I was 20 or 30 years ago, I will barrel ahead creating dramas even at the expense of my own health.
Who are the main characters and how do we follow them through the series?
Rina is pushed off the school building and killed after graduation, and one of the students she taught for the past year shoved her to her death. This is when the timeline of the story begins. The moment she hits the ground and apparently dies is when the time leap happens, and the story goes back to the first day of classes the previous year. In front of her are 30 students who, a year later, are all suspects in her demise.
Faced with the situation where one of the students will kill her a year from now, what will the teacher think? Our protagonist begins to look at what motive each of the 30 might have to murder her. She is forced to face every student squarely and listen to them intently. We wanted to create a teacher who takes all her relationships with her students seriously.
Each episode also features a student with their own issues and struggles. Episode one, for example, covers bullying in school. Episode two depicts a young carer and a neglectful parent. Every week, a new difficult-to-solve social issue comes up and Rina steps into it. The first time she lived the year, she kept a certain distance in her teacher-student relationships. In round two, she is adamant about helping find solutions to her students’ problems.
How did you want viewers to become detectives themselves like Rina to try to identify the killer?
From the get-go, the premise is that someone will kill Rina in one year. This, combined with the absence of any reason for her to be murdered, already sets the viewers up to become detectives. Then by focusing the spotlight on every individual, we get to see glimpses of their unique problems and seemingly insurmountable woes. Showing wide-angle shots of the students in the classroom also brings out the detective inside. You get to see that each one is truly a unique character with their own thoughts and behaviours, things they are hiding, and interpersonal relationships. The 30 actors are absorbed in their respective characters and have blended well in the school — that’s the look and feel we wanted to create.
What can you reveal about the structure of the show?
In episode six, one classmate dies. This is a shock to everyone and a significant factor in avoiding a lull across the series. If it was all about whether someone would be killed in the final episode, it would have been difficult to keep the viewers captivated. By doing this, we also introduced a new mystery: who killed the student? It also suggests that Rina might also be destined to die – she could still be killed in episode 10. If so, by who? We had planned this from the beginning.
What was the writing process behind the series?
Rina’s story as the teacher in episode one, the shocking event in episode six, and the culprit revelation in episode 10 were finalised early on, but the rest was determined as we went along. As the series aired, we looked at what the viewers reacted to the most in episode one, and took that into account in developing the next episodes. We also wanted the story to run parallel to what is actually going on in the world in real time and be relevant in the times we live in.
The final episode aired on September 23, but the script was finalised only after September 10. Although last-minute adjustments are not uncommon in drama series, this is considered quite tight. We really wanted it to be up to the minute with current sentiments in the world, like which characters draw interest, how viewers feel about them and how they interpret them.
Throughout the series, the students had no idea what was going to happen next and who the murderer was. There was an overall schedule for when the scenes would be shot, but the crucial ones did not indicate which characters would be involved. By keeping it obscure, the actors were not able to decipher the culprit from seeing which characters were together in the important scenes. Even the actors involved in those key scenes were under suspense and suspicious of everything as they acted. The character they were conversing with could very well be the murderer.
All in all, it was vital to incorporate the sentiments of the current times into the story. It needs to reflect what people are interested in. To be able to do so, we need to understand what viewers do not want to see. The Greatest Teacher features issues people do not want to see, or want to turn a blind eye to, like bullying and neglectful parents. But we brought in Rina to give the audience the perspective of a teacher. We also kept our fingers on the pulse of society, trying to understand what it prefers to turn a blind eye to. This allowed us to find issues that society knows it needs to address, but is not facing. These issues became our topics.
Was it a challenge managing so many suspects and ensure they were fully realised characters in the eyes of the audience, each with a motive to kill their teacher?
As soon as the drama started airing, we realised that leaving them alone was more effective in getting the viewers to see all the students as suspicious. The script is almost completely devoid of any instruction to be questionable or to appear suspicious of someone. We left it all up to the viewers to interpret things however they may.
How would you describe the visual style of the show, and how was this achieved?
One big factor was how we shot with three high-quality cameras that normally would not be used for a drama series. The images had a depth and richness you would not see in an ordinary drama. We were also particular about colour grading – at first glance, the look and feel had to obviously be The Greatest Teacher.
Another difference compared with ordinary dramas is the camerawork, which normally would involve handhelds and movement. In our case, that was rarely done as we decided to use mostly fixed, steady shots. This gave it the vibe of a heavy drama and led to a unique feel, so people quickly know which title it is. We were very particular about these elements.
Why might the series appeal to international viewers?
In The Greatest Teacher, viewers will find aspects of Japanese culture that are unique, like our school uniforms and being ‘boxed in’ inside classrooms where they learn all the subjects with the same classmates. Various events unfold in this ‘box,’ which is something you might only see in Japan. The interpersonal relationships that develop under such circumstances are must-see. We tried to depict human nature and emotions in a way that is uniquely Japanese. I believe this drama enables viewers abroad to witness these two layers and realise how in a boxed-in society like Japan, these universal themes also unfold.
The TV industry is facing many challenges – how would you describe the state of the business in Japan and what challenges or opportunities are there?
In the broadcasting business, there are certain obligations and topics we need to touch on, even the ones the public does not want to face, so our task is to develop dramas and entertainment that incorporate those in a way that people can consume. Broadly speaking, there are many social issues, school issues and issues that hit close to home, and we are in a position to offer clues to finding solutions.
I want to trigger discussions and perhaps even get people to consider changing the direction society is heading in. The only place to do this seems with the linear broadcasters. Had The Greatest Teacher been produced by an SVoD platform, I don’t think it would have garnered the massive response it did. Its themes were heavy and, right off the bat, it showed topics that people want to turn away from.
These would likely be modified and the school drama aspect would be portrayed differently [on a streamer]. Instead of suggesting possible solutions to problems and showing that there is a light at the end of the tunnel for a suffering student like me in my adolescence, the priority would likely be on developing the story to best grow the paid subscriber base.
We had no ulterior motive of creating a buzz and generating a huge response, even though that is what happened. All we knew was there are many students out there with certain problems, and we wanted to reach out to them with messages of strength.