Monday, February 25, 2013

Manga Review: Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei

Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei
  • Author: Koji Kumeta
  • Publisher: Kodansha (JP), Del Rey / Kodansha Comics (US)
  • Volumes: 30
  • Release: 27 Apr 2005 - 13 June 2012 (JP), 24 Feb 2009 - Present (US)

It seems as if humour is different across all cultures, eh?  I mean, look at the anime scene in Japan -- there aren't many examples of comedy anime series I can think of off the top of my head.  As in good comedy series.  That rely on actual laughs instead of being bizarrely Japanese.  (Why do I keep limiting myself?)  Well, there's Ninja Nonsense, Excel Saga (and everything else NabeShin's touched), I suppose you could make the case for Hetalia as well...  Man, I feel like an anime dilettante...  Oh wait, here's one you've probably never heard of: the manga and anime series Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei.

The first chapter begins with, of all things, our main character Nozomu Itoshiki having hung himself in a grove of sakura trees.  Strange for a story to end before it gets started, no?  Well that's where you're wrong, because along comes the schoolgirl Kafuka Fuura, who saves him against his wishes.  It turns out that she is a student in his high-school class, where we learn an unfortunate truth: the kanji in Nozomu's name, when written closely together, appear to form the word "despair" ("糸色" becomes "").  Thusly, he has lived out his life in despair at everything around him.  Kafuka, on the other hand, is an unnaturally cheerful girl, always assuming that there's a happy explanation to all the unpleasantries going on around her.  For example: when she saw her teacher trying to hang himself?  She thought he was just making himself taller.

And then, there's the other children in her class, including but not limited to:
  • Chiri Kitsu, the de-facto class chairman, she suffers from some form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and always demands things to be done precise and properly.  She may kill you if you don't.
  • Kiri Komori, a hikikomori (one who stays locked up in his/her room); after Nozomu & Kafuka's intervention, she holes up in a room at the school instead.
  • Matoi Tsunetsuki, a stalker who goes so deep into her "super-love obsessions" that she copies the person's dress style - including Nozomu's Taisho-era couture.  (I'll explain that later.)
  • Meru Otonashi, a shy girl who sends text messages instead of talking - specifically, abusive and sarcastic texts.
  • Kaere Kimura, a blonde-haired exchange student from not-Japan who is prone to panty shots, threatens lawsuits frequently as a result, and, under certain stress, switches personalities with a demure Japanese girl Kaere.
  • Taro Maria Sekiutsu, an illegal immigrant who purchased her name and class registration from  a (male!) bum who sold everything he had.
  • Nami Hito, the class's only normal girl.  She is not pleased at her status.
Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei is one of those manga in which, rather than keeping a consistent story arc, each of its chapters are stand-alone stories focusing on a particular topic.  The best chapters are the ones early on, in which each topic is centred around the introduction of a particular character.  Obviously they can't very well do that all the time, lest the cast reach Negima proportions.  But as early as the second volume, a predictable routine sets in.  A situation is set up, and Nozomu complains about it.  Someone from his class, usually Kafuka, looks at the situation a different way.  Some sort of bizarre conclusion is reached, having no bearing whatsoever on the following chapter.  Sprinkle with pop culture references to illustrate both arguments -- the more Japanese, the better.  Bake at 451 degrees Fahrenheit for twenty minutes.  Serves 10 chapters per volume plus extras.  And yes, in case you couldn't tell, I seem to have gotten lost in my own metaphor.

But it's worth dealing with this routine to explore the world, this fractured take on 21st-century Japan.  In contrast with his students' contemporary uniforms, Nozomu always wears an old hakama and kimono ensemble dating back to the Taisho (1910s and 20s) period.  Plus, if you're familiar with the Japanese imperial calendar, note that they use dates as if Emperor Hirohito were still alive (i.e. AD 2013 becomes Showa 88 instead of Heisei 25).  The art style is heavily stylised, even by the standards of manga, as Kumeta-san seems dead-set on avoiding shading in favour of pure blacks and whites wherever possible, primarily in his character designs, not to mention a reliance on static plaid patterns, especially on Nozomu's clothes.  But that's not to say this series' art is devoid of detail.  For example, the translators at Del Rey Manga were nice enough to keep many of the background signage in Japanese, although they did translate some of the funny ones (what kind of school advertises a "Boys' Love Club"?).  In fact, there are such a vast quantity of references that only a Japanese reader would get, regardless of language, that each book ends with a heaping helping of translators' notes -- and even those can't cover all the details.

But far be it for Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei to rely solely on referential anecdotes. Which is good, because as anyone who’s suffered through a Seltzer and Friedberg movie knows, references are lazy writing.  There are puns aplenty to be found, primarily in the characters' names.  As can be expected with most other instances of foreign comedy, these tend to require sufficient knowledge of Japanese language concepts, like the different readings of kanji.  Without such knowledge, you'll be scratching your head -- or flipping to the translator's notes -- for an explanation on certain gags, one noteworthy example being Chiri's sudden adoption of clairvoyant powers.  Fortunately, a good chunk of the humour transcends the language barrier by basing itself around the fourth wall -- or rather, the lack thereof.  Characters often refer to one another in terms of their respective specialties, for example Kaere being the designated panty-shot girl, and Nami being normal.  In addition to the aforementioned translator notes, the manga volumes also pack in bonus features such as previews and/or recaps which have nothing to do with the actual story.  There's even a chapter in one of the early volumes where Chiri and Nozomu get the chapter to start over -- all in the name of demonstraing the point du jour.  It's good stuff.

There is one issue that got me thinking, however, and that's Nozomu's repeated propensity towards attempting suicide.  This comes from a culture which has a well-known association with the subject.  I'm sure you're familiar with the rituals of seppuku and/or hara-kiri that were practiced every so often back in the day.  Yup, made in Japan.  Even today, in this post-war, commerce-driven age, Japan continuously ranks among the top 10 countries for suicides.  For example, the World Health Organization reports that ever since the mid-1990s, Japan experienced close to 30,000 suicides every year, having only last year dipped below that benchmark.  So that makes me wonder: is it right to trivialise a such serious problem like Kumeta-san does in Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei?  Because by playing suicide up for humour, he's not exactly portraying it in an undesirable manner.  Then again, could Kumeta-san's approach be not an endorsement of suicide, but a parody of such?  Given the context of the series, this may be what the author had in mind.  After all, if you read about a guy who sought to hang himself at the slightest provocation, real or imagined, surely you'd think that he was being unreasonable at least once or twice, no?  This is a complex issue, and at times like these I think back to the words of the great philosopher Basil Exposition: "I suggest you don't worry about this sort of thing and just enjoy yourself!"  That goes for you all as well.

And it’s totally worth putting your reservations in the backseat, because Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei presents heaping helpings of hilarity to revel in. Yes, a sense of repetition creeps into this series the further you delve into it. But when it’s good, it’s nothing short of sublime. By not only breaking the fourth wall, but reaching out across it and sharing with the reader what it has learned about our world, Kumeta-san has created a surrealist masterpiece.

Artwork: 5 suicide attempts out of 5
Plot: 4 suicide attempts out of 5
Dialogue: 5 suicide attempts out of 5
Characters: 5 suicide attempts out of 5
The Call: 90% (A-)

In case you haven't noticed, up until now I've been primarily referring to Sayonara, Zetsubou-Senseias a manga series.  Well, there was an anime produced as well, which ran for three half-seasons in Japan.  The show was a product of Studio Shaft, and given their other works (Negima!?, Puella Magi Madoka Magica), you can bet this is one bad mother[Shut your mouth!]  What, I'm just talking about Studio Shaft!  [Then we can dig it!]  The animated version of SZS keeps the existing bizarre flavour of the manga whilst adding its own clever touches, such as non-sequitirs on the classroom chalkboard, some guy's head used as a censor, and the uber-bizarre opening and ending themes.  And for perhaps the prime example of Studio Shaft’s non-sensery, there’s a certain episode from season two.  The chapter it’s based on is a relatively straightforward one -- straightforward by its own standards, at least -- about a guy who think’s he’s Commodore Perry and goes around opening everything in the school -- and I do mean everything.  But for the anime, the dialogue was replaced with nonsense syllables, and the subtitles made the plot even more insane, if you can believe it, by telling some completely unrelated story about Goku finding the [bleep]balls.  And since my “Not Making This Up Disclaimer” can only go so far, just take my word for it.   Or watch it for yourself.

There's just one problem: Media Blasters did licence the series for North America, with the intention to release DVDs in May 2010.  Unfortunately, in the almost three years since, they still have yet to show up on the market, and the company has said nary a word about its status.  Hey, at least Capcom had the decency to explicitly state that Mega Man Legends 3's production blew up in the hangar!  ...That doesn't excuse them or anything.  Anyway, this is the reason why I focused my review on the manga instead.  If an American video release was in the works, I'd need to know whether or not an English dub would be part of the deal, so I can include it in my judgment.  Still, whether you're willing to wait for an official release or jump the gun and watch some fansubs, I unofficially deem this anime a...

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