Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei

by Jason Thompson, May 23rd 2013

Episode CXLVIII: Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei

Zetsubou-sensei is depressed. Very depressed. He's supposed to be a high school teacher inspiring & encouraging young minds, but the first time we see him in his own manga, he's swinging from a tree by his neck, having just hung himself. Luckily, he's rescued by Kafuka, one of his students, who tries to make him change his ways. "There's no way anyone can even think of killing themselves on a beautiful spring day like this!" she says cheerfully. "I know you weren't trying to kill yourself! You were just trying to stretch so you'd grow taller!"

That's the meet-cute between the world's most pessimistic man and the world's most optimistic girl. Zetsubou (whose name, written the right way, means "despair") makes Yozo from No Longer Human look happy. In fact, he seems to have stepped right out of the pages of the Osamu Dazai novel; he talks, dresses and thinks like a morbid intellectual from the early Shôwa era (1924 up 'till WW2), someone who's given up all hope in life and human nature and just wants to die. (Well, it's not always that bad; in one chapter he resolves instead "to live as if I was dead.") As for Kafuka, although her name is a reference to Dazai's equally gloomy contemporary Franz Kafka, she's so cheerful she makes Tohru from Fruits Basket look like a character from Evangelion. In fact, her blissful denial of grim reality reaches the point of insane mania, and when a classmate looks into Kafuka's eyes to see what she's really thinking, beneath Kafuka's friendly words and warm smile, we see the words "KILL KILL KILL." Meanwhile, Zetsubou-sensei just wants to find the best spot, from his guidebook to Tokyo's best suicide spots, to end his life…

Comparing South Park and Family Guy, two transgressive comedies, someone once pointed out that South Park is basically a conventional story-driven show at heart, whereas Family Guy is a sketch comedy where they'll do anything for a gag. That's a little like the difference between most shonen comedy manga, with their supposed plots and character development, and Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei, a series of comedy riffs on everything under the sun. (Not that there's much sunlight in this manga). Beneath its morbid skin, Zetsubou-sensei is all about making fun of stuff—nerd humor, (Japanese) pop culture references, political satire. Almost every chapter has a formula: Zetsubou-sensei starts thinking about some theme, such as "kindness," "stretching the truth," "saying too much" or "being in the shadow (of something.)" Some of the terms don't translate as well as others, such as the chapter about boke (the 'dumb role' from Manzai comedy). Every chapter's theme turns into a long chain of exaggerations and free-association, with Zetsubou-sensei first thinking of real-world examples of his theme, then taking things to their absurd, logical conclusion. And usually, the conclusion is grim. "I'm in despair!" Zetsubou-sensei howls. "I'm in despair over this society that's obsessed with (INSERT THEME HERE)!"

It's a formula, but Kumeta keeps it funny and fresh. The gags are often based around things getting exaggerated to an insane extreme, which reminds me that horror manga and humor manga are close relatives: Shintaro Kago could have come up with the "space" story where one character becomes obsessed with filling useless empty space, and packs an entire apartment from floor to ceiling, till the walls fall away revealing a cube of junk with people embedded in the middle. The "Christmas" story ends with every single character in the series hanging themselves on a giant Christmas tree. The chapter on ehomaki involves various increasingly long objects stuffed into the mouthes of Zetsubou and the other characters, and the chapter on 'instability' ends with all he characters in the series jammed together into the most unstable configuration of all.

I said characters, because yes, there's a lot of characters. If it were a normal manga, Zetsubou-sensei would be a harem manga; beyond the classroom doors waits a whole class of blossoming girls, all at that delicate age when their lives can be impacted by a devoted teacher. But rather than providing fanservice (well, there is some of that, but…) each girl (and boy) in the class fits into a different stereotype or a different colorful mental disorder. Each one has their own role to fill:

* Kiri Komori, the hikikomori. Kafuka decides cheerfully that Komori can't really be a hikikomori because that's too depressing: instead, she must be a zashiki-warashi,a house spirit. In her first appearance, Zetsubou-sensei cures her of her homestuckness but she just goes to the school and becomes a hikikomori there instead.

* Kaere Kimura, a half-Japanese, half-foreign girl from abroad, who embodies all stereotypes about foreigners. (Well, not quite all…there's also Tarô Maria Sekiutsu, the "illegal immigrant girl," who's like Kaolla Su from Love Hina as rewritten by someone who's been reading about Japan's Southeast Asian/Latin American migrant workers. She's more about poverty than foreignness, thouh.) Kimura is essentially from America, based on her brashness, blondeness, big breasts, and her brazen habit of threatening to sue people. ("Outside our country, three million dollars was paid in damages just because someone's coffee was too hot! Or, if you put your cat in the microwave, you can get 10 million dollars from the microwave company!") She continually talks about how things are done in her country, customs which tend to get stranger and stranger, so it's questionable what country she's actually from. It doesn't matter anyway; she actually has enough split personalities to fill an entire Model United Nations, each one embodying a different country's traits.

* Meru Otonashi, a girl who's shy and silent in person but who is a loudmouthed, evil troll with texting and e-mail (mail…meru…get it?).

* Chiri Kitsu, a girl who is obsessed with precision and properness, down to the part in her hair. She is infuriated by anything improper, whether it's Meru's L33Tspeak, Zetsubou-sensei's downer attitude, or just the frustrating randomness of reality. On her first appearance she accidentally ends up in bed with Zetsubou (they were just taking a nap, but…) and consequently asks that he do the "proper thing" and marry her. Although at first she's no weirder than the rest of the characters, as time goes on she becomes increasingly crazy in her pursuit of perfection. At one point she attempts trepanning on Zetsubou-sensei to properly use the useless extra parts of his brain.

* Matoi Tsunetsuki, the stalker. She, too, becomes obsessed with Zetsubou-sensei, and starts dressing 1920s-style and following him around imitating him. Before that, she dressed like her previous boyfriends.

* Harumi Fujiyoshi, the fujoshi. Obsessed with shipping male characters from manga, anime and whatnot. When she first tells Zetsubou-sensei that she's into "dojinshi," he thinks she means artsy small-press literary works, in keeping with his 1920s personality. This leads to a very awkward afternoon at Comiket.

* Abiru Kobushi, a girl who always comes to class covered with bandages, bruises and eyepatches. At first, everyone assumes her parents are beating her, and Zetsubou-sensei follows her dad looking for evidence of abuse, watching in horror as daddy goes from store to store buying household objects such as frying pans, thumbtacks and erasers (each time Zetsubou imagines: "What's he going to do to her with that frying pan/thumbtack/eraser?") The crowning comes when her dad goes to the bookstore and buys a set of Strawberry 100%(a manga often singled out by Kumeta for mockery). Eventually—SPOILER—it turns out that Abiru's bruises result from her tail fetish which leads her to chase and pull the tails of continually bigger and bigger animals.

* Nami Hitou, an ordinary girl. So ordinary. So boring. Nothing to see here. She's always trying to be weird like the others, but it never works.

* Usui, the class chairman, a boy so unappealing that everyone often forgets he's there and often can't even see him; he's also cursed by being prematurely balding in high school, a concept so depressing no other manga would dare do it.

* …and a variety of other characters, including the members of Zetsubou-sensei's twisted, decadent, aristocratic family, who are forever bugging him with their odd traditions.

All these characters are drawn iconically with Kumeta's almost vector-like, stark black-and-white art style (Kumeta was one of the first mangaka to publicly use computers in his work, decades ago). I love the art in this manga, especially the chapter title pages, which are drawn like ornate kiri-e silhouetted paper cut-outs. Occasionally Kumeta experiments with other styles: there's a diagram of the universe in volume 2 that looks like something from Garo or Ax, and there's multiple shout-outs to another gloomy classicist, Edward Gorey. You can see a faint trace of Kumeta's style in the work of his ex-assistant Kenjiro Hata (Hayate the Combat Butler), but Hata's style is more conventional, cuter, brighter…well, almost anything is brigher than Zetsubou-sensei, so I can't blame him for that.

Zetsubou-sensei is the only shonen manga I can think of that actually takes advantage of the weekly-magazine format to do timely topical gags, as opposed to most manga which have, at best, a Christmas or Valentine's Day episode. Celebrities are also a special target; from Tama-chan the seal to Leah Dizon to major league baseball players, Kumeta mocks or at least mentions almost everyone in the Japanese news. If you ever wanted to know where rich people in Japan live (the Roppongi Hills apartment complex), or who's cheating on who, this is your manga; you could read Zetsubou-sensei as a cheat sheet to Japanese memes and celebrity gossip from 2005 to 2012. Kumeta also touches occasionally on political issues, complaining about Japanese pacifism, censorship, selling the names of public spaces and sports stadiums, and environmentalists ("If I wipe my ass, the forests will get cut down, so I don't wipe my ass!"). I get the vague impression of Kumeta as a grouchy libertarian. It's remarkably mature for a shonen manga, but it almost reads like a series of ranting blog posts.

If the lesser chapters just seem like internet rants about celebrity misbehavior, the best chapters reach truly transcendent heights (depths?) of cynical Truth. In a chapter about the custom of hanging wishes on a treefor New Year's, Zetsubou shouts "Wishes don't come true!", but Kafuka retorts that maybe wishes are granted in your next life; everyone loves this idea so much it leads to a horde of wishers, while Zetsubou ponders, "So this is what religion's all about." (Kumeta's own wish is "May I be able to draw Touchin my next life.") In the chapter about Hinamatsuri dolls, which are normally arranged in a hierarchical 'staircase' with the emperor & empress dolls on the top and the courtier dolls beneath them, Zetsubou opens a trapdoor in the floor to show that the doll display actually continues down, with increasingly pathetic & slovenly dolls going down as far as the eye can see; he explains that "It's a positive concept to think that there's always a lower level to sink to!" and that most people prefer to look down on others rather than to look up to people better than them. (The chapter ends with Zetsubou trying to find a society where everyone is equal, and ending up in…North Korea.)

Less philosophical, but just as funny, are the chapters when Zetsubou rants against "negative bragging" ("There are lots of people who brag about their faults as though it makes them more civilized!") or the chapter where everyone decides to say meaningless things in the most dramatic fashion possible ("I have decided to lash out against society by saying boring stupid things in an extravagant manner!"). Or the chapter when Kumeta proposes that there should be a fifth panel at the end of all four-panel gag strips, the "dark" panel, where everything basically goes to hell. Finally, if Zetsubou-sensei doesn't make me question the meaning of life and the foundations of society, I'll settle for a terrible pun, like when Zetsubou's sister gives all the virgin boys in class a golden ticket to a chocolate factory on Valentine's Day…only virgins are invited, see, because it's Cherry and the Chocolate Factory.

All these puns and pop-culture references add up to make Zetsubou-sensei one of the wordiest, hardest-to-translate series I ever worked on. (I edited the first four volumes of the Del Rey edition, and Volume 4, the last volume I edited, had 17 pages of translators' notes.) The insane amount of Japanese puns and references in Kumeta's work are probably the main reasons it wasn't translated sooner. Back in the 1990s, some of my friends were fans of his first work Go!! Tropical Ice Hockey Club, which started out as a semi-normal sports comedy a la Mitsuru Adachi but soon evolved/devolved into something like Kumeta's current insanity, plus lots of penis jokes. For a decade, Kumeta was one of the top artists in Shogakukan's Shonen Sunday, but around 2004 he broke with them and moved to Kodansha's Shonen Magazine, where Zetsubou-sensei, his first Kodansha work, appeared. His bad history with Shogakukan may be the reason for the many gags at their expense, such as the copy of Young Sunday floating down the sewer in chapter 6, or when he talks about recycling ("Leftover talent from Shonen Magazine --> Shonen Sunday's star creators"). He's still friends with his Shogakukan ex-comrades though. In 2007, after winning the Kodansha Manga Award for Zetsubou-sensei, Kumeta celebrated the award (and perhaps his 40th birthday) by arranging his own "living funeral," where he dressed as a ghost and hung out in the background while his editors and friends said eulogies for him around his own flower-covered coffin. Rumiko Takahashi was one of the attendees.

Zetsubou-sensei is still being translated into English by Kodansha Comics, who are currently about halfway through its 30 volumes. I hear the anime's good too; though I haven't seen it; since a lot of the manga consists of lists of examples of whatever theme Kumeta is mocking, I wonder how the anime comes up with replacement material or adapts these into some visual form. Kumeta's current series is Joshiraku, a comedy manga written by him and drawn by another artist, Yasu (perhaps Kumeta decided that this time he'd just focus on the gag and skip the drawing part altogether). Joshiraku is about cute girls who are rakugo performers, practicing that form of classical performance storytelling where a single person tells a story on stage. Heavily stylized, old-fashioned, all about puns, word choice and timing: it's no surprise that Kumeta likes it. But if someone asks me what Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei is like, my one-line answer is to tell them: it's a manga like a series of crazy blog posts.


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