Reviewby Casey Brienza, Jun 11th 2009
It's a beautiful spring morning, brimming with hope, and Kafuka Fura is on her way to her first day of school when she is surprised by the sight of a man in hakama hanging himself from a blooming cherry tree. The man in question is Nozomu Itoshiki, a relentless pessimist plagued by existential angst and the occasional death wish. He also later proves to be Kafuka's homeroom teacher, and an alternate reading of his name, “zetsubou,” soon lends him the nickname Mr. Despair. Zetsubou-sensei's classroom is a filled with strange personages and misfit students: stalkers, shut-ins, perfectionists, otaku, and illegal immigrants, to name just a few. And of course there is Kafuka herself, as relentlessly positive as Zetsubou-sensei is negative. What will happen when such an irresistibly positive force meets such an immovably negative object?
Tales of teacher and student are a fixture of Japanese literary tradition. The best known—and read by every high school student in Japan—is Natsume Soseki's classic modernist novel Kokoro. Yet this hallowed relationship between sensei and student have also been repurposed for popular entertainment, with shounen series in particular combining the genre with that of the harem trope. Think Tohru Fujisawa's Great Teacher Onizuka or Ken Akamatsu's Negima!. Koji Kumeta's masterful satire Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei takes this latter-day form as well…but it is also so much more.
By the way, lest you think that invoking classic Japanese literature is inappropriate in the context of a review of a shounen manga series that has become wildly popular in Japan and spawned an impressive, multi-season animated adaptation, think again: Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei is chock-full of literary allusions which, to the average American at least, will be thoroughly obscure. Good thing Del Rey provides a comprehensive compendium of endnotes, twelve pages long, or the majority of readers would be totally lost almost immediately upon starting volume one. Even with the annotation, though, it's hard to judge what the mileage of various readers will be; it isn't funny if you have to explain the joke in the first place, after all.
But for those manga fans familiar with Japanese culture and society, they might be excused for thinking that they have committed ritual double suicide with Zetsubou-sensei himself and gone to a darkly yet deliciously funny heaven. Kumeta (Go!! Southern Ice Hockey Club, Katte ni Kaizou), though until recently relatively obscure to Western fans, is a veteran mangaka who has devoted to his newest creation an impressively painstaking amount of planning. The first volume peels back like a fragrant onion—gradually and in carefully, deliberately layered doses. Each chapter is arranged like an anecdote, focusing upon one of Nozomu Itoshiki's students, each one more bizarre and misanthropic than the last. In fact, it's all so darn good that it's hard to pick one over another to highlight here, and different readers will undoubtedly have their own particular favorites. I, for example, was particularly taken by the “Super-Love-Obsessed Stalker Girl” who develops a crush with stalker-ish overtones on Itoshiki-sensei and the “Poison Email Girl” whose innocuous face is a total mismatch with her abusive cell phone texting.
Of course, the greatest character of all in this manga series is the title character Nozomu Itoshiki himself. His relentless, occasionally noxious, negativity is a refreshing change of pace from your usual upbeat, optimistic manga hero. He's not just your doom and gloom Eeyore character, though; sometimes his negativity becomes downright histrionic. You will love it when he bewails the ubiquity of corporate branding in modern Japan, and you will laugh until tears are streaming down your face when he regales his homeroom class with the hopelessness of their ambitions for the future. The world is going to hell in a handbasket, and only he is able to see it. Particularly in comparison with Kafuka's improbable positive spin on every horrid social blight she sees, you may start to think that maybe poor Zetsubou-sensei has a point…
Kumeta's skillful artwork only strengthens an already powerful series further. His clean, flat style is perfect for the vaguely nostalgic look of the series. The characters look a little Art Deco, a little Taisho Era, a little ukiyo-e, and a little moé all at the same time. Although at times some of the angles seem a bit awkward and strange, it's easy to chalk that up to the artist's attempts to stylize his layouts. Overall, the panels all flow beautifully into each other, creating a pleasant sequential art reading experience that allows you to appreciate Kumeta's visual craft while focusing primarily on the jokey narrative sweep. Few mangaka balance writing and illustration as well as he does.
If the first volume of Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei has any weakness at all, it would be the quality of Del Rey's adaptation. As noted earlier, the book has been annotated heavily—and necessarily—but the problem with trying too hard to keep its original cultural context intact is that the translation itself feels clunky and over-literal. This is a manga that lives and dies (pun intended) by its wit, and more often than not the dialogue just does not seem snappy enough. Fortunately, diehard manga and Japanese pop culture fans are less likely to notice such textual issues, and it is probably they who are this series' main audience in the West. So if you think you fall into this category, do not under any circumstances give up the ghost until you have tried it.
Overall : A
Story : A
Art : A
+ Hilarious, witty satire and a classroom-full of unforgettable characters. Handsome, highly stylized artwork.
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