Reviewby Carlo Santos, Dec 24th 2009
Schoolteacher Nozomu Itoshiki is an unhappy man. So unhappy, in fact, that the characters of his name—if spaced incorrectly—spell out the word "zetsubou," or despair. The ills of society continue to bother Zetsubou-sensei, and this time his grievances include: people who cut others out of their lives, people with early November birthdays whose parents got frisky at Christmas, dead spaces that call out to be filled, getting absent-minded after the New Year holidays, leftovers sold as "grab bags" by retailers, useless qualification exams, utterances that ought to be stopped before people say anything stupid, going back on one's decisions, getting second opinions, and looking down on others. Is there anything in this world that doesn't leave Zetsubou-sensei in despair?
Conventional wisdom tells us that, when we reflect on what makes us human, we find warmth, joy, and an overwhelming sense of wonder. But Sayonara Zetsubō Sensei is not about being wise. It certainly isn't about being conventional. That's why, when this series reflects on what makes us human ... it finds only the madness, the exasperation, the despair that comes from 21st-century living. More than any tale of doe-eyed romance or transformative self-discovery, this is the one true slice of life, a mirror that shines light on the absurdities of modern society. Criticize it all you want for its one-note characters, its meandering ideas, its barely serviceable art—but beneath all that raging despair, Zetsubou-sensei speaks truth.
The truth, however, arrives about three years late—an unfortunate result of licensing lag (and how many Westerners knew of Zetsubou-sensei in 2006, anyway? We were all still high on Haruhi). In this volume, Bush is still the American president, Koizumi is still the Japanese prime minister, and a lot of the topical gags—which must have sounded so clever back then—have grown stale with the passage of time. Sure, it's funny to goof on things like Yuko Ogura's "cute but stupid" idol persona, but her time has come and gone, just like many of the other jokes here.
When the humor turns to the more fundamental aspects of human nature, however, that's when the series excels—and it does so plenty of times in this volume. Sometimes they're well-known foibles elevated to the point of absurdity, like the tendency to second-guess ourselves (which culminates in restarting the whole chapter), or how people always find a way to look down on others to make themselves feel better (the use of a Hinamatsuri doll display as a metaphor makes it bizarre and memorable). Other times, they're the weird little things that Kôji Kumeta points out just to mess around: counting back 40 weeks from your birthday to figure out when you were conceived, or the sheer number of pointless qualification exams that exist in Japan. And some of the best gags are the ones where Zetsubou-sensei's students take over: obsessive-compulsive Chiri steps in to do an annual housecleaning, her irrepressible desire to fill up any unused space becomes a source of nonstop hilarity.
Of course, the series' abandonment of accepted storytelling principles is probably going to cost it a few points in the final grade: the plot goes everywhere and nowhere, with Kôji Kumeta choosing to rant on whatever topic crosses his mind for that particular installment. The fact that Zetsubou-sensei is essentially a mouthpiece for those rants—and barrels through each chapter screaming and whining about being in despair—makes him a dangerously one-dimensional character (to say nothing of his students, who keep recycling the same old gags based on their personalities). But give this volume credit for one thing: it manages to do the Christmas-New Year's-Valentine's gauntlet without stepping on a single holiday cliché.
Readers may also be turned off by the abandonment of accepted artistic principles; it's hard to find anything visually appealing when everything's crammed into tight 14-page chapters and the character designs are just a step above newspaper-strip family comics. It also doesn't help that much of the humor is text-heavy, resulting in big blocks of dialogue, or even eye-straining bullet-point lists of everything that leaves Zetsubou-sensei in despair. The best way to enjoy the artwork is just to accept it as a product of idiosyncrasy: the simple lines, the flat patterns, the deep black-and-white contrasts, the character designs of the students boiling down to a hairstyle and some physical traits. In any case, the series' greatest strength lies in what it's about, not what it looks like.
The sheer quantity of translation notes in this volume should prove that words take precedence over images in Zetsubou-sensei—so much so that the glossary is long enough to be its own chapter. With so many of the jokes referencing classic Japanese literature, various manga and anime, and current events that were relevant in 2006 but quickly faded into obscurity, the glossary is an absolute necessity. Admittedly, it's not as funny when the joke has to be explained, but it still helps to at least understand what's going on. Then again, Zetsubou-sensei's twisted demeanor is a source of humor in itself, so even when he's just yelling out things that only culturally aware Japanese people would understand, it's still pretty funny.
By all standard measures, Sayonara Zetsubō Sensei ought to be a failure: it's a mishmash of gags in search of a plot (or rather, can't be bothered to search for a plot), the humor is driven entirely by a cardboard character lashing out at society, and this volume hits that dreaded stretch of winter holidays that every other manga has already covered in some way. But it is Nozomu Itoshiki's singular focus on finding fault in everything that ultimately makes this series a raging success; when one's idea of Christmas involves hanging people from a Christmas tree, it's clear that we're not dealing with an ordinary sense of humor. And really, who would want it any other way? This series looks at what makes us human, and finds something far greater than warmth, or wonder, or madness, or despair. It finds laughter.
Overall : B
Story : A
Art : C+
+ Continues to make a mockery of everything, from the very basics of human nature to strange little quirks only an observant humorist would catch.
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