Reviewby Carlo Santos, Jan 7th 2011
Schoolteacher Nozomu Itoshiki can have the characters in his name rewritten to spell out zetsubou, or "despair"—and funnily enough, that's exactly his outlook on life. "Zetsubou-sensei," as he is known to his students, has plenty to lament about the world today: compulsory duties that are foisted upon us, past mistakes and embarrassments that carry over like cell phone numbers, humiliating rites of passage, people who don't act their age, annoying viral fads, gifts that nobody wants, lies and tricks perpetuated by grown-ups, getting pulled into other people's drama, overly sensitive "emergency warning systems," and competitive situations that aren't really competitive at all. With so many inconveniences bothering him, it's a wonder that Zetsubou-sensei can even get anything done.
Has there ever been a more effective way of doing the same thing over and over than Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei? Now at eight volumes and counting, the series' format is all but set in stone: the embattled schoolteacher will bring up the latest foible that's bothering him, he'll cite examples from real life and exaggerate them for effect, his students will add counterexamples or reinforce the concept, and at some point there's going to be a list of all the other gags Kôji Kumeta just couldn't fit into the panels. And yet, despite knowing exactly how each chapter will play out, the series never fails to entertain. Most likely it's because the endless merry-go-round of Japanese politics, entertainment, and media provides more joke material than Kumeta will ever need. They say that truth is stranger than fiction—and when sprinkled with Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei's wit, also a lot more amusing.
As usual, the best chapters in this volume are the ones with a strong sense of purpose and a universal message—the kind that transcends language and culture. The act-your-age chapter, for example, is very clear about the problems of straying outside one's own demographic. Middle-aged men are trying to date high school girls! Teen idols behave irresponsibly as they try to insinuate themselves into the adult world! Such situations are morally reprehensible, of course ... but also make perfect comedy material. Often times the humor works simply by creative repetition: as long as Kumeta dishes out new comedic situations every one or two pages—like the litany of awkward, true-to-life situations in the chapter about getting pulled other people's drama—there's enough variety to keep things afloat. In some cases there's an added layer of complexity: the chapter on grown-up trickery chains each punchline to the next, cleverly building a pyramid where everyone is fooling everyone else.
Not every topic of discussion is so masterfully planned, though, and some of Zetsubou-sensei's rants are more like pointless shouting into the wind. The one about emergency warning systems, for example, can't seem to decide whether it's an indictment of people taking little things too seriously, or a diatribe about friends and contacts who make private issues public. Some of the humor techniques also lack elegance, like when Kumeta simply dumps entire lists of punchlines that weren't funny enough to stand on their own. Even worse is that these are often references to Japanese current events that are no longer current, thus killing the joke in two ways: Western readers who aren't up-to-date on Japanese culture will find the humor zipping over their heads, while those who are will find the gags corny and dated by about three years.
With dialogue and narration running at full speed, the artwork often has to duck out of the way just to avoid total chaos—the dominance of text makes it impossible for any visual fireworks to take place. Simpler is better in the art of Zetsubou-sensei, a philosophy that is reflected by the minimalist character designs and backgrounds. It's easy to pick out major characters like Zetsubou-sensei, eternal optimist Kafuka, and obsessive-compulsive Chiri, but any of the other supporting cast members are there mostly for the words coming out of their mouths rather than who they actually are. The backgrounds, meanwhile, are either non-existent or stylized as much as possible; the only detail ever seen is when there's some kind of sight gag in play. This kind of simplicity is essential considering how densely each page is packed.
If the art is dialed down to simplest possible levels, then where does all the complexity go? Into the script, of course, with its mixture of wit and wordplay and pop-culture commentary. The desperate, world-weary tone of Zetsubou-sensei is captured well in the translation—longtime fans may take issue with him screaming "It's hopeless!" rather than "I'm in despair!", but the spirit of the catchphrase remains—and the chatter between him and his students is lively without being forced or melodramatic.
However, the translation shows its flaws when it comes to minor details. A reference to JoJo's Bizarre Adventure somehow comes out as "Jojo's Strange Adventure" (a simple fact-check on the commonly accepted English title could have avoided this); a well-known fast-food chain is misspelled as "Moss Burger"; former Prime Minister Koizumi becomes the victim of a careless typo—these and other such inconsistencies appear throughout the book. The sheer volume of cultural and linguistic details really shouldn't be handled by a single translator-cum-adapter—there needs to be another fact-checker or consultant before the glossary is filled in and the final proof is sent to the printers.
Fortunately, it takes more than editorial nitpicks to ruin the hilarity of Nozomu Itoshiki's twisted outlook on life. It doesn't matter if a name is romanized incorrectly, or if someone missed the significance of a certain celebrity mention; the point is that we're all getting a good, commiserative laugh out of people who don't act their age, or personal embarrassments following us around for years, or full-grown adults knowingly taking part in self-trickery. Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei is like having a witty, loquacious friend to lean on, someone who can voice all the irritations that drive us mad in our daily lives. So in the end, there's nothing wrong doing the same thing over and over—this series it does it so well, and will always have new material to work from. Really, who needs a therapist when you've got Mr. Despair?
Overall : B
Story : B+
Art : C+
+ A combination of sarcastic humor and cultural commentary keep the laughs coming at a rapid pace.
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