by Carlo Santos, Jul 18th 2010

Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei

GN 6

Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei GN 6
By a cruel trick of fate, schoolteacher Nozomu Itoshiki's name can rewritten be to spell the characters for "despair"—which conveniently fits his pessimistic outlook on life. Wherever he goes, he finds fault in society: people who make excuses or avoid tough situations; people who blame themselves for everything; people who make lame jokes; people who have unnecessarily high expectations; people who are too quick to make assumptions about a situation. Even natural phenomena are a botherance to Zetsubou-sensei, like how time flies when you're having fun, or how luck is all about being in the right place at the right time, or how certain situations become increasingly pathetic as they reach their "terminal" stage. There's just no pleasing Nozomu Itoshiki—and somehow, that's exactly how he likes it.

There comes a time in every manga series' life where one must ask the question of where it's headed. Has Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei lost its way, or is it simply embarking on a path where it makes the best use of its author's strengths? Those who have followed the series since its beginning will remember a time when it seemed to be a dark mirror of Azumanga Daioh, trotting out an endless parade of quirky but twisted female characters. But now, with Nozomu Itoshiki's classroom fully packed, manga-ka Kôji Kumeta has decided that he's done with pointing out individual flaws of personality. Instead, he goes railing against the flaws of society at large—and does it incredibly well. As funny as it may have been in previous volumes, this installment of Zetsubou-sensei only gets funnier.

The one big knock against Zetsubou-sensei has always been that the humor is hit-and-miss—some chapters are full of hilarious and profound insights, while others simply drag a joke on too long or never make any sense in the first place. But Volume 6 looks like the first to have nonstop hits all the way through: every chapter is clear and focused on the subject it's lampooning, the scenarios are executed to comic perfection, and Kumeta has finally figured out when to bail out of a gag before it's driven into the ground. That last point, in fact, ought to be cast in stone as the secret to all great comedy: less is more, and know when to stop. No doubt Kumeta can think up dozens of examples where people compulsively try to avoid awkward situations, or make inappropriate assumptions, or "read the book after seeing the movie it was based on." But when one is limited to 14 pages a chapter, what really matters is picking out the best and funniest examples, while also keeping walls of text to a minimum. This is, after all, a visual medium, where pictures and words should serve to enhance each other.

Indeed, the best chapters in this volume are the ones where visuals help to exaggerate a situation beyond mere description. In the chapter on the relativity of time, it's one thing to say "time slows down when you're bored and speeds up when you're having fun"; on other hand, having a time machine to illustrate the point creates genuine comedy rather than just regurgitated pop psychology. The same goes for the "Boulevard of Based-On" chapter, where instead of simply lampooning the "It's based on someone else's information, so don't blame me" principle, we have entire streets ("escape routes," as they're called) where people can run down to escape the blame. Sometimes this kind of comic exaggeration can even break the fourth wall, like when the series pokes fun at sealed pages in magazines (a tactic designed to generate additional sales) and then sets up a "Make your own sealed page" pin-up spread right in the middle of the book.

Then again, just because Kumeta can visually demonstrate a point doesn't mean that he's going to win any awards for craftsmanship. The artwork has settled into a comfortable groove of mediocrity, with the understanding that one reads Zetsubou-sensei not for the pretty pictures but for the commentary and humor that goes with them. There are times when this has its drawbacks: the sealed-page segment, for example, is supposed to be a parody of saucy swimsuit-model photoshoots, but to capacity draw actual cheesecake art just isn't there. This also puts a limit on difficult character poses and angles; as a last resort, Kumeta often draws lots of inanimate objects and diagrams to deliver a punchline, rather than having to deal with human anatomy. In the more abstract realm of layout and design, however, the talent is clearly there—the panels are spaced out well enough to make room for each joke, while the title page illustrations that precede each chapter are wonderfully ornate and absurd.

What this series lacks in artistry, though, it more than makes up for with great writing—the kind of dialogue that is at once so brilliant and so sarcastic, it deserves to be read out loud. And it's not just Zetsubou-sensei's proclamations that crackle with cynicism (sadly, it appears that the catchphrase "I'm in despair!" has left his vocabulary for good), but even the comebacks from his students have a bite of their own. The credit for that goes as much to the translation as it does to the source material, as it takes a good ear for the language to bring out that black humor in English. Not everything comes out perfect, though: one of the middle chapters uses various Japanese puns, which simply don't translate well and can only be approximated by substituting other words in English. Fortunately, the notes in the glossary help to explain what really happened in the original text. It's also in the glossary that one can look up the series' numerous references to Japanese current events and culture (as of 2006); however, the guide is not as thorough as in previous volumes, and a working knowledge of Japanese celebrities and politicians will go a long way in understanding some of the minor "list" jokes.

Is Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei a work of genius? Perhaps a work of flawed genius is more like it. Over the course of six volumes, Kôji Kumeta has tried many things in search of the perfect comedic touch: making pointed observations on the madness of modern life (this approach works perfectly), scribbling down all those observations in list form (only works in small bursts), throwing as many quirky personalities into a classroom as possible (worked for a while, but got overloaded with characters), and referencing every aspect of pop culture to make a point (may not necessarily work with foreign audiences reading this manga 4 years after it came out). The result, after much trial and error, is a sixth volume that amplifies the hits and minimizes the misses. And even if it shifts styles again, one principle will still hold true: every silver lining has its cloud, every dawn has a darkness before it, and Nozomu Itoshiki will always be in despair. Always.

Production Info:
Overall : A-
Story : A+
Art : C+

+ Delivers pitch-perfect, nonstop comedy with satirical observations on the stupid things that people do.
Not particularly impressive from an artistic point of view; some of the jokes are a few years old.

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Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei (GN 6)

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