Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei Volumes 1 and 2

Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei Volume 1 by Koji Kumeta

I pre-ordered this when it first came out, but it took forever for me to get around to reading it. I think I was intimidated by the thought of reading a comedy manga with extensive cultural references in the back of the book. I decided I was finally in the right mood to start this series about a suicidal teacher and his misfit class of students.

You know what you’re getting into when you read the first two pages of Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei. A young schoolgirl walks among falling cherry blossoms when she comes across a man in traditional dress who has just hung himself. She yells “No, you musn’t!” and grabs his legs, violently shaking him until the rope breaks. They have an odd conversation about her habit of naming trees and his failed suicide attempt. She is the most optimistic girl in the world and concludes that he wasn’t trying to kill himself, he was just trying to be taller.

The suicidal man is Nozumu Itoshiki, and he’s the optimistic girl’s new teacher. She discovers that when she writes his name horizontally instead of vertically, the kanji reads as “Zetsubou” or despair. She names him “Mr. Despair” and he leaves the class for the rest of the day. Optimistic Girl isn’t the only student that plagues Itoshiki. He also has to deal with Stalking Girl, Strange Injury Girl, Precise Girl, and Ordinary Girl. The most everyday happenings of life will inspire Itoshiki to indulge in a despair-filled rant. It could be the emblem on a baseball player’s hat that will prompt a moment of existential angst. Or perhaps school exercises like students filling out their goals after graduation will inspire a tirade about the futility of hope. Kumeta isn’t afraid to take things to the most ridiculous extreme, as shown when Itoshiki gets caught up in a stalking incident and a chain of lunatics starts to follow him around the neighborhood.

Usually I’m a little annoyed when most of the character types in a manga essentially have the same face and are differentiated mostly by hair style. In Kumeta’s case this seems more like an elegantly simple aesthetic choice as opposed to artistic limitation. He draws with a smooth line, and while the girls in the classroom look alike, they all act very differently due to the extreme nature of their individual personality quirks. The characters are really more symbolic representations of traits as opposed to individuals, but this works in the context of this darkly humorous manga.

Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei Volume 2 by Koji Kumeta

While the first volume set-up Itoshiki and his gaggle of teen misfits, the second volume explores events like seasonal festivals, the Perry expedition opening Japan, vacations, and arranged marriage. We meet Itoshiki’s brother who has a similarly unfortunate name, and learn about the mating rituals of Itoshiki’s family. It turns out on a special day if Itoshiki meets anyone’s eyes they will immediately be married, so he spends most of his time avoiding looking at anything. This is really not a manga for people who don’t enjoy cynical and dark humor. If you are not fond of the movie Dr. Strangelove, this is not the manga for you. Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei is packaged attractively, with matte covers and traditional designs that echo Itoshiki’s mode of dress. The usually great translation notes from Del Rey get kicked into overdrive in order to explain the background and cultural history Kumeta crams into his manga.

Reading Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei caused me to ponder a bit about translation and adaptation. While there’s plenty of humor in the books that doesn’t require flipping to the back for the extensive cultural footnotes, I wondered if I’d appreciate reading the manga more if I already had knowledge of the obscure Japanese pop idols or scandal-ridden politicians that Kumeta mentions. On the other hand, I wonder if even a Japanese person would catch all of the references, which are sometimes presented as a wall of background text while Itoshiki rants. This would be a good manga to read if you are a fan of comedy and an excessive use of footnotes. I enjoyed Kumeta’s darkly humorous sensibility, but the episodic nature of the humor makes this a series I’d probably be happiest checking out from the library. I didn’t think I’d want to reread these volumes again and again even though I enjoyed reading them once.