Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei: The Power of Negative Thinking
If you think "Despair.Com" is the greatest site on the internet, have we got a manga for you.
Nozomu Itoshiki is a teacher who's been given the 'perfect' class. Sure, almost no one else in the school would agree that a class full of misfits and strange kids would be perfect. But for the eternally depressed and suicidal teacher, this group of students is probably all that's really keeping him alive. (Well, that and his utter incompetence at suicide attempts.) And just when you think that he's finally plumbed the depths of strangeness with his students, another, even stranger student shows up to prove us wrong...
Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei loosely translates into Goodbye, Mr. Despair. For those who have ever seen or heard of the movie "Goodbye, Mr. Chips", it's easy to see the satirical nature of this manga's title. But really, that's just merely scratching the surface of Koji Kumeta's satire that runs fast and furious throughout the book. On the simplest level of all, the put-upon school teacher with the oddball class is certainly something we're all familiar with, assuming you've ever read *any* manga (Negima, anyone?)
But, Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei takes it all a step further (perhaps a giant leap further), as with each new student being even more ludicrous than the last; the stalker, the shut-in, the obsessive-compulsive, the girl who comes to class every day with strange bruises... And Kafuka, the most optimistic girl in the world, who knows that every cloud has a silver lining. For all of them, it's a special time, when the right teacher can have a lasting positive effect on their lives. But is that teacher Itoshiki, a.k.a. Zetsubou-sensei, who just wants to find the perfect place to die?
While reading this manga, something finally hits you; the translator does the best job she can, and there are lots of footnotes at the end of the book, but it's almost shocking just how much is going to fly over most people's heads. References to Japanese pop stars who've added a star to their name? Train lines known in Japan for regular fatal accidents? A Chinese astrological sign that only shows up once every 60 years and is considered bad luck? Call outs to a famous female Japanese wrestler?
Hopefully you're starting to get the idea here. Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei is just dripping with references that we'd hazard most non-Japanese readers are simply going to fail to get. It's very much like "Family Guy", in that all these pop-culture references take on a life of their own and become the funniest gags through merely being included and then referenced the way that they are. But, in order to "get it" you're going to need to really immerse yourself in Japanese culture.
Nevertheless, we're hope you're up to the challenge as Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei is probably the best manga you're going to read this year. It will either fill your soul with hope, or make you want to kill yourself (ineptly).
Reviewed by Brian Cirulnick, June 2009
Below: Scenes from the Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei anime series.