*Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei Book 1 — Recommended

Subtitled The Power of Negative Thinking, this series is the story of depressed, suicidal schoolteacher Nozomu. (The title translates as “Goodbye, Mr. Despair”.) Except, not really. It’s really a device to tell stories about his various students, all of which have their own unusual problems.

Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei Book 1 cover
Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei Book 1
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I found it first shocking and then wonderful, because I like black humor. In the opening scene, the eternally optimistic and hopeful Kafuka comes across her teacher trying to hang himself, as shown here.

Sayonara Zetsubou-Sensei page spread

She rescues him, illustrating a core contradiction of his character: he yells at her for almost killing him with her roughness while interrupting his suicide attempt. His hopelessness allows the writer to insert satirical jabs at aspects of society he finds discouraging. Nozomu is SO despairing that he becomes funny, rather like Eeyore.

The art style particularly struck me. It’s distinctive, simplified even from typical manga, with a flat look and a design-influenced approach to black and white space. The comedy often comes through dialogue, frequently because the reader recognizes the ridiculousness of what the characters are saying with straight faces or because of meanings the cast doesn’t recognize. (As when Kafuka interprets Nozomu’s hanging as him “trying to grow taller” and mentions that she recognizes it because her father often tried it.)

Kafuka is Nozomu’s spiritual opposite, so between them, they’re able to assist students who are shut-ins or stalkers or suspected of being abused. Most all of this help comes in spite of themselves, though, since they’re awfully silly in how they approach life. Their refusal to see the world as it is for normal people provides the humor. As the book goes on, the students become weirder, whether they’re addicted to text messaging or obsessive-compulsive or aggressively normal.

There are copious translation notes in back which are much appreciated, given the author’s fondness for cultural and media references. I’m eagerly waiting for future volumes — I expect them to be even weirder and funnier than this one. (A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the publisher.)

17 Comments

  1. Nozomu is SO despairing that he becomes funny, rather like Eeyore.

    That is a brilliant statement. :D

  2. I watched a preview of the anime and it looked like the usual slice-of-life (Azumanga Daioh, School Days, Yotsuba) stuff but with zany black humor. I’m totally going to pick up this book.

  3. [...] on vol. 7 of One Thousand and One Nights (There it is, Plain as Daylight) Johanna Draper Carlson on vol. 1 of Sayonara Zetsubou-Sensei (Comics Worth Reading) Tiamat’s Disciple on issues 6, 7, 8, and 9 of Yen Plus magazine [...]

  4. I’m going to check out the anime, Jay, just because I want more with these characters. And thanks, Melinda.

  5. Yeah, the anime’s a good adaptation. Visually, I like how it captures the design sense of the comic, and then adds its own stylized effects on top of it. Here’s a couple of the credit sequences as a demonstration:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nve6aPlFSuM

  6. [...] suicidal schoolteacher is back. While more students are introduced, as in book 1, this volume also takes the class through [...]

  7. Kent Enfield

    How does the chapter about Kimura Kaede/Kaere (“Go back where you came from!”) come across in English?

  8. I thought it was fine. She was portrayed as a split personality, one very quiet (Japanese), one very aggressive and constantly threatening to sue (American).

  9. Kent Enfield

    That’s fairly different then. In Japanese, Kaede has returned from England (and being there has apparently caused her to turn blonde and get enormous boobs). Mr. Itoshiki refuses to look her in the eye or come near her, claiming that if he does she’ll sue. When she finally responds by saying that Japan is weird, she gets told, “This is Japan. If you don’t like it, go back where you came from.” The kids repeat shouting, “Go back where you came from!” until she has a breakdown.

    It’s her portrayal as stereotypically foreign–blonde, giant boobs, overtly sexual (how many times do we see her panties in the book?)–and that her personality problem is listed as “bilingualism” that I find objectionable.

  10. Not sure you’re reading the scene right — in the present, Kimura’s only told once to go back where she came, after a fairly long rant of her own about how weird Japan is. The repetition is a flashback, and comes from both Japanese kids, and kids from Abroad (‘gaikoku’) — so it’s about her not fitting in anywhere.

    It’s also deliberately unclear what country she came back from. In this one story, we have the picture of England, a kid in the flashback wearing an American flag t-shirt, and a UN sign for her Kaere personality. She later has lines such as claiming that they sacrifice chickens in her country.

  11. I’m glad that they did a good job on the translation notes. I really like the manga and anime, in *spite* of the fact that most of the references are lost on me. It hasn’t discouraged me, but I look forward to seeing some things explained!

  12. [...] Everyone here is defined by their quirks, including the teacher protagonist, whose depression-based suicide attempts have thankfully [...]

  13. [...] have given up trying to make sense of all the Japanese references in this series. Although there are plenty of endnotes, I’d rather just focus on the clean graphic design of [...]

  14. [...] Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei — Launched this year, but I put it here to make the numbers work. I enjoy it because of its consistent satire of culture and human nature. So much is specific to Japan, but there’s plenty more that’s universal. And I love the flat, design-y look, different from so much else, but still recognizably manga. [...]

  15. [...] former, not so much the latter, connection, but I admire how creative their ad writer is being.) I enjoy the series for its black humor, distinctive look, and episodic [...]

  16. [...] it seems that many of those I enjoyed are complete, so the only active series I followed was Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei, which I’m glad to see is [...]

  17. […] was reminded, between the anime references and the temperament of our lead, of the missed series Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei, although Tomoko isn’t self-aware enough to be suicidal. Her activities are identifiable: […]

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