#mangamonday Profile: Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei

June 22nd, 2009

#mangamonday is a weekly feature on Twitter in which people plug their favorite manga in 140 characters or less. Of course, we’re writers by nature, so we usually can’t keep our thoughts under 140 characters. Thus, we’ll present our expanded views here. This week’s feature: Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei.

Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei is one of those series where you look at it and think, “Okay … so what exactly compelled a U.S. publisher to pick up this license again?” Culture-based humor can be incredibly difficult to translate for a foreign audience, and when the manga contains references to female wrestler Kyoko Hamaguchi, the Rakuten Golden Eagles pro baseball team, the feud between sumo wrestling brothers Takanohana and Wakanohana and the 1971 film Throw Away Your Books, Go Out Into the Streets! directed by Shoji Terayama, among many, many, many, many others, the task becomes nigh impossible. The last time I remember seeing cultural references laid on this thick was with the ever-changing chalkboard scribbles in the anime series Pani Poni Dash … which, coincidentally enough, also featured classes full of students with strong individual traits that were taught by rather unorthodox teachers.

Any series featuring an ensemble cast often relies on the strength of its individual characters to carry it; Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei has quite a few memorable ones. Among them are Nozomu Itoshiki, the titular “teacher of despair,” fatalistic and often suicidal; Kafuka Fuura, the girl who sees the positive side of everything, even when there clearly shouldn’t be a positive site to a given situation; Chiri Kitsu, the girl convinced that everything must be in a precise, neat order; Matoi Tsunetsuki, obsessed with stalking her targets of love from afar; and Meru Otonashi, the girl who is quiet in real life but voices her wrath and other unkind thoughts through constant text-messaging. These characters are placed in situations that are rather absurd at times — take, for instance, one chapter in which a man the others refer to as “Commodore Perry” wreaks havoc on the school by going through and opening everything, from books to lockers to gas taps, on the anniversary of his arrival to open Japan to the rest of the world.

Del Rey, much like ADV and its AD Vid-Notes on Pani Poni Dash, has tried to make the experience a bit more accessible through the use of extensive translation notes. Those notes are a big help, even if the net result leaves one flipping between the story and the back of the book with every other page. There’s no denying that this manga takes quite a bit of effort to get through because of this, and not everyone will enjoy it. It’s okay. I won’t think any less of you for thinking that. Slog past the layers of cultural references, though, and what you’ll find is some insight into the wit and wisdom of contemporary Japanese dark satire — great for serious students of the culture.

2 Responses to “#mangamonday Profile: Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei”

  1. Anatole_serial:

    The thing about Zetsubou Sensei is that its references go well beyond the Japanese culture: There are many references to world events, as well as obscure references to historical figures outside of Japan. It’s truly a masterpiece in humoristic bizarre trivia.

    I have yet to find a work that can so seamlessly join so much weirdness into a coherent whole. Most attempts have ended up disjointed and surreal. Here, it’s almost surreal, barely coherent, but coherent nonetheless. Why it works is a question I am sure will elude me for a while… At least until there have been more volumes released, and I can read deeper into the mechanics at play in each Zetsubou Sensei chapter.

    Yes, reading this manga and not understanding its underlying construction has left me in despair. Delicious, hilarious, memorable despair. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.

  2. ryuzaki:

    I was browsing through Borders one day and came across Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei and was immediately drawn to the “Power of Negative Thinking” sub-headline on the cover. Now that’s MY kind of manga!

    And it didn’t fail to entertain me. Sure, I had to flip to the back to catch on to the more innocuous meanings, but all in all … I’ll be following this one whereever it leads to! I see a lot of my own self within it’s pages, as I’m prone to seeing things for their practicality rather than considering other factors that also play a part.

    Zetsubou Sensei, aishite imasu!

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