Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei Anime Review
Sayounara Zetsubou Sensei
Farewell, Professor Despair
US Release By
Absurdist Cultural Satire
12 25-minute episodes
2007-07-07 - 2007-09-23
Young teacher Nozomu Itoshiki is the ultimate pessimist--prone to fits of dispair brought on by his disillusionment with nearly everything about modern life, he gives his students depressing assignments and tries to kill himself on a regular basis.
His life takes an unexpected twist when on the first day of school he meets Kafuka Fuura, the most optimistic girl in the world--she can see the positive side of anything. It turns out she's in his homeroom class, and such begins his daily challenge dealing with the variety of weird personality traits and obsessive behaviors that afflict his students, while trying to break them of their youthful optimism.
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As warped as it is visually creative, Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei is a comedy series like no other. The show consists of a collection of extended rants deconstructing elements of modern society or looking at increasingly absurd examples of a student's extreme personality trait. Continuity or ongoing plot are nowhere to be found. Interestingly, eye-catching, relentlessly arty way this is animated is what ends up defining the series: Unusual color palettes, bizarre lighting, elaborate fabric patterns that are static while the characters move, and abstract backgrounds come together to form a picture as much modern art as anime. It is periodically very funny, but a lot of the jokes require more knowledge of Japanese pop-culture than most English-speaking viewers will have, and the series as a whole starts to run out of steam about halfway through.
With visuals bordering on abstract art, hard-to-follow topical references, characters who are less people than punchlines, and no continuity or story to speak of, Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei is sort of thing that's either going to work for you or annoy the crap out of you. Personally, I was laughing at enough of the jokes to call it enjoyable, but the rest didn't do anything for my head.
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Yikes. As warped as it is visually creative, Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei is a comedy series like no other.
The gag-only manga on which it's based has a simple-enough formula, with the situations breaking down into two basic categories: One, a student with some extreme personality trait will get introduced, then this trait will be discussed and deconstructed to the point of absurdity through a variety of examples. Or, two, some aspect of modern life (say, people's tendency to avoid directly insulting one another) will be brought up, the titular teacher will despair about it, and as many increasingly extreme and absurd examples as possible will be given. There are also usually some counter-examples of why it's useful courtesy Kafuka the uber-optimist.
This presents a bit of a problem for the anime: It's basically nothing but absurdist free-association social commentary. There's no story or continuity at all, the characters are largely unlikable one-shot jokes, and most of the content boils down to a string of lengthy monologues.
The eye-catching, relentlessly arty way this is animated is what ends up defining the series: Unusual color palettes, bizarre lighting, elaborate fabric patterns that are static while the characters move, and abstract backgrounds come together to form a picture as much modern art as anime. It also switches styles constantly to match the particular thing being parodied, with a heavy emphasis on the tropes of old-fashioned movies. Interestingly, it's so unique it's kind of hard to tell whether the animation was expensive or cheap; the characters move so little I'm guessing it's a creative way of dealing with a limited budget, but in terms of artistry and distinctiveness it could have cost a fortune for all the viewer can tell.
What this does is provide an ever-changing kaleidoscope of background imagery to accompany what is, for the most part, non-sequitur sequences of people complaining to each other. Still, there's something to be said for the humor as well. On the personality-quirk front, the various characters are certainly amusing--from a quiet girl who sends vicious insults via text message to a boy whose presence is so vague he's nearly invisible. The steady stream of new faces, interspersed with culture rants, will get you through about half the season.
Unfortunately, a little after the halfway mark the series starts to run out of steam; most of the worthwhile characters have had their moment in the spotlight, and the rants and social deconstruction get progressively less interesting. It'll hit something particularly funny now and then, but the last several episodes feel like they're grabbing at straws in the humor department, and I just didn't find myself laughing very often. The problem isn't that there's nothing worthwhile left in the concept; the "Zoku" sequel season drastically improves, proving that it's just poor execution here.
The other issue is that the series is absolutely loaded with pop-culture (and just culture) humor in about every area you can imagine--it's like the Family Guy of Japan in that respect. It covers so much ground there are bound to be things you recognize (not to mention unexpected riffs on things as diverse as Snoopy and yaoi doujinshi). But, a large percentage of the jokes will go right by anyone who doesn't regularly watch TV and read the paper in Japan. Political jokes targeted at specific figures, frankly, are one of those things that just aren't funny unless you're from the country being skewered.
On the plus side, even if you only get 20% of the jokes you're still going to have something familiar on screen most of the time. Reason being, the series will rail through an increasingly rapid series of pop-culture references, and at some point just throw up a bulleted list--literally--of about a dozen additional items that there wasn't time to mention in any detail.
In fact, the background is kind of like an ongoing free-association Powerpoint presentation. If you pause it and actually read the huge amounts of incidental text (there's no way anyone could catch more than a fraction of it otherwise), it ranges from completely random (the blackboard, for example, says something different every time the camera changes angles, usually unrelated to anything) to the scrolling laundry-list of single-phrase gags that ends nearly every social rant (the dozen other ideas that didn't fit). Not all of it is funny, but there are bits and pieces that had me laughing harder than the main jokes.
Coming back to the wild visual style one more time, one other unusual thing that could be a plus or minus, depending on your taste, are some scattered bits of live-action photography. A few clips used for no particular reason--a shot of a blender early on, for example--broke the continuity enough to distract from what would have otherwise been good punchlines. Photos of the creator's smiling face also make constant appearances, particularly as a censor spot--again, either distracting or incongruently amusing, depending on taste (that particular joke did work for me).
Speaking of censoring, the requisite fanservice character--that's explicitly one of her personality traits--handles all gratuitous panty shots, a joke that gets better every time it pops up. Lest that self-aware fanservice seem too normal for the show, about once an episode it'll also insert a short and completely incongruent scene with the school counselor and one of the students doing ambiguous but increasingly dirty-seeming things.
The Japanese acting is handled by a large cast of experienced players. They're an amusing lot, and distinctive enough to be easily recognizable based on voice alone, so that's one area you'd have trouble not liking.
As for the music, the hard-rock intro theme and accompanying edgy visuals (or silent-movie-style credits, for the first couple episodes) are attention-grabbing, and well-suited to the show, as is the macabre end theme. There's also a much more traditional anime-style opening theme used in two later episodes. The overdramatic, piano-heavy background score goes along with other nods to classic Japanese movies, and complements the style nicely.
So, in essence here you've got visual style so out-there that it's practically abstract art, topical references that only a handful of English-speaking people will get, characters who are less people than punchlines, and no continuity or story to speak of. Basically, the sort of thing that's either going to work for you or annoy the crap out of you. If it sounds interesting, give it a shot, but be prepared and keep in mind that even if it is your thing it's going to run out of steam toward the end. Personally, I was laughing at enough of the jokes to call it enjoyable, but the rest didn't do anything for my head.
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The wildly artistic Gankutsuou is probably the series that most closely resembles this visually, although the theme and story are unrelated to put it mildly. Thematically, Urusei Yatsura has a similar level of pop-culture reference and parody (minus about 30 years of stuff to reference) but less social deconstruction and a lot more story. Maria+Holic is by the same artistic team, has a similarly abstract-art-y look, and shares much of the same cast, although it's a comparatively traditional comedy in theme.
Notes and Trivia
Based on an ongoing manga series by Kouji Kumeta of the same title. It's available in English from Del Ray.
Every character in the series has a name based directly on their personality; several are also an additional joke due to the way they're written. Most obvious is Nozomu Itoshiki; when written horizontally in Kanji, if the first two characters are close together it looks like the word "zetsubou"--despair.
After the first few episodes the opening theme is accompanied, among other things, by vaguely creepy, vaguely erotic diagrams of schoolgirls doing questionable things or in bondage rope. The style of the diagrams is a reference to old acupuncture/shiatsu charts, showing pressure points. In this case, the points labeled are just body parts; all other text identifies exactly what it appears on (character names in place of their faces, for example).
Although the setting is modern, the titular teacher, due no doubt to his distain for modern life, dresses in classic Taisho (late-19th-century) style, and there are many other visual nods to dress and culture from that era. The Taisho period, for those unfamiliar, was a time of rapid modernization and relative freedom prior to the militaristic nationalism that lead to WWII.
Similarly, much of the visual design--title cards, scene introductions, even the opening credits on the first few episodes--pay homage to classic movies, from the silent era through roughly the '60s.
The show is of course absolutely loaded with references, both explicit and subtle, to just about anything even remotely related to modern or classic Japanese culture; I'm not going to even attempt to cover them. If AnimEigo tried to do the liner notes to this series, they'd end up shipping the DVDs with a book.
US DVD Review
AnimeWorks announced a DVD release in 2010, which was then delayed; as of 2012 they no longer have a catalog entry or release date listed, so it is presumably on indefinite hold.
Some entirely gratuitous panty shots and ambiguously-erotic imagery, while done for humorous effect, qualify it as about 13-up, possibly 16-up if you're particularly sensitive.
Violence: 1 - There's some violence, but it's entirely slapstick.
Nudity: 2 - It's done as an ongoing joke, but there are a lot of gratuitous panty shots.
Sex/Mature Themes: 2 - One ambiguous student-teacher relationship features some pretty dirty innuendo, and the opening visuals have a few notably risque images.
Language: 2 - Depending on how the vicious silent girl's texts are translated, the language will either be mild or, periodically, quite rough.