Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei

Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei


Watched via fansubs



PLOT: I think I should give a disclaimer on this show. This show does depict such things as suicide, self-harm, and other very serious issues in a humorous way that neglects the potential harm these topics can have in the real world. This does not mean that you aren’t allowed to find it humorous, feel free to laugh all you want at the fictional over-the-top depictions. However, this show isn’t for everyone. Crystal mentions that the episodic feel of the show makes it great for group settings (it did well at our anime club); however, you also need to take into account whether or not you, or someone else (if you’re watching it as a group) may be sensitive to the mocking of these issues.

This series, I’ll just call it SZS for short (and also so I don’t mistype it…), follows the life of Itoshiki-sensei and those of his students. The episodes are broken up into two parts and focus on the eccentricities of the classroom through puns and humor. Certain aspects are repeated in every episode, such as Itoshiki-sensei saying he is in despair, caused by whatever the theme is for each episode.

The episodes are easy to relate to for someone closely associated with Japanese culture. There are many jokes about hikikomori, loli-con, and stalking, which have decent milage over in America. I would say the average fan can generally follow along with jokes like these. Then there are episodes which highlight extremely Japanese “in-jokes”, such as Perry, who opened Japan up to trade with other countries, and his obsession with opening things.

As far as fansubs go, the ones we watched tried very hard at making the puns approachable by having text all over to explain everything, but the show is paced so quickly that it’s next to impossible to read any of it without pausing every couple seconds.

After a while you give up on being able to read all of the text and scramble to find what’s most necessary for the gag. The show’s clearly made for rewatching, but I didn’t find that the jokes have enough staying power to make a rewatch worth it.

PLOT: One day, in modern-ish Japan, a girl discovers a man hanging himself from a blooming cherry tree. The girl, Kafuka Fuura, saves the man’s life in ridiculous fashion, and then the man unfortunately discovers that he has to teach the extreme optimist Kafuka’s class in high school, which is also full of other kids with extreme personalities. Worse still, when you write the teacher’s name (Nozomu Itoshiki) kanji too close together, the characters spell “zetsubou,” which means “despair.” Hence, Itoshiki-sensei is always in despair, and from there we have a series title.

Each episode (or half-episode) of the series focuses on a different student in Itoshiki’s class while also having a central joke. Sometimes the jokes are puns on a word’s kanji (meaning translation notes are key to understanding any of them), and sometimes they satirize Japanese society by taking an idea and following it to its furthest logical extreme. The latter style of jokes worked better for me, mostly because, while I have a fair knowledge of Japanese society, I don’t know much of the language at all. Plus, even if a joke focuses on a cultural element that I’m not too familiar with, there’s enough cultural overlap that I can guess why it’s funny.

Because Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei has a repetitive structure and resets to the same basic situation at the start of each storyline, your enjoyment of it will rely mostly on how funny you find the jokes. Watching this in anime club, I was good through two-and-a-half seasons, but then the jokes felt stale and reused, even beyond the point of being salvaged by the group setting. You might watch an episode, gauge your entertainment value, and decide from there whether or not to watch this. Please note that watching this with others might boost your enjoyment, especially if people laugh and yell ridiculous things at the screen.

Group setting is a must have, but the important thing to remember is who all is in your group. If you watch it by yourself, it kinda feels like doing homework with all the reading…

SETTING: SZS takes place in your typical modern Japanese town. The show begins in spring, but there really is no timeline for events.

This show is extremely Japanese oriented. It is made by Japanese people for Japanese people. The jokes are all Japanese centered and deal with modern day concepts of Japanese popular culture. As Crystal states, the show is subject to no rules and will go to any lengths necessary to complete a joke. There are huge time skips and changes of location. As far as setting goes, it’s best to just take it all in stride and not get hung up on the details. You’ll have a hard enough time just keeping up with the dialogue.

SETTING: As I mentioned before, Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei takes place in a version of modern-day Japan. Itoshiki-sensei always wears old-fashioned clothing, but the rest of the narrative relies on modern technologies and social events, like Meru’s cell phone or Maria’s illegal immigrant status. Beyond that, the setting’s easily bent by the whims of the current gag. Crazy events can occur in an episode and escalate quickly to the end of the world, only to be reset for the next episode. Writing on chalkboards can change within the same scene. Most of the rules of reality don’t apply here, and oddities are always for the sake of making the audience laugh.

CHARACTERS: Beware of stereotyping, it’s everywhere! There isn’t a single character that isn’t an over-the-top depiction of a trope or label.

These characters aren’t just two-dimensional, they’re probably one-dimensional. They have no real identity beyond their label and function more like automatons. Itoshiki-sensei finds despair in everything and continually attempts self-harm, while Fuura blankly misconstrues every situation as a positive one. The real dynamics of the show stem from the puns created through Fuura and Itoshiki-sensei’s disagreements over a given situation.

Crystal is right, there is absolutely no character development. And if a character manages to “develop”, like hikikomori Kiri moving from her house to the school, it isn’t because of gaining personal growth, but to add a punch line to the joke.

You’ll get to know a lot of characters in this series, many of them humorous. However, this series is best watched occasionally and not marathoned, as characters like the class rep, will start to drive you up the wall.

I imagine marathoning this would be like reading a volume of the manga all in one go, which left my eyes hurting from so much text and so many explanations of jokes. If you want to get into this series in only one form, I’d pick the anime, because its pace means you have to keep moving and can’t be bogged down by every single joke about some aspect of Japan that we fans are generally ignorant of, like Commodore Perry.

CHARACTERS: You might’ve guessed that there’s no character development in Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei, and you’d be correct: every character stays at their starting point as a complete stereotype. Instead of watching characters develop, the entertainment in this series comes from watching specific types of characters interact and watching how everyone will blow things out of proportion or have ridiculous misunderstandings because of their basic character types. Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei is very much a parody of current anime and manga tropes, and to best make fun of them requires a complete lack of any forward progress.

Despite the lack of development, though, I still found a good portion of the characters to be extremely entertaining to watch. I love Itoshiki-sensei’s crazy despair just as I love Fuura’s crazy optimism, along with the ways both of them misinterpret occurrences all around them. Abiru, the always-bandaged girl, always made me laugh at the reasons behind her bandages, and I’m a little moe for Kiri, the resident hikikomori. There are also characters I find irritating, like the straight-edge class rep, but mostly the show has enough crazily entertaining characters of enough different varieties to appeal to all strains of otaku.

I really did like these characters. I almost wish they were in a show that had development, so I could see more “actual action” so to speak, rather than just watching puns play out.

ART STYLE/ANIMATION: SZS has a very unique look to it. The figures are very willowy and the show is drawn in a similar style to superflat art. This is heightened by the use of “screentones” which do not flex and distort with the folds or perspective.

sayonara zetsubou sensei

The movements of the characters and backgrounds, as well as their flatness, and bizarre movements, almost give the series the feeling of a paper puppet show. This enhances the level of fictionality in the series which increases the separation between the viewer and the content. This actually makes it easier for the viewer to watch, as there is no real need to empathize. Just as with the famous Punch and Judy puppet shows, we are able to laugh at the sad misfortunes of the characters by focusing on their “unhumanness”.

The filming style of the series also promotes the obvious label of “fiction”, by having black screens (sometimes with text), moving frames, and directors notes. I’m not sure if all of this was intentional, to ease viewers into the mockery of violence, or if it was a stylistic choice, but it made the series more comedic and easier to digest.

ART STYLE/ANIMATION: Be forewarned: Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei is directed by Akiyuki Shinbo and animated by Shaft, making it a stylistic forerunner of Bakemonogatari. Single-color screens with random text or narration occur quite frequently, though I never found them as obnoxious as in Bakemonogatari. The art style’s also very stylized, with none of the shading and hair highlights that normally crop up in anime. Instead, the designs are simplified to make more iconic characters that best illustrate the traits of the stereotypes each character represents.

As a Shaft/Shinbo production, animation shortcuts and money-saving images show up quite frequently (like those single-color screens), but they look stylish enough that you might not notice or be bothered by it. Plenty of people find Bakemonogatari very visually interesting, despite how many shortcuts it uses, and the same could be said here. Watching this show’s an experience, though, as it requires a lot of attention to the many subtitles and translation notes that’ll appear on the screen. It’s probably best if you approach it with a potential rewatch in mind, as there’s no way you can see all of the details the first time through.

OVERALL: This show is sooo hard to watch and read. People like to say it would be better dubbed, but I can’t imagine that sort of thing happening any time soon. I enjoyed watching the first season, but after a while it got to the point of being too redundant. It isn’t that the show is bad, just that there are so many other things to watch, that it’s hard to set aside more time for this series. If you have a lot on your plate already, I’d suggest just watching this occasionally if at all. Well, and you probably should only watch it if you like dark humor, otherwise it won’t make a good fit.

The manga is kind of easier to read, as you get more time to read each little area (it’s in America too!), but it has so much information crammed into every page that it literally takes twice as long to read. Personally this is one of the few occasions that I liked the anime more. That said, I probably won’t bother finishing out the rest of the seasons. If you haven’t watched this yet, don’t worry about it and move on to current stuff. Most of what made this happening, when it first came out, is already being incorporated in shows like Tatami Galaxy, Bakemonogatari, and Madoka Magica.

OVERALL: Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei is not for anime newbies or the faint of heart. If you’re great at reading subtitles and know a lot about Japan, you’ll probably find this show hilarious as it skewers a lot of the things you love and hate about Japanese culture. I always looked forward to what new, ridiculous take it would give on Japan, and I was never let down.

However, despite all of its hilarity, there are two main problems with this show. One, it’s a LOT to take in. If you can’t quickly glance around the screen to take in the many words and visual gags, you’ll find yourself more frustrated than entertained. Two, it gets old after a while. I loved this show for the first two seasons, but by the third it’d worn out its welcome, partially because it repeats the same basic jokes while being such a pain to watch and comprehend. I do think people who love satirical anime should give it a shot, but beware that you might not be able to watch all of it for the sake of your eyes and mind. When you get bored, go ahead and cut your losses.


6 thoughts on “Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei

    • Thanks for your comments and encouragement. Crystal and I have discussed the length of our reviews and they have been steadily getting longer. We are trying to find the right balance of providing helpful information, without the reviews getting too long or tedious to read. We will keep your opinion in mind while writing future reviews. -W

    • It would really depend on what type of information you are looking for. Anime News Network has many great sources of information. They have reviews and news articles that are written by professionals in the industry. Wikipedia also has basic information and external links on the bottom of their posts that at times can point to great links.

      Crystal has a page of information that links to great resources for manga. I’m not sure what your presentation is on, but it may be a good place to start looking and may help you with finding other links as well. Best of luck.

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