SAYONARA ZETSUBOU-SENSEI (Goodbye Mr. Despair), by Koji Kumeta. First published in 2005, and first published in North America in 2009.
PLOT: Fura Kafuka is happily walking to school one day. The sun is shining, the cherry trees are in full blossom, and there's a strange man trying to hang himself off of one of those cherry trees. What a beautiful day!
Well, not so much for the man in question, one Nozomu Itoshiki. He was trying to kill himself, damn it! Kafuka doesn't quite understand this, though. No one could be trying to kill themselves on a beautiful day like this! He must have been trying to make himself taller, just like daddy did after all his unsuccessful ventures! And thus, the misadventures of Itoshiki-sensei begin.
He is the homeroom teacher for Kafuka and a number of other students, but he is more focused on paranoia, morbid fantasies of his own death, and ranting about all that is wrong about Japanese culture than doing things like taking attendance or teaching lessons. Despite that, he ends up serving as a strange sort of inspiration to his students, all of whom have strange personalities of their own. Aside from the endlessly optimistic Kafuka, there's the hikkimori Kiri Komori; professional stalker Matoi Tsunetsuki; the mysteriously injured Abiru Kobushi; the culturally bipolar and complaint-happy Kaere Kimura; the mute yet vindictive Meru Otonashi; obsessive-compulsive Chiri Kitsu; the world's most moe illegal immigrant, Taro Maria Sekiuchi; and finally the desperately ordinary Nami Hitou.
STORY: Like a lot of manga comedies, there's not so much a continuous storyline here as there is a series of sketches, each focusing on one of the students mentioned above. That doesn't stop it from being suprisingly funny. I had my doubts about it before I read it, knowing this was meant to be a satire focused on mundane details of Japanese culture and language, but I found myself laughing out loud more than once. It's not all that obscure at all; it's just a comedy of misunderstanding and absurity, where the situations and the girls' neuroses just keep snowballing to the point where it becomes ridiculous (and ridiculously funny). None of the characters are terribly deep - in fact, their personalities so far are pretty one-note. On the other hand, those one-note personalities are part of the joke, so it doesn't bother me. Kafuka in particular is my favorite character, with the way she can twist any situation into something sweet and positive, which often ends up revealing details about her suprisingly dark home life. Unfortunately, I can't really discuss things in-depth because doing so would spoil the jokes. What I can say is this: you don't need to understand the satirical elements to enjoy Sayonara Zetsubou-Sensei. As long as you can appreciate absurb people being absurd, you'll find plenty to enjoy.
ART: Kumeta's character designs are simple, even sort of flat. They barely have noses most of the time, and outside of closeups their eyes are little but dark spots. Yet, through the well-timed use of hatching, stark black backgrounds, and the occasional well-drawn dramatic expression, he manages to convey all the emotion and humor needed for the story, as well as provide some visual contrast. He also does so through the smart use of textures. This is especialy apparently on the striking chapter splash pages, with their start black silhouettes and attractive patterns, which are onto themselves another culture reference (this time, to karuta cards). Backgrounds are not all that noteworthy, but they are loaded with signage to throw in yet another level of cultural reference. This may be one of the few times where the art truly does enhance the story by adding layers of context and callbacks to a satire which was already loaded with them. The art insn't visually complex, but it doesn't need to be when it's already so striking in its use of color and texture.
PRESENTATION: In addition to the usual (and very thorough) translation notes in the back and honorifics guide in the front that are to be expected from a Kodansha release, we also get a preview for the next volume, an early preview for this volume from the magazine where this manga was first published, author's notes on each chapter, and a couple of brief comedy pieces in the form of a couple of "charges" from Kaede and a collection of Meru's insulting text messages.
The world may leave Itoshiki-sensei in despair, but this manga leaves me in giggles. It's a satire of Japanese culture and inspirational teacher stories that never forgets to be funny as well as cutting. Plus, until that mythical day when its animated counterpart is licenced, this is the only legal way to SZS fans to get their fix.
This series is ongoing in Japan, and was published in the USA formerly by Del Ray, now Kodansha. 14 volumes have been published so far, and all are still in print.
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