"Bure, Bure" or "Rumba, Rumba?"
Writer/Artist: Koji Kumeta
Translation: Joyce Aurino
Adaptation: Joyce Aurion
What They Say
Nozomu Itoshiki is depressed. Very depressed. He's certifiably suicidal, but he's also the beloved schoolteacher of a class of unique students, each charming in her own way: The stalker. The shut-in. The obsessive-compulsive. The girl who comes to class every day with strange bruises. And Kafuka, the most optimistic girl in the world, who knows that every cloud has a silver lining. For all of them, it's a special time, when the right teacher can have a lasting positive effect on their lives. But is that teacher Itoshiki, a.k.a. Zetsubou-sensei, who just wants to find the perfect place to die?
Del Rey consistently produces some of the finest quality manga for the US market, and their first volume of Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei is no exception. Featuring a finger-pleasing matte finish, Del Rey's cover shrinks the original front image and adds a thick-white border to house the series' title. One tiny quibble with their presentation: because coloring is softer and artwork smaller than the Japanese edition, a portion of their cover looks defaced by a faint coffee stain-it's actually a maple leaf design.
Otherwise, the manga is comparable to the rest of its publisher's catalog and comes with standard-issue glossaries handling honorifics and ample translations notes.
What would Nozomu Itoshiki-a sharp-eyed-kimono-clad gentleman occasionally known by the alias Zetsubou-sensei-say about manga-ka Koji Kumeta's label as "Japan's most brilliant satirist" on the back cover of Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei Volume 1? Such blatant hyperbole could well send the exceedingly contemplative teacher into a serious fit of near suicidal despair.
But despite what marketing copy and Itoshiki-sensei's occasional terminal antics might have one believe, Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei is not about the tragic life of a deathly depressed high school teacher. Grandiose claims aside, Koji Kumeta presents a stabbing satire on modern society, with an understandably predominant focus on Japan. The series doesn't glorify death and mayhem so much as it spoofs the weird, shameful, and plain ridiculous aspects of everyday living.
Our unlikeliest of educators, Nozomu Itoshiki, is most fully capable of leading his assorted class of misfits and modern-day stereotypes down a spiraling path of unchecked negativity. He's a man keenly adept at taking circumstances and twisting them into a dark, sometimes unpleasant, reality: potential career surveys become lists of impossible to achieve dreams, household supplies are tools for domestic violence, and the purest expression of love is, well, double suicide. Such a bleak outlook may come as little surprise from a man whose name is written with Japanese kanji that speak of nothing but misfortune. Of course, if the characters for Itoshiki's name are presented horizontally, rather than in standard vertical alignment, they offer the completely different reading of zetsubou, or translated into English, "despair."
Kumeta's manga is one of character and concept, not narrative. Chapters are largely independent fare covering their own topics and themes, with the innate focus on Itoshiki-sensei and his students acting as the substance binding the series together. With this in mind, the first volume is largely devoted to fleshing-out the inhabitants of Class 2-F. Foremost amongst these pupils is super-positive girl Kafuka Fura (we are told this is only her pen name, besides being a reference to famed 20th century writer Franz Kafka). She is the absolute antithesis, and at times foil, to her pessimistic instructor-a child whom the mere thought of someone choosing to isolate herself at home is a complete impossibility, believing instead this person must logically be a zashiki-warashi (a housebound spirit which brings good luck). So it goes that we meet students obsessed with precision, those afflicted with split personalities, compulsive stalkers, and even supremely ordinary individuals.
Due to the absence of plot, this volume especially feels somewhat erratic. Kumeta first needs to build his cast into recognizable entities, without overwhelming readers by featuring too many personas at once. Because of this, chapters lack a feeling of strong temporal flow, as students who recently received starring roles suddenly disappearing or get pushed into the background in favor of new characters.
Jerky pacing aside, the manga does turn a smile with an insidious humor that creeps about its pages. Rarely aiming for the explicit comedic punch, Zetsubou-Sensei relishes in its understated mixtures of sly commentary and unexpected exaggeration. Whether exposing a stalkers conga line full of dumped bimbos and perverted laundry men, or misconstruing an adult's sexual advances towards a little girl as just the desire to treat children kindly, the series is one that blitzkriegs readers' cynical tendencies. Kumeta's criticisms are unabashed and largely bereft of coy subterfuge, despite his tendency of hitting upon potentially sensitive subject matters. Still, he avoids coming across as pompous or self-righteous, even when readers are caught in the discursive crosshairs. This is a manga that bluntly deals its upfront appraisals and moves onto new material, leaving the audience to form their own opinion on the various acerbic musings.
Del Rey's adaptation comes complete with a copious supply of translation notes, bravely demystifying the manga-ka's at times dense web of in-jokes and references. Kumeta joyfully bounces between titillating shots at the hardest otaku, with talk of Raoh's speak pattern from Hokuto no Ken, to having chapter titles inspired by Japanese literature. How effortlessly the volumes reads will depend on one's own expertise, although a trip or two to the glossary is likely unavoidable for even the most learned of students. This cultural milange is, however, part of the series' inherent charm, as it adds additional layers of meaning to the societal lambasting. Being forced to hit the notes section may be unwelcome for some, but retaining the writing's original meaning is worth an occasional concentration speed bump. Del Rey deserves extra credit for both preserving this tricky wordplay and following with such thorough explanations.
Far from boasting lush, detailed artwork, this manga is nonetheless visually compelling and in places quite lovely. Kumeta's minimalist style, with its strong lines and clean contrast between blacks and whites, immediately attracts the eyes-a sparing touch of shading or intricate pattern work gives the illusion of depth, along with full-body character renders placed boldly against otherwise paneled pages. As a whole, though, Zetsubou-Sensei seems to trumpet the two-dimensional reality of its medium, purposefully choosing to remain flat and seductively geometrical. There's a precision to Kumeta's drawings that exists beneath what could be seen as an overt simplicity. His characters perfectly embody this notion, featuring modest designs that manage to impart a naturalness and sense of motion despite their stark depictions.
Not surprisingly, the visual designs in these initials chapters are still in state of continually evolving flux. Minor tweaks and improvements can be found just within this volume alone, while anyone who's partaken of more recent samplings of the manga will know the droopy appearances sported by certain characters will be chiseled overtime into sharper, more arresting portrayals. At present, one should expect slightly rounded physiques and the occasional drawn inconsistency.
Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei is one of the finest comedic series currently on offer in the US. Koji Kumeta's writing is smart and penetrating, the kind of wit that produces knowing grins, while also leaving a lasting impression; and his artwork, though hardly lavish, is strikingly appropriate. In face of a seemingly endless glut of manga teeming with vampires, lovelorn losers, and hyperactive-teenage do-gooders, Zetsubou-Sensei, with its irreverent humor and eccentric presentation, is an immensely welcome addition to the domestic landscape.