You had to be there

by Bob Johnson

Sayonara, Zetsubo-Sensei is hilarious … so I’m told

The Taisho era (1912-1925) has become something of a nostalgic period in the Japanese memory; I guess the appeal is an old-guard Japan that wasn’t all evil and stuff. There’s a bit of truth to this: The era was characterized by the poor health of the Taisho emperor, who left the affairs of state to a set of politicians who expanded the rights of ordinary citizens. On the global stage, Japan was recognized as a major power for the first time in its history, coming out of World War I with a some plum League of Nations mandates over German territories in the Pacific.

There’s not a huge amount of anime that covers this period directly; there’s Gosick and Taisho Baseball Girls on the reasonably realistic side, with Steel Angel Kurumi and Sakura Wars on the pure fantasy side. Sayonara, Zetsubo-Sensei could count for the fantasy side after a fashion; though set in the modern day, it draws heavily from the Taisho aesthetic.

This is clearly manifest in the title character, Nozumo Itoshiki. Itoshiki is stuck in the past; he dresses in a hakama every day, and has an obsession with Japanese traditions that even his isolated, aristocratic upbringing can’t entirely account for. (When we first meet him, he is trying to be all wabi-sabi while hanging himself from a blossoming cherry tree.) Itoshiki-sensei can be counted on to despair over whatever little thing he happens to be thinking about, and does his best to try and pass along his outlook in life to his class.

The rest of the show’s characters are essentially living clichés, right down to having puns for names. “Nozumo Itoshiki” written in kanji apparently becomes “despair”, and so on. Zetsubo-Sensei pours a lot of effort into wordplay, which sadly is completely lost in translation.

The plot can best be described as racking the cast up on a pool table and shooting them around randomly until it finally stops. It occasionally shocks, and often pervertedly titillates, but what you won’t get out of this show is a lasting sense of excitement. As for the despair itself, it’s always there, but not exactly what it says on the tin: the show is more of a parody of pessimism and optimism, along with the manga industry, the uniquely Japanese fantasy about high school girls, and well, just about everything else.

Despite the cultural barrier to non-Japanese, Sayonara Zetsubo-Sensei holds up reasonably well as a window into the Japanese soul. (Your mileage may vary when it comes to its sweet-and-sour mood swings.) If you spend your drunken Friday nights thoughtfully spinning a revolver with a single bullet in the chamber, this show is for you. And if you really like it, there’s two more seasons.

Maybe look it up:
Sayonara, Zetsubo-Sensei (Goodbye, Mr. Despair)
based on the manga by Koji Kumeta
Produced by Shaft, Licenced by Media Blasters

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