Imagine it, a beautiful spring day... The sun is shining, the birds are singing, the cherry blossoms are blooming - What a wonderful picture of hope, happiness and positivity. A wonderful picture, that is, until you discover that someone has decided it would be a good idea to hang himself from one of those nearby cherry trees.
As the subtitle of this manga, "The Power of Negative Thinking", suggests, Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei is anything but an examination of the unbridled joys of life. Instead, it revolves around a teacher named Nozomu Itoshiki, the "Mr. Despair" of the manga's title and a man capable of seeing the downside of even the greatest or most innocuous of things, and with rather a penchant for suicide to go with it. Thankfully for him, he's been assigned to teach a class which is equally packed to the rafters with misfits, from the almost insanely positive Kafuka Fuura through to the split-personality, lawsuit happy Kaere Kimura. Even the one member of the class who is perfectly normal is obsessively paranoid over that very fact! This unlikely bunch of characters, each with their own neuroses, forms the backbone of Koji Kumeta's back-to-front look at the everyday oddities and problems of modern life, dripping with surreal and twisted satire aimed at anything and everything in its path.
While Japanese culture is obviously the target of much of Kumeta's wit, this isn't necessarily a barrier to the average manga reader enjoying the comedy on offer here hugely, as many of the scenarios presented are universal in both their amusing nature and their slightly off-kilter relation to the world we all live in, while various areas and members of popular culture are used and abused as gags from Robert Schumann through to Death Note, and Google through to Kafka.
Speaking of Japanese culture, it has to be said that I don't envy the English translator of Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei. Aside from the usual cultural issues that need to be carefully explained (and thankfully the translation notes of this volume are fantastically comprehensive and fascinating in their own right), almost every panel of this manga is not just detailed, but also jam-packed full of textual gags - Every blackboard is smeared with little jokes and phrases, and every notice board hides its own secret. Add to that Kumeta's obvious glee at making use of wordplay (which rarely translates well) and you have yourself a real challenge for both translator and reader. It is, however, a challenge which this volume of the manga passes with flying colours.
If you're willing to delve into this manga with prior knowledge that you'll be intellectually challenged however, you'll be handsomely rewarded. Put simply, Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei isn't just funny, it's laugh out loud hilarity of the highest order. Give it a second read after leafing through the translation notes and you'll find twice as many things to laugh at - Even though this volume deals with introducing just a handful of the numerous characters the manga makes use of (which is so often a slow and slightly laborious task for the reader), it wastes no time in packing in the jokes and satire to leave you feeling that you've well and truly got your money's worth by the time you reach the end.
I hope I don't sound like a snob in saying that this manga isn't for everyone, and that if my references to Kafka and the like in this review left you cold you may not enjoy all there is to be gained from Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei. If you love good satire, wordplay and poking fun at all aspects of culture however, then this manga most certainly won't leave you in despair.