A depressed young man came to see Hazel Dreis, the bookbinder. He said, “I’ve decided to commit suicide.” She said, “I think it’s a good idea. Why don’t you do it?” — John Cage, Indeterminacy
That Hazel, she sure didn’t stand still for anyone’s b.s. Had she met Nozomu Itoshiki, the titular character of Koji Kumeta’s Sayonara, Zetsubo-sensei, she would most likely have sent him schlepping with a smack to the back of the head: Look, kid, either do it or don’t do it, but for chrissakes don’t come here and advertise to me about it.
Some people have issues; Itoshiki has entire subscriptions. Itoshiki, you see, is in love with the idea of suicide. Not actually committing suicide, you see, but the idea of committing suicide. He’s so in love with the concept of killing himself out of sheer despondency, he’s never gotten around to doing it. Zetsubo-sensei, they call him. Professor Despair. The only sensible reaction to this corrupt world from such a sensitive, tormented soul as him is to find a branch, sling a noose over it, and hang himself by the neck until dead, dead, dead.
But wait. If he actually follows through on his death wish, then he can no longer collar strangers on the street and fulminate at them re: the wretchedness of life as we are condemned to live it. To that end, he elects to kill himself in ways that seem prime for interruption, like hanging himself in public or throwing himself under trains. If at first you don’t succeed, die, die again.
This, by the way, is very funny. It’s also funny in a way that only works if it is played absolutely straight from the inside out, which it is. Too many winks at the audience and you know you’re being played. Zetsubo-sensei keeps a straight face even when it’s splattering its pages with in-jokes that probably gave the translators many fits, and serves all this up in a nifty retro-Japanese style that is itself worth picking up the book for.
Nobody introduces a character like Itoshiki unless they intend to rock his little world, and that is precisely what happens. One fine spring morning, while Itoshiki’s hanging from a branch with the life being choked out of him, the whole ritual’s interrupted by a young girl who pounces on him by the legs. No, that’s not the smartest thing to do with someone who’s dangling in a noose, but it doesn’t take long for us to learn this girl’s not the brightest bulb in the carton. “What if I had died!?” Itoshiki shouts indignantly. He doesn’t want someone else to kill him; he wants the luxury of doing it himself, or his whole self-indulgent stance falls to pieces.
What, indeed, if he had died? Well, for one, he’d no longer have contemplating suicide as a hobby, but never mind; she has a better answer. “You didn’t really want to die!” she affirms. Because, after all, how could anyone ever want to kill themselves on such a lovely spring day, when everything is just bursting with the promise of new life? Certainly not someone like him! This she knows to the very marrow of her bones, with the same certainty that the sun will come out, tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar, &c.
This girl’s name is Kafuka (“Kafka”, get it?) and she’s as relentlessly positive as Itoshiki is utterly negative. Everything in her world has a sunny side, and that sunny side is always up: when her father tried to hang himself, he was (in her parlance) “just trying to make himself taller!” Her unremitting, lunatic joy is as alien to Itoshiki as his despondency is to her, and so he flees for what he believes to be the relative safety of the school. But there’s no getting away from her: she’s one of the students in the class he’s teaching. In fact, she’s one of the less whacked-out students in that class, which seems to serve as a kind of magnetic north for every compass needle of failure and dysfunction in the school.
Kafuka aside, the other students in the class are a hikikomori (a shut-in who refuses to attend class or even leave her house); an obsessive-compulsive who’s sent into fits by something as slight as a pair of uneven socks; a girl with a reputation for stalking every man who takes even the most marginal interest in her (yes, that includes her teachers); a girl with a compulsion for pulling animal’s tails; a student back from overseas classes who’s developed what amounts to a split personality to deal with the cultural divide; a sullen little girl whose only form of communication is to send venomous texts from her phone (“HEY TEACH STOP WEARING THOSE STUPID KIMONO PATTERNS / BTW UR GLASSES SUCK”); an illegal immigrant who doesn’t even speak the language properly and who hoards everyone’s garbage … and in what amounts to a colossal final stab of irony, a perfectly ordinary girl who despises her very ordinariness, but has no idea just how truly unhinged her classmates are.
The Breakfast Club, this is not. And as Itoshiki’s forced to deal with each one of these screwloose damage cases, Kafuka pops up to offer her idea of good advice. That shut-in girl — she’s not really a shut-in! She’s a … a good-luck spirit! It’s bad for her to leave the house, so let’s lock her inside! And that crazy stalker girl’s not crazy, either! She’s just someone with love that’s far deeper than what most people express in this day and age! But over time a weird sort of balance (if that’s the right word) develops between them, and maybe — just maybe — between her upbeat can-do attitude and his downbeat you-can’t-win certainty, there’s a way forward for all of them. Yes, and what was that about monkeys flying out of my rear end?
Most people who heard about Zetsubo-sensei originally discovered it in its other incarnation, as a TV anime then making the rounds of the fansub circuit. Nobody, me included, had seen anything remotely like it. It wasn’t just the biting humor or the Taishō-retro design mystique or the blizzard of split-second in-references (there are more gags of this kind in the opening credits than there were in most whole episodes of something like Excel Saga). It was the fact that all of this was in one place, and how the presentation and the contents complemented each other in the best possible way. I also knew — knew, from the bottom of my socks — that there was no way a show this unapologetically quirky would ever make it to an English-speaking audience. But for now at least we have the manga, and who knows — maybe we’ll get that much more of a chance to see the rest of what this twisted little masterwork has inspired.
Art: Put aside the barbed wit and the twisted storytelling and what’s left over is Koji Kumeta’s art style, which all by itself is enough to sustain a book. It’s a systematic inversion of the art style I’ve seen in many other manga, where faces and bodies are depicted with consummate precision but backgrounds are minimal to almost entirely empty. Here, the character designs are stripped down to storybook basics, while the environments and backgrounds are loaded with maddening amounts of detail. The book exudes a “retro” atmosphere: everything from clothing (Itoshiki’s outfit) to the splash pages that begin each chapter are patterned heavily off designs from Japan’s Taishō period — the ‘teens and twenties, roughly analogous to the same period in American history in terms of popular style and cultivated glamour. Another point of comparison is the work that illustrator take did for NISIOISIN’s Zaregoto, and to some degree Kenjiro (Hayate the Combat Butler) Hata, who was in fact one of Kumeta’s art assistants.
Translation: If there was any one title coming out this year where the translation had to be a top-notch effort, this was it. Small wonder I danced a celebratory jig when Del Rey announced they’d picked this up, since they are one of the few companies that makes no apologies about being fan-centric in their presentation. For the most part, they pulled it off. Yes, there are corner cases in the translation that annoyed me, but only because I went looking for them; for most people, this is going to come across as one of the most completist translation jobs they’ve ever bumped into.
Because of the sheer amount of material on the page that could be translated, though — signage, in-jokes, side-of-the-frame annotations — the folks at Del Rey had to set limits, lest the pages themselves either be retouched to death or cluttered with a film of side-notes. Dialogue and signage that is directly relevant to the story are both translated on the page. Sound effects have been left alone and annotated with marginalia (as is the case with most Del Rey titles, since many sound effects are considered calligraphy and deserve to be left as-is).
Most things that don’t get retouched are mentioned in the immense (twelve pages!) annotations section in the back, but some things — mostly extremely minor elements — are left out entirely. On page 10, look at the graffiti next to the knothole on the fence: it reads Nozoki kinzu[ru?] (のぞき禁ず) — “No Peeking”. That’s a gag worth translating, in my opinion, but I can understand the need to draw a line somewhere.
On the plus side, the bonus material we get is great. There’s a four-page “coming attractions teaser” that Kumeta drew for the comic before it was serialized (the gag is that the teaser has absolutely nothing to do with the comic itself); a two-page “Paper Blogs” section — author’s commentary on each of the stories, although they’re actually just launchpads for various self-deprecating gags; one-page gag panels for the shut-in and the “mail girl”; a parody page that recasts Itoshiki as the protagonist in Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country (how’s that for a cultural touchstone gag?); the aforementioned twelve pages of cultural and translation notes; and, as Del Rey is wont to do, a few (untranslated) pages from the next volume.
The Bottom Line: I had little doubt that Sayonara, Zetsubo-sensei would end up on my list of the best manga for the year. Now that I have the book in hand, I see nothing to change that conclusion. To borrow a line from Douglas Adams, it is not just twisted; it is downright bent. And in the best possible ways.