Once upon a time, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and the VHS of Akira was still marketed by Streamline Pictures, there was a little monthly named Mangajin. They were, and still are, a godsend for someone who wanted to not only learn Japanese but learn about it through Japanese popular culture, via excerpts of translated manga. I even wrote briefly for them (I penned a couple of pieces about Japanese text processing in English editions of Windows), but then — in a move that played like a plot twist out of this very comic — they went belly-up and nothing like them has come since. And with the licensing costs for manga now through the roof it’s not likely anything ever will.
Curious, then, how Sayonara, Zetsubo-sensei comes fairly close to filling one of the roles Mangajin played. Its U.S. edition is English-only, as opposed to Mangajin’s bilingual production, but it’s as culturally omnivorous an entertainment as The Simpsons, and easily as difficult (if not doubly so) for outsiders to appreciate. Each volume sports more marginalia, annotations and endnotes than most other series’ complement of such things. It’s brutally funny and deliciously mean-spirited, a black comedy of manners that got dressed up as a cultural encyclopedia and went trick-or-treating. Call it a “200-level” manga. This is what you pick up when ninjas in orange jumpsuits isn’t enough of a challenge for you, and you now want to learn about how one can “plead the Fifth” in the guise of a holiday observance by shoving a five-foot sushi roll into one’s mouth ... and gnawing on it for a whole week.
If you didn’t read my review of the first volume, you hardly need to start from the beginning to figure anything out. The story’s just a veneer over the gags, in the same sense that if you turn on South Park mid-season you’re probably not missing anything either. The basics are easy enough: Perennially suicidal schoolteacher Nozomu Itoshiki and his students go on one freewheeling escapade after another through what passes for modern living. And in the process, everyone gets zinged, from the titular Professor Despair (always on his way to his greater reward, and yet never quite managing to cash in) to his class of misfits to timorously polite Japanese society as a whole. The gags that don’t require an understanding of Japanese popular culture suck at the jugular at least as hard as the ones that do.
Most of the chapters follow a basic pattern: they start with a concept, like Cutting Other Off or Getting Rid Of Things You Don’t Need, and follow them to the bitter end, until all semblance of modesty (and sanity) has been bled away. At its best, it’s savagely funny, the kind of taboo-exploding wickedness the aforementioned Park sports in spades, although without that show's compulsive vulgarity. Consider the chapter where Zetsubo-sensei decides being a perennial exam-cram student isn’t a bad way to go through life: look at the way today’s college ronin get their worst excesses excused! Unfortunately, once you actually pass your exams, you’re right back where you started, and soon he’s cramming for everything from flower arrangement to pet breeding to living and dying itself … and one of the biggest laughs in the whole book comes when we find out he in fact does not have the proper credentials to off himself. (He does die, a little later, but … it’s not permanent.)
The most inventive and wicked segments, unfortunately, are also the most culturally obtuse. Some are more accommodating, like one chapter that uses the motif of the tiered-doll display (a common cultural festivity in Japan) as a lead-in for a brilliant bit of nastiness about how we all look for someone worse off than us to feel better. The climax is brilliant: an indignant Zetsubo-sensei demands the creation of a truly egalitarian society, and he gets one — except that it’s North Korea. Less accessible is another chapter that revolves around an extended family of puns involving manzai (two-man comedy teams). For that one, I flipped to the notes in the back so often I nearly sustained paper cuts. And yet even with those I was still barking with laughter, not just from the jokes themselves but at the book’s gleeful disregard for anything like modesty or tact.
Tough sell, this book. Manga fans who are not also Nipponophiles — and there are plenty of those — will be baffled, so take that as a warning. Those of you who want a degree of wit and smarts with your laughs should go back to Volume 1 and get caught up. Remember to bring two bookmarks — one for the story, one for the notes — and do not read in public for fear of scaring the people near you when you burst out laughing at what Koji Kumeta & Co. get away with.