Back when Mangajin was still in print, they ran regular installments of a 4-koma comic named A Visual Glossary of Modern Terms (Zusetsu Gendai Yōgo Benran), which mercilessly dissected all those quirky little aspects of modern life, and with great visual flair. E.g., here’s a gallery of people you’d meet in a dark alley, ranked and rendered like monsters in a console RPG. (Hint: Button-mashing will not help you here.)
I suspect most people reading this have never read, let alone heard of, Visual Glossary, which is a big part of why I held off paralleling it to Sayonara, Zetsubo-sensei for so long. But here we are, five volumes in, and a better parallel has yet to suggest itself. Others have described Zetsubo as a harem story (sure, maybe a harem story on heroin), but the harem stuff is there mostly to provide Koji Kumeta for a container into which to pour his jaundiced observations about modern Japan being a den of duplicity, cowardice, back-stabbing, insincerity and buck-passing. Still others, me included, have simply described Zetsubo-sensei as really freakin’ funny. That also works.
Part of why I’ve drawn the parallel with Glossary is because after five volumes, the book’s settled into a fairly comfortable (if not exactly predictable) pattern. Each chapter revolves around a particular meta-concept — White Lies, Toxicity, The Ending Which Reveals Everything Was Actually A Dream — which Zetsubo-sensei and his students end up embodying and exploring. (The students themselves, all female, are a living catalog of tendencies you would sooner root out of other people than observe, let alone put up with.) By the end of each chapter, they’ve gone so far over the top with the concept in question, they’ve actually come back up through the bottom again. You laugh, and maybe at the same time you squirm, because you realize a little too late you might well be one of the very things they’re ripping in half.
Among the things skewered this time around: the concept of “toxins”. This is used as an excuse to send everyone to an onsen — which would in theory cause the chapter to degenerate into the usual flesh market (and that almost happens), but a) the book calls attention to that very tendency and b) the whole concept of detoxing, as far as these characters go, means detoxing removes everything that made them interesting. Or, in Zetsubo-sensei’s case, removing everything, period. Topping it all off, the punchlines in this series are often three- or four-ply: you get a whole slew of them on the final page, and then maybe also an interstitial single-panel joke comic that caps that off. Value for money, I say.
It’s the kind of nasty, cutting satire that Japan either doesn’t do at all or does so well they blow most everyone else out of the pool. What makes it palatable here, more than just someone puking bile into your coffee, is how it’s mated with this simple but gorgeous retro-Taisho artwork (everyone looks like they stepped off the cover of a magazine for young girls, circa 1935), and comes sporting such an insane array of topical details that it works as a crash course in current Japanese popular culture. The translator’s notes alone for each volume of the series are larger than some whole chapters of some manga.
With Zetsubo-sensei, I know a lot of what makes this series what it is also makes it a tough sell, but that’s part of why I stump so hard for it for it anyway. Not just because it’s funny in a way few things are, not just because it’s great to look at (you will pry these books out of my cold, dead fingers), but because it’s an original, when less and less of everything else is.