Much as I hate to admit it, at this point Sayonara Zetsubo-Sensei has hit something like a comfortably formulaic plateau. What was funny and startling in the first couple of volumes has been reduced to a set of dance steps. They’re well-executed, but they’re a far cry from the wild fandango that kicked off this series, and so a comment like “How I laughed!” now carries with it a “but…”.
And yet, at the same time, there really isn’t anything else like this right now. Would that I had to find shelf-space partners for Zetsubo-sensei, they would consist of a very small, oddball list of other comics — the riotous Even A Monkey Can Draw Manga!, or maybe Usamaru Furuya’s indescribable and hilarious Palepoli. All of which, now that I think about it, are united in that they tap into humor that’s as peculiarly Japanese as it is a tough sell for people who are not already fans. I’ve talked before about this, and with each passing volume SZS gets no easier to stump for, even as it becomes that much more predictable.
That said, the funny stuff remains funny in a razor-edged, acid-etched way that few other manga approach. Zetsubo-sensei and his class of misfit weirdoes confront one social absurdity after another, turn it upside down, empty its pockets, club it over the head and feed it to the pigs. Among the things they skewer this time around: the jokes that everyone seem tempted to make, even if the odds are they’ve been made a thousand times before; the way our lives revolve around assumptions and presuppositions; how having no expectations is a great liberator (something Zetsubo-sensei knows all about); how having too much respect for an original piece of material is sometimes more stifling than anything else (attention anime and manga fans; this chapter is aimed right at you); and so on.
Even if a lot of this stuff unfolds according to a fairly stock plan, the individual pieces are still a delight. I remain a huge fan of the clean-but-sophisticated retro-looking artwork, best shown off by the frontispieces for the chapters. There, too, you can see the book’s humor at its most arch, as many of the chapters are sly puns on classic Japanese literature (e.g., “The Almost-Transparent Failure Blues” instead of Almost Transparent Blue). And there are the occasional laughs that require no particular knowledge of pop culture, Japanese or otherwise, as when the good teacher ends up face-down in a gutter with not one but two knives in his back. (Well, one of them’s not in his back, exactly … it’s … somewhere else.)
The Bottom Line: As always, I’m of two minds. I could recommend SZS as-is, knowing full well it’s going to waft way over the heads of even a fair number of fans. Or I could note that while this is one of the most original and ferociously funny manga running, it’s also one of the most obtuse and heavily-footnoted (with the latter being responsible for a good deal of the former). And now I have to add to all that another caveat: redundancy. The first three volumes — or even the first one alone — might be more than enough for most people. But I will speak for myself, and say that I’m sticking with this class all the way through until summer vacation.