1/15/2008

Series Review: Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei

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"You were...trying to make yourself taller, weren't you?"

Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei is a funny kind of show.

Naturally, I mean that in both senses of the word. First off, it's a 'funny' show in the same way that someone like me might smell 'funny', with a style far removed from most slice-of-life shows. You come to SZS expecting a standard bright, cheerful school-life comedy and what you get is something you might expect from the British and their flying circuses.

It's a type of show that's insulting and off-the-wall, with continuity thrown to the winds in favor of sheer insanity in numerous disconnected sketches. And compounding this is that distinct SHAFT style, with the plentiful camera cuts, the occasional strangely-framed shot, and parody after parody of every aspect of both anime and society.

It's quite simply, an anime that you're unlikely to see the likes of again (barring its sequel, Zoku SZS), in style and in concept, for good and for bad. A show like this feels highly experimental in nature (at least for me, who is used to comparatively sane slice-of-lives), a kind of 'what happens if I press this?' on a six-hour scale, and naturally as a result it has its great moments and it has its annoying moments.

Luckily enough, for the most part Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei is 'funny' in the gut-busting sense of the word as well.


(Unless you're prepared for spoilers, that is.)


I can only guess that all three are here because they are SHAFT show heroines.

As has been expounded on all of forty-eight hours ago, characters are what make slice-of-life shows great, and SZS looks to deliver with a quite large core cast that keeps on growing, with each newly introduced member of Nozomu Itoshiki's class. But what's interesting about SZS is that it takes a different approach than shows like Minami-ke, in that it focuses more on cast-plusplus-ing (er, adding new characters) than really developing the existing ones.

Most of SZS's half-episode sketches involve introducing the next member on Itoshiki's roll-call, and each one is done quite well. Each character in the story has their own distinct personality trait, one might say defect, and over the course of 10-odd minutes we usually see that personality evolve as the character comes in contact with the equally demented world of Itoshiki.

The best part of the cast is the wonderful way in which pretty much all of them are messed-up or out-of-place in some way, from Fujiyoshi (first name?) the yaoi fangirl to Meru the internet troll to the incredibly normal girl (whose name, naturally, I forgot) and ever so many more. Their interactions are even better, when the frequently closed-minded personalities clash, whether it be Chiri's OCD perfectionism forcing itself on other characters, or Kafuka's optimism radiating out. Words don't really describe the amount of humor that seeing Chiri trying to evenly divide a 4-strawberry cake for 5, 6, and eventually 7 people, and finally resorting to liquefying the whole thing in a blender.

Additionally, an aspect of SZS touched on in a few episodes, but perhaps not fully realized is the deliciously anti-harem style of it. Your standard harem show with a bunch of cute, happy, pleasant girls (no doubt childhood friends from X years ago) going hardcore deredere over some nondescript male is entirely dime-a-dozen (especially around these parts of the internet), and the ridiculous way in which SZS turns a cliche like this on its head is 110% awesome. Here, a pessimistic, insane, and slightly suicidal teacher racks up a bunch of love interests including a stalker, an OCD perfectionist, and a shut-in (hikikomori), who all pursue him with almost disturbing enthusiasm. (Don't forget, they're his students, too.) It's a concept that is all too enjoyable, and I wish that SZS had poked more fun in this area.

Still, what the show does do will generally leave you on the floor, rolling with laughter. With nearly every half-episode being a character introduction, and with every character being drastically different or strange in a new way, there are a lot of winners in the bunch.

Not to mention, the show has a simply obscene level of depth to it, one that can stretch a 25-minute show to 30 or 35 with the sheer amount of pausing needed to catch all the in-jokes.

SZS features what apparently is the SHAFT trademark Mighty Morphing Chalkboard, with a changing message written on it each scene. These range from in-character notes, to random commentary, to subtle pokes at other anime; it's a great way to extend the viewing life of a show in seeing things you didn't see before - as long as you don't mind breaking up the flow of the episode a bit to pause.

Not to mention, SZS does some not-so-subtle pokes as well. Whole minutes of the show are devoted to parodies of TV shows, commercials, and pretty much anything you can think of. If you don't get it, it's probably a reference.

Which herein lies one of the minor flaws of SZS. One would think that not understanding a show would be a major flaw, but here it's just a manner of getting in the right mindset. Honestly, if you're trying to 'get' SZS, you're probably watching it wrong. On the incomprehensible scale from 1 to 10, with Cardcaptor Sakura being a 1, and Lucky Star a 10, SZS would solidly smash through the glass ceiling with something on the high side of twenty.

It's the full package; when it's not doing random references to Japanese commercials, it's slapping together scenes in a disconnected manner, and when it's not doing that, it's busy being discontinuous. I think the epitome of this is when Itoshiki gets utterly flattened by a runaway trolley at the end of the penultimate episode, only to return perfectly fine in the final episode (which, incidentally, acted exactly like a normal episode, introducing two characters with next-to-no sense of conclusion).

I really did wish that sometimes the show would at least pretend that past events had happened - if only because I wanted to see a 'sketch with no punchline' - but overall the show still manages to make it work with the sheer over-the-top-ness of the show. Taking it seriously is taking it the wrong way. It's not the 'brain in park' level of fanservice shows, but more of a 'clutch disengaged', where you kind of coast downhill and let the show take you where it wants.

Something that's more worrying about SZS is when the humor goes wrong; there are many absolutely brilliant moments in the shows that wouldn't be possible without the dark style of it, but sometimes in trying to be funny it trips over its own shoelaces.

This is usually apparent in characters like Maria, the illegal immigrant. A lot of her humor revolves around her combination of poverty and enthusiasm about the country. She's kind of the pitiable character, the poor beggar that everyone in the show can't help but love. But often times a lot of the jokes regarding her backwardness come off as more 'social commentary' than true humor. It's tough to draw the line between comedy and straight xenophobia sometimes.

Likewise, SZS started going down to the Fanservice Mart when it realized halfway through, that panty shots were a lot cheaper than the joke over at the Funnies-R-Us; however, those who are less sexually repressed find that these gags contain only about a quarter of the taste, and, unlike what the back of the box says, aren't just as filling.

Kae[d/r]e the pseudo-yandere flipped back-and-forth between her Japanese nice-girl and foreign lawsuit-threatening persona (another touchy gag) almost as much as her skirt flipped up, which only occasionally was part of an actual joke, instead of the far more common 'dead space / transition panties.'

Kiri the shut-in and Chie the actually kind-of-level-headed character also succumbed to the same form of random sexualization usually confined to fanfiction, bookending funnier jokes with spontaneous yuri. Maybe it's the sunlight-fearing geek in myself, but Kiri really had a lot more potential than that, which was only realized at the start and end of the series.

Barring these pratfalls, though, SZS's humor largely works well, with enough redeeming moments, and enough of a different feel from the norm, to earn a solid Konata thumbs up (Good job!) in this category.

Visually it's a treat as well, and while it's not the most graphically stunning piece, it does enough tricks and has enough fun to stand out in an above average way. The art style of SZS feels very distinctive - one might say much more traditionally Japanese - and the way that SHAFT mixes it up as usual with crazy camera shots, graphical style changes, and especially the visual gags, makes it enjoyable to watch.

The OP sequences in particular deserve special mention. the first OP, made solely of black title cards, feels cheap, but the mixing up of the 2ch copypasta in the lightning-fast text segment warranted a second look (especially with a bunch of censored words that made it feel like a puzzle to understand). The second OP was ADHD central and showed a lot of that distinctive SZS edge, from the flashes of yuri bondage (among other entendres), to the faces with kanji on them, to the random real-life shots superimposed, it's a lot to take in. And the third OP, shown for only two episodes, was a bit cheap in the animation department but had enough text to make it all worth it, with joke upon joke that could only be discovered though master subtitling and frame-by-frame viewing.

The songs were plenty worth it too; the SZS soundtrack had a couple songs that were memorable, although not MP3-player worthy, but the OP / ED were absolutely fantastic. "Damn Twisted Person", the first OP, was a demented hard-rock song, while the second, "Gouin ni Mai Yeah", was more typical, yet still listenable, J-pop-style stuff. "Zessei Bijin", the ED theme, as you may remember, is one of my all-time favorite songs, with a jazzy, swinging beat that's infectiously catchy, and the lyrics, like Damn Twisted Person, fit the show and its amusingly twisted feel very well.

Sayonara Zetusbou Sensei is a show that probably turned a lot of a people off. The subbing was (understandably) slow, the humor was a bit questionable in the middle, and the insanity might be a bit too much to bear. But overall, I think it's a stand-out slice-of-life show that deserves at least a peek.

It doesn't have that universal appeal of shows like Azumanga, doesn't have the great cast of Minami-ke, doesn't have the charm of Lucky Star. But what it does do right is that it is unmistakably its own type of show. It's different, it's provocative, and it still has a great, funny cast. Try it, and see just how much fun being left in despair can be.

-CCY


Since it was inherently hard to find Kiri with anything more than her trademark blanket on, we'll go for #2.

(If Minami-ke is a "better than good", Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei is a "not quite great.")

(For some reason, I'm finding a lot of slice-of-life casts to be head-and-shoulders above many of the harem shows I watch. Is it because they're flatter, so that I can't really see their flaws? Or is it just that they're just less tailor made for moe, and more for funny?)

The Path to the Post:
A few posts around the anime blogging networks that I browsed through in order to help make this post possible, which didn't really have a place in the de facto post to be cited.

* Concrete Badger's final episode post at The End of the World mentions the Britcom element of SZS as well as providing some other interesting analysis on the show, the final episode, and apologetic culture.
* Ascaloth at Riuva touches on the amusingly discontinuous nature of the show, the parody elements, and more.
* Don't forget, there is a second season; first episode post courtesy of recap blog Tenka Seiha.

23 comments:

SZS was, as far as I could tell, pretty much social, cultural, and political commentary the entire way through.

Several times, I was surprised that they actually managed to air what they did without getting hit by a lawsuit for slander (or libel or whatever) from various politicians who were actually named (albeit censored by astericks) or referred to obviously.

You're probably right, DKellis; I guess that some of the commentary just hit more of a nerve than others.

For example, since I'm a perfectionist, Chiri came off more funny than insulting; but since there are heavy immigration debates in the U.S., Maria's situation just sort of lands with more of a dull thud.

And yeah, thinking about it, you would think that more people / organizations would be insulted by SZS. Maybe the Japanese aren't as trigger-happy with their lawsuits.

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