SZS is a niche manga. Period.
Just the title alone is enough to send casual manga readers packing, with its unapologetic, multi-syllabic Japanese, chock-full of consonants and an abundance of ‘u’s.
Once past the cover, first-time readers will be impressed by the artwork and confused by the dialogue. If they make it through to the daunting 11 pages of translator’s notes at the end, they’ll have gotten a small introduction to the ironic, sardonic, cynical, reference-filled, parodying world of bizarre characters that is Class 2-F, led by Mr. Despair himself.
SZS is bound to have another set of readers, however, and I have the feeling that Del Rey is counting on the hard-earned (or not) cash of the second set: the socially inept yet strangely socially conscious, black-humor loving, translator’s notes reading, anime/manga completionist Otaku. (Yeah, this is definitely where I fit in, I won’t deny it.)
Zetsubou-Sensei & his class - copyright Koji Kumeta, Del Rey
The first volume of SZS sets the stage and introduces the main characters with short vignettes that explain each girl’s background.
Nozomu Itoshiki is an incredibly negative person who constantly despairs and dreams of suicide. Kafuka is an intense and oddly cheerful person who refuses to believe in negative events, even when they are happening before her eyes. Itoshiki ends up being the homeroom teacher in Kafuka’s class, and the story unfolds from there.
Kafuka works as Sensei’s foil, constantly thwarting his suicide attempts and refuting his rants against society. The series focuses on Sensei’s exploits in a classroom full of students as bizarre as he is. Five other characters are introduced in Volume 1, each with a quirk or characteristic that defines them and sets them apart (for instance, Meru, who only communicates through email – her name coming from the Japanese pronunciation of “Mail”).
Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei Vol 1 - copyright Koji Kumeta, Del Rey
Readers like me will have seen seasons 1 & 2 of the anime, as well as the 3 OVA’s that have been released in Japan; For these readers, SZS Volume 1 does not disappoint.
Del Rey’s adaptation preserves the strangely gorgeous full page spreads, as well as the extras such as attendance file inserts for the class members, the mock “sneak preview” that was released before the first chapter, the author’s ramblings in his “paper blogs”, the full text of Meru’s hateful email to Sensei, and more. Fans will recognize most of this material from the anime and appreciate its inclusion.
Japanese-language purists will appreciate Del Rey’s use of honorifics, and the reference-nuts can’t help but be pleased by the translator’s notes at the end (11 pages worth! Though I honestly wonder how much was cut for space …).
Even the cover pleases me as a fan of the series – the simple design with Sensei standing at attention holding his
briefcase portable suicide kit is set against a cheerful pale pink, flowery background with lively pink lettering. It’s the perfect way to undercut the black humor of the series with it’s deceptively cute characters and artwork.
For all his craziness and generally dark view of society, Kumeta is also an excellent artist. His style is crisp and clean, with his lines so sharp that the anal-retentive, OCD character would undoubtedly approve. His art is incredibly detailed without becoming cluttered, and his contrast of white space with solid black is striking. First time readers may be put off by the bizarre characters or abundance of in-jokes and references, but they certainly won’t be by the art style.
The manga version of SZS won’t disappoint readers already familiar with the sociopathic 2F classroom, but it is a niche title whose black humor and extreme parodies will not appeal to everyone. Kumeta’s artwork is beautiful and bizarre, as are his characters.
Del Rey’s version certainly did the best it possibly could with this complex source material, but I don’t expect SZS to be a best-seller by any stretch of the imagination.
Our first introduction to Despair-Sensei - copyright Koji Kumeta