Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei's central protagonist, Mr. Itoshiki, is the very paragon of negativity and a man who sees the worst in everything. While this hardly seems like the best fodder for laughs, the series functions as a satire with the titular character casting his morose gaze onto society. This said, I found that the satirical humour lacked the cutting edge that normally makes the genre enjoyable. Certain sketches appear to be more of a neutral observation of society rather than a critique, and when the series parodies and exaggerates society's practices and tendencies, it does so in a disarmingly blatant manner. At times, it feels more like a stand-up comedian walking around and describing what he sees through a megaphone rather than delivering barbed gags with the reserved finesse that tends to make satire so compelling.
In addition to the satirical elements, Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei is absolutely laden with incidental references, ranging from Death Note to Phoenix Wright to Snoopy. Most of these take the form of the quickfire quips and quotes which decorate the blackboard and walls throughout classroom scenes, whilst others - such as Itoshiki collapsing and a manifestation of Kira's grinning face appearing in the air - are somehow more obvious. In any case, this ensures that there's always something going on which commands attention and catches the unwary viewer off guard.
Whilst the story is lacklustre, it is redeemed by the anarchic but brilliant direction. The anime is guided by a seemingly of out of control genius, the type which throws in apparently random imagery and takes entirely arbitrary decisions but does so with a confidence that convinces you that there must be layers of meaning to every word and every shot. The direction also succeeds in adding drama to seemingly mundane circumstances. When Itoshiki smashes his palm on the desk, the timing combined with the sharp camera angle employed ensures that the viewer feels his frustration or anger in a more immediate way than speech or characterisation alone can achieve.
Indeed, I would say that Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei's strongest suit is probably its animation. A combination of stubbornly 2-dimensional character designs and deliciously smooth movement make the whole thing feel like a living painting, a feeling compounded by an artistic style which borrows heavily from recognisable Japanese canvas art. The end result is a series which looks distinctive - perhaps even unique - without straying too far from the standard anime aesthetic.
The level of detail which the animation achieves is more praiseworthy still. Some of it feels almost overindulgent, such as the frame-long, blink-and-you'll-miss-it spark that appears when a plug is inserted into the mains or the confetti that doesn't simply fall but flutters, rotating and catching the light as it goes. Other sequences of animation, however, will make you sit up and take note. When Itoshiki presses a piece of chalk too hard against the blackboard, it doesn't just snap into two or three pieces. Fissures appear, the chalk cracks and shatters into some thirty shards, each perfectly-shaped segment flying off on its own trajectory, some larger pieces further fragmenting... All this lasts just short of a second. More if you rewind the scene to watch it again and again in open-mouthed astonishment.
From classical to electronic, from European to Japanese, the soundtrack to Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei is like some kind of world tour through time. The variety is absolutely astounding. The anime treats the viewer to to warm piano pieces, gentle choral elements, upbeat accordions, dramatic orchestral arrangements and so many other styles and influences besides. In short, the background music is anything but generic, and is a treat to listen to in its own right. Surprisingly, each track manages to stay subservient to the action on the screen, augmenting each scene without ever diverting the viewer's attention.
The opening and ending themes, both of them evocative and engaging, complement the magnificent array of background tunes. The driving punk sounds of Hito Toshite Jiku ga Bureteiru introduce most episodes with an explosive energy. Meanwhile, the ending theme, Zessei Bijin, employs vaudevillian tones and assumes a breathtakingly twisted quality by juxtaposing them with the scenes of beauty and violence it plays over.
There are most definitely too many characters in Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei. Having as many major characters as episodes is rarely a good thing, and this anime is no exception to the rule. The lack of unrealistic hairstyles and hair colours makes it a challenge to tell characters apart to begin with, even though each of the characters has some distinctive element to their character design.
Furthermore, with only a couple of exceptions, each character in Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei has one character trait which dictates all of their behaviour, and leaves no real room for something recognisable as a personality. Indeed, following a bit of wordplay hocus pocus, the characters are even named after the quirk which defines them. Whilst it is clearly intentional, and whilst I have no automatic dislike for simple characters, such a lack of depth turns the overwhelming majority of the cast into simple gag-characters who are just a repetitive catchphrase short of residing in the lowest basements of lazy humour. As it stands, character interactions - with only a couple of exceptions - mean very little; in many scenes it feels like the characters are interchangeable.
When watching Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, freezing the action becomes a routine experience. Whether it is to read the scrawlings on the blackboard and the silent film captions that pop up on occasion; whether it is to stare in silence and try and puzzle out what the meaning of the last image was; or whether it is simply to pick your jaw up off the floor after a particularly sleek piece of animation or one of the occasional excellent lines of dialogue, the pause button is almost guaranteed to see use. I suppose that in a way this entails added value, as it really does feel like each episode contains far more material than the twenty minute running time would suggest. Additionally, the series is packed with puns and allusions to Japanese culture, although much of this may be lost in translation.
Although the animation, sound and direction of the anime are excellent, whether or not it is a work of entertainment is a question which remains open to debate. However, I found enough great moments of wit and wonder to pardon the lazy characters and occasionally flat humour. Coupled with the outstanding presentation of the series, this was sufficient to elevate the anime from being simply a worthwhile viewing experience to being a gripping and - on more than one occasion - enchanting tour de force.
Life is simply not worth living for down and out school teacher Itoshiki Nozomu. He has no hope of progress, no prospect of promotion, no chance at happiness… he is in despair! Even his name spells 'zetsubou' – 'despair', when compressed. But when the time comes to end it all, Itoshiki's attempted suicide on the first day of the new school year is foiled by relentlessly positive Fuura Kafuka. This saves Itoshiki long enough to meet his new class, and the quirky range of students under his care. Will Itoshiki Nozomu depress his students with his anguish? Or will Fuura show Zetsubou-sensei the joys of life and hope?
When it comes to anime, I tend to be a fan of comedy, shoujo, romance or anything else that will put a smile on my face. However, I'll review pretty much anything. Whether you like or dislike my reviews, I'm always glad to receive feedback, and I'm always happy to get into intelligent discussions.