Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei (SZS) is one of the most funny, clever, edgy, and unique anime I have ever seen. However, it is also one of the most difficult anime to critique, as explaining why the anime prompted such a positive reaction from me as the viewer is quite difficult.
SZS is very similar to Shaft’s divisive underground hit Bakemonogatari, and if you enjoyed that anime, there is no need to read the rest of this review. If you haven’t watched SZS yet, put down whatever you’re doing and watch the first episode RIGHT NOW. You will have the series finished within a week and it will join Bakemonogatari on your list of favorite anime.
If you are a person like me who didn’t love Bakemonogatari, or a person who has never seen Bakemonogatari or any other Shaft anime for that matter, continue reading. I’m not saying that you had to love Shaft’s other works in order to love this anime because there are places that SZS succeeds where Shaft’s other works fail.
This ultimately comes down to the direction that SZS took as an anime. It decided to be primarily a comedy. Other comedic anime focus on other elements, such as slice of life, random otaku references, lovable characters, bizarre animation, exaggerated circumstance, or possibly even a good story underneath all the comedy. That’s not to say that SZS lacks these elements, but they are certainly not the focus. SZS throws as much humor at you as quickly as possible and tries to make you laugh continuously, very much in the style of Hayate the Combat Butler. Everything from the facial expressions to the hilarious one liners to the random lines written on the blackboard are attempts to get as many jokes per second as possible. Amazingly, these jokes are not diluted by their sheer quantity, and therefore I was laughing at the ones I was able to understand.
An interpretation of SZS as a pure comedy puts its best face towards a potential audience. There are certainly other secondary aspects to the anime, some of them quite dark and deep. However, every time that the anime approached that road of DEEP symbolism or discussion, the façade would blow up with another hilarious joke. I didn’t mind this personally, but if you’re looking for a similarly kinky and dark anime with more “depth,” then Welcome to the NHK (especially the light novel upon which the anime is based) is a much better fit for you. If you just want good, not-so-wholesome laughs, then SZS will fulfill your desires.
Again, if you enjoyed Bakemonogatari’s animation, SZS will not disappoint. Outside the context of other Shaft anime, I still believe there is much to be enjoyed about this animation. It’s abstract, but not so crazy that it makes your head spin. It’s creative, but simple enough that the world still functions much like our own. Shaft’s animation is very much a “love it/hate it” aspect of their anime. Some people will find the character designs bland and the backgrounds whitewashed, while others will see the style as a unique art form. There are “shortcuts” like in Bakemonogatari to shorten the amount of animation actually necessary (still frames, repeated animation), but SZS uses these with much greater comedic effect than one of its spiritual successors.
The voice acting is spectacular. Every character has a distinct voice and personality that flows from it. You could close your eyes and just listen to the characters, even if you don’t understand Japanese, and still know their roles in the anime. The optimistic girl sounds optimistic, the snobby transfer student sounds snobby. Some would argue that conveying stereotypes is an easy job in voice acting, but having done very marginal voicework myself, I can tell you it’s not (I have no acting talent but that’s beside the point). To impress an already cliché stereotype upon a character, rather than simply sounding like an actor performing a stereotype, is surprisingly difficult.
The background music was pretty much forgettable. It fit the strange, quirky mood of the anime but didn’t stand out. The catchy OP is still stuck in my head as I write this, and the ED counterpoints it quite well with an unusual jazzy number. Overall, this is one of the common cases where the music compliments the anime well, but doesn’t stand out on its own.
This category is what makes SZS so difficult to review. On the AP page, one may notice that there are eleven (11) main characters. At first, I found this ridiculous. I didn’t believe that an author could juggle more than 5 main characters, and of those 5, 3 would be dominant. There are three dominant characters in SZS (Itoshiki-sensei, Kafuka, and Chiri); however, I do not object to the other eight being called “main characters.” There aren’t any “forgotten” characters and the screentime is divided fairly evenly among all of them. As an ensemble, they’re hilarious with their clashing personalities and differing reactions to situations.
So how does SZS manage to juggle all these characters? That’s where the problem lies. All the characters are stereotypical and one dimensional. None of them have any other personality other than the one they were “assigned” by the author. All of them play their personalities up to the extreme. Usually, this would result in a boring exercise of recycled clichés. However, SZS does what I thought was impossible; it makes one dimensional characters interesting. Possibly because they are in the context of a varied ensemble, or possibly because the actors portray them so well, I can’t help but be entertained when I see these characters.
I think the anime creates a great irony to its advantage, a similar irony that Lucky Star tries to create but doesn’t do so nearly as well. The irony is that by exaggerating the characters features to a larger than life scale, they make them all the more relatable to our lives in the real world. Ridiculous things do happen in the real world, just not as frequently as they do in anime. When we relate to these situations, not only are we laughing at the plight of the characters in a fabricated scenario, but we also laugh at ourselves and the follies in our own life.
Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei is most definitely greater than the sum of its parts. I cannot guarantee that everyone who reads this review will enjoy it as much as I do, but I know some will enjoy it just as much if not more. If you like Shaft anime (why haven’t you seen this yet?) or simply school life comedy, then this is the anime for you. However, if you’re not in these categories, then I still think you should check the anime out if you’re looking for a laugh. If you’re not laughing after the first episode, move on to something else, this anime is not something that you’ll enjoy. However, if you are laughing out loud like I was after the first 5 minutes, then have fun with these crazy characters in this comical anime.