In today's diary I'm consumed by Del Rey's new title, Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei: The Power of Negative Thinking vol 1 by Koji Kumeta.
Someone once told me Japan doesn't really have "black humor." But that person clearly hadn't been exposed to Koji Kumeta's signature work. The title roughly translates to "Good-bye, Mr. Despair," and we're introduced to the suicidally depressed teacher Nozomu Itoshiki when one of his new students, the indefatigable teenage girl Kafuka, comes across him swinging from a cherry-blossom tree. The two polar opposites who "should not have met," have now met. She saves his ass from death by hanging and also refuses to believe anyone would want to off themselves -- particularly not when spring has sprung!
Once Itoshiki actually shows up for work his uses his special powers of "negative thinking" to solve the problems of his students, often by accident. Amusingly, everything he does that could be construed as big no-nos when it comes to female students ends up helping them in some way. Or well. Helping them as much as they can be helped. Most chapters are devoted to the peculiarities of not the depressed teacher but the weirdness of teenage girls. There's Kafuka who puts a positive spin on everything -- even suicide -- the girl who looks like a victim of domestic abuse, the stalker girl, the shut-in girl, the multiple-personality girl, the poison-email girl....and so on and so forth. My favorite moment is when Itoshiki has his students fill out their post-graduation survey -- i.e. Japan's version of "What do I want to be when I grow up?" -- he insists they put down only the goals that are impossible for them. In other words, look kids! You're going to live soul-crushing lives just like the rest of us! When the administration sees the surveys, Itoshiki is complimented because his students are so ambitious! Obviously he must have inspired them to reach big!
Each chapter should be read slowly and savored. I definitely recommended reading only a chapter or two at a time. This is a very, very dense manga -- there are almost 11 pages of translation notes at the end of the book and while they are helpful I actually think there is more pleasure to be had in doing a first read-through without bothering to flip back and forth. While there are many, many obscure references (such as the names of significant figures in Japanese culture and the arts) I think the reading experience becomes much too choppy if you go for the cultural references the first time through. Enough of the humor shines through that while the notes are helpful, they are so copious they can undermine the experience of this kind of visual medium. Kudos to the translator for doing such a fine job on a manga that has been described as "untranslatable" by many in the manga community.
Finally, I feel that it isn't just the black humor but also the art that really sets this manga apart -- while most of the girls look like 2-dimensional dolls you can plop different hair-styles and accessories on in order to differentiate them from each other, there Kumeta uses spectacular use of stark contrast between black and white to create and interweave patterns. These patterns are found in the man-made world -- clothes, objects -- they are also present in the natural world as well. Kumeta's use of black and white, rather flat, pattern-like arrangements make even the most simply constructed panels eye-catching.
Review copy provided by Del Rey.