Situational comedy is a great genre in and of itself, but rarely do you see sitcom-esque anime that is as smart and socially-aware as Zetsubo.
On the surface, Sayonara Zetsubo-Sensei falls into that most dreaded of anime genres: the harem anime. A single man, who in many ways is the “avatar” for the otaku audience, is surrounded by numerous attractive, younger, and largely subservient women– this is the plot of every harem anime, and Zetsubo is no exception. Even the fact that the girls are far from your harem norm (Example: the “main” girl is positive to a fault, refusing to see anything in a negative light.), doesn’t break the series from the mold. So what, exactly, does Zetsubo do that changes it from banal wish-fulfillment to witty comedic genius?
While it isn’t the only detail that causes the series to elevate itself above the norm, the fact that Zetsubo dares to discuss actual social topics and the like gives the series a decidedly mature twist. Each episode follows one or more tangents where the main character, the titular Zetsubo-sensei, bemoans that a certain aspect of the world has sent him into despair. In one of the later episodes of the first season, Zetsubo-sensei despairs over the fact that trivial things are celebrated, a dig at the way the media latches onto meaningless fads and the like as a way to avoid handling genuine concerns. Various instant celebrities are paraded around town by a horde of all-too-willing admirers, while said admirers are busy looking for the next thing to hoist onto the temporary pedestal. This is an obvious dig at such things as the idol phenomenon in Japan, where singers are marketed for a quick buck and then quickly “disposed of” when their popularity begins to wane. Criticism of the fickle nature of the media and the viewing public is hardly new, but to see such criticism in anime is rare. Anime, by and large, is a surprisingly conservative form of media. Despite being willing to show violence and sexual innuendo to a younger audience than most other forms of animation, anime rarely ventures into any sort of social criticism, and what little we receive is of the pandering, preaching-to-the-choir anti-war spouting you get out of Hollywood. Zetsubo is one of the few anime series that actually has the guts to use topical humor, even if said topical humor is fairly light-weight.
Subject matter aside, Zetsubo manages to create an interesting cast of characters. In addition to Zetsubo himself and perpetually positive Kafuka (Her name an apparent pun on Franz Kafka.) the cast includes: an anal-retentive girl who harbors thoughts of genocide; a quiet, demure girl who only communicates through threatening, vulgar text messages; a balding boy who only becomes noticeable when his comb-over is compromised; a girl with a tail-pulling fetish; a stalker, whose target is naturally the main character. Many of these characters cover some of the stereotypes you see in harem anime, and these characters are meant to turn said conventions upside down. But instead of simply leaving it at that, the series goes beyond turning one’s expectations around. While the bulk of the first season is devoted to introducing said characters and showing how they defy expectations, most of the humor isn’t derived from mere juxtaposition. Characters play off of one another in clever ways. Like in a good sitcom, everyone plays their role well, and the humor comes from the characters reacting to the given situation. A typical trip to a hot spring turns into the cast talking about “purifying” that which ails people’s minds, bodies, and souls. Chiri, the anal-retentive girl, reacts by coming to a natural conclusion for her personality type: Everyone is impure beyond hope, and will never meet her standards. The solution is to kill all life on earth. It may sound ridiculous written as such, but the anime makes the decision both hilarious and perfectly logical. THAT is true character development.
Aesthetically-speaking, Zetsubo is fairly unique. Rather than sticking to the bright colors and obvious character designs of similar series, Zetsubo’s color palate matches that of The Count of Monte Cristo more than any other anime. Colors, especially those on the clothing of character, have a life of their own and don’t follow a static pattern. At the same time, real life photos are often inserted into scenes. One man’s profile is used extensively, ranging from acting as a replacement for the school’s clock to covering up “inappropriate” material that could be pixelated. The character designs themselves are typical but distinct. Despite avoiding ridiculous hair styles, hair colors, and outfits, each character is fairly recognizable. This is due mainly to each character’s appearance reflecting their personality, and through this their look becomes distinct. The animation isn’t always as fluid or dynamic as some series, but the tricks used to lower animation costs are less obvious than in many other series. All in all, Zetsubo is one of the more distinct series, visually-speaking, in recent years.
Not too many series manage to nail humor while being remarkable in other aspects. More often than not, a humorous anime series will have functional art and animation, or it will avoid being “smart” in favor of going for the “safe” laugh. There’s plenty of series that do these things while still being pretty great, but Sayonara Zetsubo-Sensei one-ups most comedy anime by managing to pull off more than just a sense of humor. This entire package is what makes the series genuinely great. In the end, Zetsubo is probably the best new anime series from 2007, and so far its sequel, which retains the same exact qualities, is the best anime of 2008.
Go watch it now, or you’ll send me into despair.