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Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei (Goodbye, Mr. Despair)–First Impressions

The entire premise of the show in a nutshell.

I hope to be a teacher one day. I went to my present school because of my experiences teaching Sunday School to both kids and adults, and there are few things I find more satisfying in this life than seeing students engaged, asking questions, and watching insight, knowledge, and wisdom grow. I’m a sucker for good inspirational teacher stories, like Stand and Deliver, Dead Poets Society, and more relevantly for this forum, Gokusen. They all reflect the fantasy I have in my head about teaching.

So what happens when it is the teacher who needs teaching, especially about life and finding hope and meaning–even a reason to live? That’s what this new show, a very strong contender for this year’s Originality Award, is all about.

Like the show this most resembles (though only slightly), Welcome to the NHK!, we are immediately introduced to a set of extreme characters. Dotty, Pollyannaish Kafuka (Kafka? an odd choice if it’s meant to suggest that author of paranoia) and the title character, the despairing and genuinely paranoid Nozomu Itoshiki, are paired off from the start as the show’s twin engines. The show continues the increasing trend in modern anime toward 4th wall breaking, postmodern aesthetics: virtually all the characters’ names are puns that reflect their personalities. Snide comments about the action appear on the blackboard. Different animation styles, apparent references to silent film, and seemingly random occurrences abound. In many ways this is far more deconstructive than parody-oriented shows like Hayate no Gotoku and even the shuffled-ordering of Haruhi Suzumiya, though in the end it’s in the service of a fairly standard plot (so far): teacher manages to inspire students to be better. Even if, so far, it is almost entirely by accident.

And that’s the most notable thing I see about how the action plays out in the show: how entirely dependent it is on accident and unintentional consequences. Kafuka’s denial-based optimism, for instance, usually ends up having exactly the opposite effect of what she intends (trying to save Nozomu’s life usually ends up almost killing him instead)–and every time Nozomu intends to send gloom and despair to his students, he ends up inspiring them instead. This is, of course, all very funny. It’s the very definition of irony, which this shows has in spades. NHK seems tremendously earnest by comparison.

My guess is that this is one of those “the main characters save each other” kind of show, like NHK. Kafuka’s optimism is clearly based on outright wishful thinking and denial, not true hope. It will collapse soon, I think. Nozomu’s depression is based (so far) on paranoia. The other girls who are beginning to flock to Nozomu–the hikkikokmori, the obsessive stalker, the OCD neat freak–are like a sampler dish of psychological problems. Oddly enough, someone like Nozomu may be in the best position to help them. (Henri Nouwen, in his book The Wounded Healer, wrote about how a minister’s own wounds and hurts can be used to increase our identification with others who suffer, and that this is one of the most powerful means we have at our disposal.)

That is, if he doesn’t kill himself first. Or they all end up killing each other. The final scene of episode 2 is a hilarious summation of how all kinds of troubled freaks and stalkers end up following Nozomu like a Pied Piper, and as Kafuka and the school counselor look on in bemusement I wonder if it’s a sign of things to come. Like it or not, Nozomu is stuck with all these troubled people who follow him, and for the time being, they are keeping him alive.

85% recommended for your anime diet. A high dosage of irony, postmodern comedy, and originality! It also has an unusually tasty soundtrack.

Note: I know the title literally translates as “Goodbye Despair Teacher,” but I prefer “Goodbye, Mr. Despair.” In American English, we address our teachers as “Mr.” or “Ms. So-and-so” in the same way students add “-sensei” in Japan, and moreover, “Goodbye Mr. Despair” echoes another great teacher story from the past, “Goodbye, Mr. Chips.” Plus it rings much nicer in English.

Question: who is this fellow? Whose face is blocking all the fan service?

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