Sunday, May 9, 2010

Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei Volume 6

By Koji Kumeta. Released in Japan by Kodansha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Weekly Shonen Magazine. Released in North America by Del Rey.

First off, lest this review turn into another giant rant, let me point you to my review of Volume 5, here. Pretty much everything I said there still applies to this volume, which looks badly edited and slapdash. The contents page still lists the stories as coming from the chapters from Vol. 4 (and no, it's not a gag, the original Japanese has the correct listing), the continuity is still different from 1-4 (I've lost all faith vs. I'm in despair, etc.), and the endnotes, while more accurate this time, are chosen almost at random, with many, many references left simply unexplained. Del Rey, you knew it was going to be a hard manga to translate when you licensed it. Stop cutting corners. And list your editors, dammit!

Now that that's over with, let me sing in praise of this volume of Zetsubou, which is excellent and defies all attempts to mess it up. In particular, there's fewer chapters that require immersion in Japanese culture to understand them, and a lot more things that are universal.

Kumeta has found a basic template he uses for each chapter (excusable as this is at heart a gag comic, and plot and characterization are irrelevant): start with the class doing some activity, Zetsubou-sensei comes in to rant about the Topic Of The Chapter, and provide examples of it, culminating in a long list. There then proceeds a discussion among the class, usually giving some examples among themselves. Kafuka then comes in and twists or reverses the topic, which leads to a second set of examples and list on the reversal. And then things spiral into a chaotic ending, usually finishing with a quick one-liner by Maria. It works.

There's not quite as much of the character's quirks in this volume as compared to others, with the exception, of course, of Matoi, who is still visible behind Zetsubou-sensei in at least one panel per chapter. (Later volumes will show Kumeta tiring of this, and she'll become a more developed character. But for now, it's fun to try to track her down.) Nami only says "Don't call me ordinary!" once, and even Chiri only goes insane and murderous twice here. With one exception, the chapters focus on the cultural gags rather than the people in the cast.

That one exception is Chapter 55, which introduces one of my favorite characters, Ai Kaga. Unlike Mayo from Volume 5, who is fun but will remain a minor one-note character, Ai becomes a regular pretty quickly. Her quirk is also both very Japanese and yet also easily understandable elsewhere: she thinks everything is her fault, and is constantly apologizing. She even notes that she hasn't appeared in the manga before now as she knew if she did readers would lose interest. (She's right, she wasn't even in the background before, unlike characters such as Mayo or Manami.) In among all the class's attention hogs and egotists, she's very refreshing. And of course, matches up well with Zetsubou-sensei, who's also very negative about himself.

The main reason to read the manga, of course, is the humor. Not only are the observations dead-on, but there are little throw-away gags that also work great. When Zetsubou "dies" at the end of Chapter 55, we see him in his coffin, and note that Matoi is lying in state right next to him. The exam results that we see in Chapter 56's title page are actually in character, with Meru at the very bottom as she tried to text her answers, and Maria and Matoi right above her as they both "cheated" by leaving their seats (no doubt Maria was hanging on the ceiling and Matoi was under her teacher's podium).

And, to give Del Rey some credit, the dialogue that doesn't depend on references to 1980s video games or Japanese idol singers is rendered very well. It's a very smooth translation. The one thing that made me raise an eyebrow is in Chapter 54, where the original Japanese pun is untranslatable. The joke is that one girl's name is Kanako, and Nami jokes that if she married a man named Oba she'd be "Oba Kanako", which can be read as "big idiot." Del Rey give an endnote explaining this, which is awesome. But in the joke they used instead, Nami says if she married a man named "Lingus", she'd be "Kana Lingus". Now, I know this is rated for Older Teen, but seriously.

I do still recommend this manga as being a great example of what makes Japanese gag manga fun, as it's insane but not totally Bobobo-esque obnoxious. The characters are silly, the art is striking and gives you some great expressions (particularly Chiri's), and if you don't mind looking a lot of things up on Wikipedia as they aren't in the endnotes, it's a great example of Japan circa 2006. Watch for a lot of World Cup references.

4 comments:

  1. I've been disappointed at the lax editing in the recent volumes as well. I'm also miffed that the translator didn't bother to check on the titles for certain video games in the video game centric chapter. "Wanda and Giant"... how hard would it have been for the translator to check wikipedia for the English title of "Shadow of the Colossus."

    Maybe it is a deadline issue... who knows. Del Rey's not winning any bonus points from me lately.

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  2. What really bugged me the most about the 5th volume were the changed, simplified chapter titles - just one of the many things that makes SZS so distinct.

    Is it the same with this volume?

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  3. The chapter titles are more detailed, and as far as I can tell are accurate ("What a Pain!" in the original Japanese was literally "What a horrible bother!", I think), but their significance remains unexplained.

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  4. That Kana Lingus joke alone is enough to read it! But it`s sad to hear presentation quality is dropping. The one item we can appreciate is that Zet-sensei is on regular schedule unlike EVERY OTHER NON-TSUBA-NEGI-HOLI MANGA!

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