Setting, Animation and Comedy of Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei

March 21, 2009

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All good things must come to an end, and Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei (SZS) chose about the right time to close its curtains. Comedies in general tends to become repetitive and boring as they approach their respective expiray dates, and Goku SZS certainly was showing its signs. I don’t want to repeat anything that has been already said so I will just be commenting on setting, animation and their significance to the comedy of SZS, which I personally found fascinating.

1. Creative use of setting

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English wikipedia entry for SZS was surprisingly sharp on the show’s stylistic elements. It’s interesting how SZS is set in present day, but utilises various aesthetic tropes, such as costumes, architecture and technology, to evoke Showa Period. And the below quote was particularly informative:

“Chapter title pages are drawn to resemble karuta cards, with an illustration in a silhouetted kiri-e style. Chapter titles are oblique references to literature, modified to suit the needs of the chapter. The anime carries this further through a washed-out, grainy visual style that mimics film, and frequent use of katakana (rather than hiragana) as okurigana. The anime also regularly refers to the date as though Emperor Hirohito were still alive, such that Heisei 20 (the twentieth year of Emperor Akihito‘s reign, or 2008 by the Gregorian calendar) becomes “Shōwa 83”.

Why Shinbo opted for such a setting by going into all these troubles is up for discussion, but I do wonder if he did this to separate the intended audience (presumably Japanese) from the time and place he’s making fun of (i.e. modern japanese society). Which is funny considering how in Goku SZS, he openly criticised its values after WWII.

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Interesting play of contrast, as explained below

Also (this was not mentioned by wikipedia) I noticed how episodes would open often accompanied by soundtrack played by traditional japanese instruments, say Shakuhachi (japanese end-blown flute) for example. Such soothing and more traditional soundtrack is then synchronised with less erratic animation and that ‘grainy and washed-out’ artwork mentioned before. There is deliberate separation between such scenes and the ones that follow, mostly involving Itoshiki sensei screaming “zetsubou shita >:0”, where the soundtracks become more bizarre and disorienting, while the visuals are more neurotic (sometimes keeping that grainy feel, but  they are always special to say the least…). And very fitting too might I add. The ultimate irony is that while Itoshiki sensei desperately criticises the dark side of modern japanese society, he too finds himself and his students already victims of such phenomenon, and there’s an absurdly sadistic sense of humour and excitement in watching them go to various extremes in which they try to either oppose/embrace these elements.

left: Mariaholic+mucha, right: SZS+silhoutted karuta

Also interesting how many scenes in Maria Holic are inspired by mucha posters while in SZS they are similar to karuta cards. It's an intriguing stylistic element of Shinbo to use them as a 'canvas', which has a funny ring of irony to them. You know, how a lesbian pervert (and genderbending devil) portrayed in that elegant way for example.

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2. Animation and comedy of SZS

I’d rather you enjoy 3 minutes of the above clip before reading below but that’s upto you…

I’ve already talked about the concept of irrational cuts in this post, but perhaps Ben worded it better: predilection for stringing together unpredictable compositions in a way that some might say distracts from the story but to me enhances it…the locus of excitment in Shinbo’s directing is the space between the shots and the compositions.

Basically, Shinbo‘s way of connecting frames in an unexpected manner aims for immediate and visceral reactions, and with this you can sort of feel a strong musicality from the comedy of SZS. Sometimes there are frames of massive bullet points and texts that no one can read in time (even for Japanese). Yet such scenes don’t wait for viewers to read, and rightfully so. In my opinion, delaying would only hinder the viewer’s proccess of losing himself in that exciting flow, leading to awkward sensations that feel out of place and off the rhythm. Timing is extremely important in comedy, so losing the flow is less desirable than not completely knowing every little words. The point is that you understand what they’re trying to say, i.e. whole list of absurd society values that you can skim over. Perhaps in your second run of the episode, you can check for these tiny details, which is quite rewarding in itself. Anyway, I think the above clip illustrates my point well.

This is my current wallpaper

This is my current wallpaper

Although I won’t probably get to see more of Itoshiki and his jolly class, I was recently informed that Maria Holic was intended to be a fanservice crap to bait viewers with lesbian+catholic school+genderbending gimmicks, and the real Shinbo+SHAFT project is titled Bakemonogatari, which will air next season (trailer available at youtube). Shinbo knows his horror (Le Portrait de Petite Cossette) so needless to say, I am looking forward to this.

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11 Responses to “Setting, Animation and Comedy of Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei”

  1. muhootsaver Says:

    I’ve always loved SHAFT’s art direction. It’s unique, refreshing and visually pleasing. Their sense of comedy has been pretty good, too. So I’ll be expecting a lot from Bakemonogatari. Meanwhile, I’ll just watch Natsu no Arashi. ^^

  2. Kitsune Says:

    That’s a nice article 🙂

    SZS is one of my favorite anime 🙂 Especially I like excellent use of color, editing, and music.

    Bakemonogatari seemed good based on the trailer that looked like SZS OP 😛 I am not so sure about Natsu no Arashi now though…

  3. gaguri Says:

    @muhootsaver
    Art direction and sense of comedy is excellent in SZS, but of course in the case of Bakemonogatari, we’ll be expecting more of Cossette I hope :D.

    @Kitsune
    Thanks ^^

    And yea…I think I’ll be skipping on Natsu no Arashi as well.

  4. ghostlightning Says:

    Yet such scenes don’t wait for viewers to read, and rightfully so. In my opinion, delaying would only hinder the viewer’s proccess of losing himself in that exciting flow, leading to awkward sensations that feel out of place and off the rhythm. Timing is extremely important in comedy, so losing the flow is less desirable than not completely knowing every little words. The point is that you understand what they’re trying to say, i.e. whole list of absurd society values that you can skim over.

    I should have read this before I started watching. In my experience I did feel disjointed and the humor was lost on me (and my wife) – most probably for watching it ‘improperly.’

    I know there is much humor that we missed – not because of a boatload of blog posts claiming so – but I actually read parts of the manga covered by the anime. And it was quite funny indeed.

    However, being a manga where each panel is perpetually ‘frozen,’ I experienced none of the failings I had with the show without having to alter my way of receiving text/processing information.

    Perhaps it can be said that the comedy in the long lists are meant to be tl;dr and the first two bullets, etc. would be enough to make the initial point, and the rest are there to make a statement about the size of the data, little else more.

  5. gaguri Says:

    Manga is a strange medium for me. It lies in an awkward spectrum somewhere between the novel and film. Like film, it paints you how characters should look, how background should look and all, but like novel you as a viewer have some flexibility to imagine how a character should sound, how they would move, etc. I guess with SZS manga, one could control the rate at which you can process information while enjoying it.

    Anyway, your last sentence if spot on one of my points I made :D. If they delayed the frame long enough for people to read the whole list, I think it would’ve been more awkward and destroyed the flow.

  6. vendredi Says:

    One aspect that you sort of touch on in your second part about the animation is that SZS is incredibly minimalist; backgrounds are often non-existent and even characters are drawn in a very abbreviated fashion and can be reduced to certain symbols – for example, Chiri’s straight-down-the-middle-hair-part becomes iconic of her character as a whole; but it’s just drawn as a handful of lines.
    It also makes some later gags in the series, such as the “style change” in Goku, or the various OP and ED animations, that much more effective.

  7. gaguri Says:

    Ah, the style changes is something I forgot to mention, damn! SZS is really in a way, exercise in style, you can see Shinbo just going all the way with what he can do, and it seems like he’s more interested in experimenting with various styles to see what works and what doesn’t, and not really into perfecting the series as a whole.

  8. hashi Says:

    Excellent article. Even though I don’t seem to be able to watch to the end of any recent Shinbou show: the humor just eludes me, feeling shallow and repetitive. Or to put it more positively, more intellectual than comic, more like an exercise than comic inspiration.

    In any case, the look and the flow are always wonderful. I never find the art detracts from the substance of the anime. However, I do find myself preferring Oonuma Shin’s ef shows, which have a plot, and characters with evolving feelings, to keep me going.

    If Bakemonogatari is anything like Cossette with a more evolved Shinbou style, however, I’m in.

    I think the lovely conceit of extending Showa beyond its years is, at the most direct level, simply a way of saying nothing has really changed.

    I was interested by gaguri’s comment about manga. Recently, I have found manga the most satisfactory form, giving the novel a visual aspect. But I have always found it strange that artists should be authors, too. Story and art seem such different things.

  9. gaguri Says:

    Thanks for dropping by hashi. My favourite comments are always the ones on my older posts. It makes me feel that what I write is less transient, and more lasting than it really is.

    I am not sure if I entirely agree with your view on the setting though. I think some things have changed drastically in Japan after WWII, and today’s culture, not just Japanese but other places in the world as well, is ‘zetsubou shita’ in ways different than showa period. Although like you say, they may just be timeless problems, which just became more apparent in today’s advancement of technology, etc etc.


  10. […] many shows have you watched that you could not help but be sweeped by it? I once talked about the musicality behind Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei and something very similar can be said about Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. I am by no means a fan of […]


  11. […] particularly because of the strengths of the medium. Gaguri has already spoken at length about the role of style in Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, as well as in Bakemonogatari, and his insights illustrate a good point – in animation the […]


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