I chose to title this post with the original Japanese title, rather than an English translation of the title (So Long, Mr. Despair, or however else it's been translated), because the manga, which has been licensed, uses the Japanese title.
This is a darkly humorous show with a glaze of perversion. I watched most of it in one day, and it's possible that my sanity was affected as a result.
This show has no real plot. Nozomu Itoshiki, whose name, spelled horizontally, is Zetsubou, or "despair," is a teacher who feels great despair about everything. He would like nothing more than to quietly kill himself (although it's possible that this is a lie, since, whenever someone comes close to killing him, he shrieks "What if I had died!?"). Things never seem to work out, so instead he has to teach his classes. His despair even leaks into his lesson plans, such as they are. For example, instead of asking his students to list their three hopes for the future, he asks them to list three things they despair over. At the urgings of the school counselor, he visits with problem students and, despite himself, wins people over. For the most part, episodes center on classroom and school activities, such as criticism practice, a field trip preview, and a cultural festival. It's similar to what you'd see in any school anime, only more messed up. Many episodes focus on a particular student. One episode focuses on Itoshiki and his family, as Itoshiki tries to evade his family's tradition of marrying people off to the first person whose eyes they meet during a special marriage ritual.
I thought it might be helpful to list some (actually, most - the ones missing are ones whose names I didn't catch) of the students in Itoshiki's class. Imagine whole episodes about some of these people.
- Kafuka Fuura - Cheerful to the point of blindness. If something does not fit her happy world view, she rewrites its existence in her mind until it becomes something she can comprehend.
- Matoi Tsunetsuki - Obsessive about whoever she loves. Itoshiki becomes the object of her affection.
- Kiri Komori - Hikikomori (incredibly socially withdrawn), with possibly a bit of a crush on Itoshiki. As the series progresses, she and the school counselor become uncomfortably close.
- Kaere Kimura - Has multiple personalities, one of which is pathetically in love with Itoshiki (her Japanese personality) and the other which is combative and wants to sue everyone (her foreigner personality).
- Maria Tarou Sekiutsu - An illegal immigrant student whom everyone mysteriously wants to protect. She loves everything about Japan, even the things that should not be loved.
- Chie Arai - Not a student, but I thought I'd list her anyway. She's the counselor who puts up with Itoshiki's despair and suicide attempts and forces him to actually take care of his students.
- Abiru Kobushi - Loves pulling animal tails and works at a zoo, which is why she gets mistaken for a victim of domestic violence.
- Harumi Fujiyoshi - Obsessed with animal ears and a creator of doujinshi, yaoi in particular.
- Meru Otonashi - Doesn't speak, but rather communicates solely through email via her cellphone, electronically abusing and insulting others even as she behaves gentle and shy in person.
- Chiri Kitsu - A perfectionist.
- Kagerou Usui - So easily forgotten that people overlook him even though he's standing right in front of them. Also, he is the unfortunate possessor of a comb over.
- Ai Kaga - Has a guilt complex so severe that she is afraid her very existence causes others problems.
- Mayo Mitama - Has mean eyes, which means that everyone believes she couldn't possibly be responsible for doing mean things, even when she does those things right in front of others.
I'm not really sure what to say about this series, except that I probably should not have watched it mostly in one day. The series is often very weird, but also often funny. Most of the characters have a single defining personality trait, from which the humor grows. If there were fewer characters, this would quickly get boring. There are so many characters that, if those personality traits weren't so over-the-top strange, it would be hard to remember any of them. As it is, the series manages to work. Happily, there are only 12 episodes, barely enough to introduce all the students and not enough for the series to get tiresome.
I should include a few warnings, though.
One, as I said in the synopsis, there isn't really a plot. Mostly, it's all about the characters, and whenever anything plot-like happens, it's really not all that important in the long-run. Itoshiki gets engaged to a creature made solely of eyeballs, but the engagement is invalid. Itoshiki is hit by a truck, but the accident is forgotten in the next episode. You get the idea. It's not like South Park's "you killed Kenny" gag, it's just that the characters and bringing up things to despair over was considered more important than anything that might possibly be called "plot." Mostly I didn't mind this, except near the end. When Itoshiki was hit by a truck at the end of episode 11, I expected that dealing with this event would be what wrapped the series up. I was mistaken - the final episode was just like other episodes, focusing on particular students, and the whole truck incident was forgotten.
Two, the series is a wee bit perverted. For instance, the opening credits, when they actually have pictures instead of just words, feature bondage scenes involving faceless school girls, probably all students in Itoshiki's class. Then there's the relationship between Kiri Komori and the school counselor - somebody (the director? the original series creator?) took great delight in implying an inappropriately close relationship between the two of them. Of course, there's also Kaere Kimura, the obligatory panty shot character.
One of the things about this series is that, although you can predict that Itoshiki's despair will probably somehow affect an episode's events, it's not easy predict how that will happen. Ditto with other characters' personalities. The usual cliched events happen, like a cultural festival, a hot springs trip, a field trip, and house cleaning, but the mix of strange personalities means that none of these events happen in the usual way. The cultural festival becomes an exercise in doing the minimum possible, the hot springs trip becomes a cleansing of characters' toxic personality traits, the field trip is only a preview (as in, "no sightseeing, this is only a preview!"), and the house cleaning is done by an obsessive perfectionist and almost ends in an accidental mass suicide.
I liked the series artwork, which at times reminded me of the pretty origami paper my sister sent me not too long ago, but, really, the animation is bare bones and doesn't pretend to be otherwise. If you don't notice, it's probably because the use of color in the series is often interesting and/or pretty. A few times, either the studio ran out of money and time for proper animation, or the animators decided to get creative, because they switched to characters drawn on bits of paper glued to popsickle sticks.
It might help to have some familiarity with Japanese culture and the cliches that often pop up in school anime and manga before viewing this series, or some things might come across as just strange, rather than strange and funny. One thing I don't think is necessary, but probably nice, is a familiarity with other anime and manga. This series makes tons of references to other works (including American ones, such as Alias, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Scream). Here's a few of the references I was able to catch - I'm sure I didn't catch anywhere near all of them: Death Note, Black Jack, Black Butler, Hikaru no Go, Urusei Yatsura, and Loveless. Some jokes will make absolutely no sense, or will not register as jokes, if you don't know what series is being referenced, but there's so much else going on in the series that this probably doesn't matter. I'm just happy I was able to catch what I did.
Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
- Azumanga Daioh (anime TV series); Azumanga Daioh (manga) by Kiyohiko Azuma - This series chronicles the everyday lives of some high school students and their teachers. Like the students and adults in Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, the characters in this series are often a bit strange. Those who'd like another character-focused school comedy might want to try this.
- Love Hina (manga) by Ken Akamatsu; Love Hina (anime TV series) - When he was a child, Keitaro Urashima promised a girl that they would meet at Tokyo University. Now he's trying to pass the university's entrance exams so he can keep his promise and has failed two years in a row. Having no other place to go after his parents kick him out, he becomes the dorm manager for his grandmother's all-girls dormitory. Keitaro's not a bad guy, but his clumsiness gets him into trouble with the dorm's residents, including Naru Narusegawa, who, unbeknownst to Keitaro, may possibly be the girl he made a promise to as a child. This is another series with gags and plot (more plot than Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei) mostly dependent upon fanservice and its large cast of mainly female characters.
- Welcome to the N.H.K. (manga) by Tatsuhiko Takimoto (original creator) and Kendi Oiwa (art); Welcome to the NHK (anime TV series) - Tatsuhiro Sato, a 22-year-old man, is a NEET (Not in Employment, Education, or Training) and incredibly socially withdrawn (hikikomori). He believes everything around him is a conspiracy, and he has this theory that there is a secret organization called the NHK that is trying to produce a hikikomori-filled world. He would like to break free from the NHK, but he's too afraid to go outdoors on his own. However, things change when he meets Misaki, a high school girl who invites him to become part of her "project," which she claims will cure him of his hikikomori ways. Those who'd like another dark comedy featuring characters with personality disorders and topics, such as suicide, usually treated in a more serious way.
- FLCL (anime OVA) - Naota is a cynical 6th grade boy whose life becomes extremely strange and complicated when he finds himself having to deal with his older brother's 17-year-old girlfriend Mamimi, who seems to have adopted him as a replacement for his brother, and Haruko, a Vespa-riding crazy woman who hits him in the head with a guitar, causing a horn to begin growing out of his forehead. Those who'd like another series that includes fanservice and revels in its oddness and its lack of coherent plot might want to try this.