Pandemic Anime: Revisiting Old Favorites in Quarantine, Part III — AHHHHHH

This is Part III of a series of posts looking back at the 2000s-era anime I watched during quarantine in the early days of the COVID 19 pandemic. Earlier parts can be read here.

Years into this stupid pandemic, there are times when I just want to scream at the top of my lungs–usually for no particular reason. The following titles embody this feeling perfectly, and revisiting them remined me that we have always been living in Hell World.

Kaiji

After years of listening to Omokage Lucky Hole, living in Adachi-ku, and generally soaking up the funk of ghetto Japan, something about Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji hits a little different. Taking it in now, the way in which Kaiji gently straddles the line between straight realism and parody makes it the perfect social commentary. While something like Yamikin Ushijima-kun is closer to reality, it ultimately kind of just makes you feel icky. Meanwhile, Kaiji’s cartoonish depiction of weird social hierarchy strikes at something distinctly visceral with its straightforward approach.

When watching the show, what one immediately notices in the script is the constant use of the word “scum” (kuzu in Japanese). It’s clear that every slimeball in the world of Kaiji wants to be on top, so when they spot someone below them, this word is summarily uttered–time and time again. While this bit of vocabulary is of course used by the villains, what’s ironic is how it is primarily used between the poor debtors that the villains pray on, demonstrating that even at the lowest rungs of society, people still feel the need to step all over each other to feel like they’re No. 1.

Despite remembering the general broad strokes of both Kaiji series as a result of keeping up with it many years ago on junky fansubs, the show remained engaging and nail-biting even now–and it turns out I had forgotten many key details and twists! I’m not sure how the show would hold up on another viewing short after this one, but I have a feeling that the over-the-top execution via hard-sell narrator Tachiki Fumihiko and the expressive artwork will continue to pay dividends on further revisits. 

Circling back to the point above about Kaiji’s cartoonish realism and looking at its, uh, “distinctive” artwork, one thing that sticks out when watching the show (aside from the noses) is how strangely realistic the character designs are. Sure, they are extremely stylized, but with the fashion, hair styles, and the rendering of each character in completely different shapes and sizes, the myriad of goons that Kaiji meets seem like the sort of crowd you would see in real life, mulling about in some backwater Tokyo suburb like Takenotsuka. While the style of the show’s artwork is often used as the butt of a joke, this approach to the character designs is part of what gives Kaiji its grime and texture. 

I realize there were cries for more seasons of Kaiji after season 2, but from what I hear the story goes downhill after the pachinko arc. And if this truly is the case, I am quite happy with the expertly produced two seasons we were given. Bonuses like Tonegawa just make it better.

Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei

Wow. This one is pure darkness.

Of course, when you’re watching Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, you feel like it’s a joke. But in the context of a global health crisis and the prospects of a potential third World War that continue to boil, it takes a truly dead heart to laugh at some of the skits in Zetsubou Sensei. Thankfully, I have a truly dead heart.

I’m not making this up either–there’s that sketch where they try to force Majiru (the kid) to get measles, because it’s better to get infected when “you’re young”; and there’s also that part where they pretend that a missile, which has fallen into the middle of the school yard, isn’t real. A little bit too on the nose for 2022, maybe? But more so than these weird premonitions, many of the situations in Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei remind one of how dumb every single facet of society is. The show has a laser-focus on every part of Japanese adult life that is inherently useless–be it nemawashi, obsessive apologizing, or the intense focus on process over end-results. Of course, the show also callously makes fun of more serious societal issues such as government coverups, wealth disparity, and Japan’s tricky relationships with its neighbors. It’s a stir-fry that mixes many different levels of negativity and existential dread, making for some extremely spicy satire–and I love it.

But while Zetsubou Sensei is quite political, the show doesn’t take sides. Or rather, Kumeta doesn’t take sides, as many of the stories are quite faithfully reproduced from the original work (though quite remixed in Zoku). While Kumeta takes many a jab at conservatives like Aso Taro and the LDP, he also drags extreme leftists through the mud for their unrealistic idealism. Even beyond politics, there are several moments throughout the show when it seems as if his one-note characters are written for the express purpose of taking harsh potshots at each other. No-one is safe from his cynicism, and after two years and change of a mentally-straining pandemic, I’m starting to feel the same way. 

It goes without saying that the show remains a visual joy. I have no visibility into the mechanics of the Japanese Blu-ray release, but aside from the first couple episodes of season 1, the show looks super clear in HD, and is certainly a big improvement over my 15-year-old fansubs. The Showa-inspired (and at times Taisho-inspired) aesthetic continues to be a big draw for me, along with Shinbo’s auteur direction that utilizes stylish framing, editing, and idiosyncratic coloring to deliver really dumb punchlines. Like really, these jokes don’t deserve such attention–but they are made even better for it. The openers by subculture legend Ohtsuki Kenji continue to rock even today, with top animation to match–each opening is expertly crafted by talents like Oishi Tatsuya, Tatsuwa Naoyuki, and Miyamoto Yukihiro, featuring occasional cameos by Gekidan Inu Curry (before they became famous for that one magical girl show).

If I had to offer one criticism, it would be that the show starts to lose some of its luster as you get into the last set of OVAs–it as this point that the approach to adapting the manga shifts to simply copying the original work wholesale. But overall, the animated run of Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei is excellent, and is till this day one of the funniest anime I have ever seen… and one of the darkest.

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