Goodbye, Mr. Despair (Season 1) Review
Goodbye, Mr. Despair isn’t quite what I expected.
From its title, premise and opening scene in the first episode, I had expected something just a little bit more morbid. As it is, the comedy in the series still possesses the macabre tone befitting such gallows humor, but it’s far more lighthearted than I would’ve liked from its satire. Instead of pondering melancholically on its somber topics like death, suicide, stalking, social withdrawal (hikikomorism), or just plain existential crisis, it merely plays out like a (slightly) more mature version of the equally frivolous Azumanga Daioh. In fact, much of its humor is derived from its wordplay of these otherwise serious Japanese issues, giving them an often clever subversion. Whereas Azumanga contains high school hijinks with its exaggerated slapstick, Despair applies similarly dumb boisterous fun to adult subject matter like social norms and social stigma. Where one episode might be lending comedic elements to issues like western culture shock or Japanese shame-guilt complex, another might be making light of child abuse or arranged marriages. Clearly, this isn’t your typical high school slice of life exploring teenage problems.
Based on the 2005 manga of the same name by Kumeta Kōji, Goodbye, Mr. Despair explores the day-to-day life of the pessimistic high school teacher, Itoshiki Nozomu as he educates his fellow students about the negative aspects of Japanese life and culture. It’s not the first time an animé comedy has made fun of societal issues, but Despair contains a certain level of sardonicism and cleverness in its satire that resembles The Simpsons in the early ’90s and its grim mockery of American culture. Rather than just referencing such issues in their most superficial contexts like Gintama, Despair instead probes a little deeper by giving a nonsensical spin to an otherwise realistic topic. Often, these topics are explored via the character quirks of Itoshiki’s students, whose personality disorders are both subversions of animé character archetypes (particularly those of the “harem” genre composed of a single male lead and multiple female love interests) and a playful representation of Japanese societal problems.
Whereas most harem animé would inject their characters with a certain appeal that would attract the viewers, Despair does the opposite and incorporate them with negative traits. Because they are all distinct individuals and there are so many of them, it can be a daunting task to describe them all (or for the reader to get through such a huge chunk of text), so I’m just going to briefly touch on some notable characters instead: Komori Kiri is a social recluse who ends up using various storage spaces as her new hideaway (including Itoshiki’s locker pictured above); Tsunetsuki Matoi is a stalker that clings to Itoshiki every step of the way (after getting bored of stalking a previous boy); Kitsu Chiri has OCD and demands everything to be precise and “proper” (acting like a class rep character in spite of not actually being one); Kobushi Abiru is an often bandaged student initially thought to be a victim of child abuse, but her wounds are revealed to be the result of her obsession with tugging on animal tails; and then there’s Fu’ura Kafuka, the hopelessly optimistic Pollyanna that counters Itoshiki’s pessimism with her unrealistic view that everything in the world is positive (she calls the trash bin a “treasure trove for the homeless”).
Among the characters, there are total of 13 students and two teachers. That’s a lot of characters, so it’s no wonder that it took almost all 12 episodes to introduce each character and their quirk in the series. To top it all off, there’s the homeroom teacher, Itoshiki himself, the eternal pessimist that’s drowning in despair over the many aspects of Japanese society (often trivial aspects). But his biggest despair is revealed to be the ridiculous marriage tradition in his hometown, where a bride is arranged via eye-contact with another individual…
Notably, all of the character names are based on the wordplay of their character traits: the kanji characters of Itoshiki Nozomu spell out “despair” when written horizontally; Komori Kiri is a play on the Japanese word for “recluse”; Tsunetsuki Matoi plays on “always following around”; Kitsu Chiri plays on “precisely”; and similarly, Kobushi Abiru plays on the Japanese expression, “to bathe in fists” that carries the connotation of domestic violence. Kafuka seems to be the only exception so far, but more might be revealed in the following season. With that said, it’s understandable for someone to be wary of a show that utilizes quirky character traits to drive the series, but fortunately, Despair doesn’t really feels like a cheap parody relying on silly gags alone, particularly because much like Simpsons and American culture, it uses those traits to say something witty and amusing about the often self-serious culture of Japan, whether it’s those festivals honoring the most trivial events, the public shaming of unethical individuals that influences a guilt complex on everyone, or just the exaggerated presumptions coming from both Japanese citizens towards western cultures and vice versa. It’s quite bold of the series to be that sardonic about Japan (even more so than Gintama’s superficial mockery) considering that it’s a nation built on manners and customs.
Unfortunately, this niched critique of its home country also means that many of its references can fly over the head of western viewers, myself included. Aside from references to other animé titles, there’s also an abundance of Japanese celebrities who are name-dropped throughout the series, which is to be expected of a satire comedy comparable to The Simpsons. Usually, this would merely be a minor annoyance and could be largely ignored. Unlike a more allegorical show like Revolutionary Girl Utena, these background texts (probably) only add flavor to the scenes rather than adding any meaningful context to the comedy. However, that’s like saying you don’t have to understand the vague references of ’70s pop culture in The Simpsons to enjoy the show, when the fact is that the understanding of such references is very much required to get the joke more often than not. It also really doesn’t help that this is a production of Studio SHAFT, famous (or infamous depending on whom you ask) for their insertion of referential texts into the background that flash by so fast any viewer would undoubtedly have to pause multiple times to catch them.
While I recognize some of the animé references, it’s still a pain sometimes to pause every minute or so to see if there’s some interesting texts among the scenery. This is a fundamental issue of certain SHAFT titles like Bakemonogatari — and with the Monogatari series, the problem becomes even more apparent because they would flash by much faster than any human eye could catch. It’s probably not much of a problem to read them if you understand Japanese, but the subtitled versions of these texts can prove to be more challenging depending on the font size and type that the translator chooses. It’s just one reason I always hesitate when it comes to watching a SHAFT TV series (including Mr. Despair) in spite of Madoka Magica being my all time #1 favorite animé. While the annoyance of reading subtitled dialogue could be resolved by watching the English dub version, the same couldn’t be said for these background text references. Alongside Bakemonogatari, my enjoyment of these series has definitely been affected as the momentum of the story comes to a slow crawl.
But these gripes are perhaps trivial annoyances at best because at the end of the day, what’s really driving a gag series like Despair is the characters more than the gags. Even though the series deliberately chooses to give them negative traits to show how silly the idolatry of these archetypes can be (with Sekiutsu “Maria” Taro being a blatant parody of “moe” characters people feel the intense desire to protect in animé), the fanbase still manages to have their choice of favorite girl (or in animé terms, their “waifu”) from the show. It goes to show that these characters are just compelling enough beyond their flaws to really capture the heart of its audience.
Fitting to its parodic nature, the artstyle and music both exaggerate the ridiculous context of the script. Kumeta’s aesthetic choice of fashion for the characters belongs to the Taishō era of Japan (30th July 1912 to 25th December 1926), juxtaposing against the modern elements of the story (such as cellphone and contemporary architecture and shops). The score by Hasegawa Tomoki (known for his works in D.N.Angel, Nana and Gokusen) uses a mix of epic orchestra and wistful choir singing amidst the melodramatic musings of the characters whenever Itoshiki is in despair or whenever Matoi is stalking him. It’s a nice touch to further remind the audience how everything is a joke, and no subject matter is too serious to be made light of.
On a personal level for me, someone who’s constantly attracted by depressing stories of death and gloom (probably due to some unresolved childhood issues), Goodbye, Mr. Despair might not be what I expected, that which being a comedy counterpart to something like Welcome to the N.H.K. that contemplates existential dread in a less exaggerated context, but it does work on its own merit of goofy characters making jokes about the societal flaws of Japan. In terms of such silliness, I still prefer Azumanga Daioh for its much more effective (and hilarious) slapstick technique or even Nichijou’s balls to the wall exaggeration of utterly mundane aspects. But for what it is, it does have sufficient charm and cleverness to make me consider following its second season in the future.
Final Rating: 7.7/10