Don’t forget to laugh seven years from now.
On July 11, 2009, episode two of Zan Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei aired. Rendo Kurasaki over at Studio SHAFT directed it, under the overall project direction of the legendary Akiyuki Shinbou, this episode which comprises chapters 154, 129, 103 of the original manga by Koji Kumeta.
This episode also features a rather legendary gag. Despaired by our society which suffers from time lags in almost every aspect, the character Chiri pinches the screen to give the viewer a “time lag laugh,” ending the gag with the threat “Don’t forget to laugh seven years from now.”
When Koji Kumeta wrote this joke in the original manga, he probably didn’t expect great things from it. After all, it was just one gag in a sea of many, in just one chapter in an ocean many (301, to be exact).
Akiyuki Shinbou, when approaching the adapation of the manga into anime form, probably didn’t think much of this joke, either. Sure, he and his team put some effort into making it work in an animated format, but the show doesn’t exactly dwell on it for long.
Even so, despite everything, the joke actually worked. On July 12, 2016 – seven years after episode two initially aired, give or take – people were actually laughing on 4chan’s Anime & Manga board, /a/.
Around 200 more chapters of Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei over seven years followed this time lag joke and, since finishing Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei in 2012, Koji Kumeta has also launched five new manga series (each with varying levels of success).
SHAFT as a studio hasn’t exactly slowed down, either. While the studio had always been a firm fan favourite due to their distinct creative style, since finishing up their Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei adaptation in 2010, they’ve seen new creative and commercial success in their partnership with Nisio Isin, adapting his Monogatari light novels to anime.
Akiyuki Shinbou, incidentally, has also been at the helm of many of those successful Monogatari adaptations, but that’s not everything he’s been up. Rather, you could argue that he’s reached new creative heights with his skillful adaptation of Chica Umino’s March comes in like a lion manga, which may be one of the greatest anime of the decade.
I wonder then, if any of the people involved with this gag laughed, seven years later. I also wonder whether they knew that people were laughing, all those years later.
But how could they? Neither Koji Kumeta nor Akiyuki Shinbou operate any public social media accounts, and I highly doubt they go on 4chan (or 2channel, for that matter). But much more so than that, how could they have ever guessed that Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei will still be so beloved by so many people, so many years later?
From my own experience as a creative forced to sell his creativity as part of a larger network of social relations (ie. capitalism), I know how hard it can be to judge the merits of your own work.
Sometimes, you think that something is really great, only for it to fail miserably. Sometimes, you don’t think much of something but it out anyway, only to be greeted with a positive response. So, most of the time, you just end up being unable to decipher your own creative output at all on an individual basis.
I don’t know Koji Kumeta nor Akiyuki Shinbou personally, and I probably never will, but I’d still wager that they’d agree with my sentiments. Our roles, if different on a quantitative level, still largely mirror each others on a qualitative level.
Adding in an otaku audience to the mix only makes being able to judge how successful a work might end up even more difficult. After all, the tastes of otaku as a demographic are incredibly hard to pinpoint, with various layers reacting to different stimuli and new personnel coming in and out every day.
You only have to look at the transformation of the anime mainstream from the four girl moe shows that were popular around the time of Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, as spearheaded by such series as K-ON! and Hidamari Sketch, to the isekai shows that have assumed a stranglehold on the mainstream in the past couple of years.
Even so, the power of a good work is that it can endure – much more so than its peers. The fact that people are still laughing at a seemingly insignificant joke from Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei seven years later is a testament to that.
Will people still be laughing in another ten years, in 2021? I don’t know. I don’t even know what kind of world that’ll be, and how we’ll engage with media within it. But one thing’s for sure, I’ll be laughing – I’ll take any chance I can get.