fun beyond the alphabet

Currently I’m mainly watching the brain-scrambler of a show known as Zoku Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, which is the zany-ed up second season of the strangest comedy I’ve ever seen – certainly the most random.  It features quite possibly the most dysfunctional high school class ever thought of.

Now, this show is probably enjoyable for most people (granted that some of the gags drag on a fair length past their expiry date), but the more literate you are the more you get out of it.  Not just in Japanese either; there are quite a lot of references and allusions to Western literature, not to mention many many historical and cultural references.  I’m sure I’m missing out on a great deal of it, and will probably rewatch it (much) later.

One of the most interesting features to me, being an aspiring kanji otaku, was the names of the various characters and the visual and other wordplay incorporated into them, which are completely impossible in alphabetic writing.

The most visual of these, and one of only a few actually mentioned in the show itself, is the name of the main character, Itoshiki Nozomu.  His given name, Nozomu, means “hope”, and is written 望; “nozomu” is the kun-yomi.  His full name is written as follows: 糸色望.  But 糸 and 色 are the two components of 絶, which has the on-yomi of “zetsu”; and then if you combine that with the on-yomi of 望, “bou” – so, write 絶望 – you get “zetsubou”, which means “despair”.  This is why Itoshiki is frequently exclaiming “don’t write it too close together!”.

Since most of the Itoshiki family is featured at some point or other, the writers got a fair bit of mileage out of this.  Nozomu’s brother Mikoto, for example, is written 糸色命 – which, when similarly compressed and using on-yomi for the given name, becomes 絶命 – “zetsumei” – which means “death”.  A bit of a problem considering that he’s a physician!

Then there’s the highly OCD student, Kitsu Chiri.  Her name is written 木津チ里.  The second character, 津, is pronounced “tsu” – つ.  But the small つ is used as an indication of a long consonant, so if you take the reading of the second character, replace it with the hiragana, and shrink it down on the page, you get きっちり – kicchiri – which means “exact”, fitting her personality, well, exactly.

Another example is the counselor, Arai Chie.  Her name is written 新井智恵, where the family name is read using on-yomi and the given name is read using kun-yomi.  But if you use the kun-yomi reading for the family name as well, it reads as にいちえ – niichie – so her name is actually an allusion to Nietzsche.

This all reminds me of the sort of thing that used to be popular in Victorian England, where the propertied classes used their abundant free time and lack of cable tv to come up with all manner of wordplay, such as poems that would become two different poems with different meanings if split down the middle of the page.  But with the multiple readings of kanji, and the visual elements of combining them as radicals of other kanji, there are many more possibilities than could ever be found in an alphabetic system.

Thanks to the excellent fansubbing group a.f.k. for including these explanations at the end of the episodes.

4 responses to “fun beyond the alphabet

  1. Brilliant and absolutely fascinating! I never knew! It takes word play to a whole new level. Kanji play! Love it!

  2. Hey Lan,

    I`ve never read or watched 絶望先生, but a friend of mine has, and he swears by it. Due to space constraints, I don`t think my room will hold anymore manga, sadly.

    For more kanji wordplay stuff, I highly recommend 銀魂, where characters` names are similarly shaped differently, for a similar, but more subtle, comedic effect.

    Enjoyed the post. Thanks!