At a cursory glance it’s easy to write each Zetsubou Sensei series off as all the same, but they’re actually all quite different in terms of presentation. The first one is slowly paced and eases you into the formula, Zoku then takes that formula and experiments with it, and Goku expands upon that experimentation even further.
Zan is noticeably more streamlined than the others, and the presentation becomes more formulaic. However, it does do some rather interesting things with its episode structure. First of all, each episode opens with one of the phony “story so far” spiels housed in the dust jacket flaps from the original manga, narrated lovingly by Saito Chiwa in a variety of crazy voices. I think these do well to set the tone for the rest of the show, but as someone whose Japanese isn’t the best, following the narration along with subtitles is a touch difficult.
Another thing of note is the visual style of the opening sequence, which is vastly different from the last two seasons’ openings that had a large degree of visual continuity between them. While this opening is decidedly the most normal looking of the bunch, it’s also the most chaotic, crazy, and non-nonsensical. Instead of being bound to certain themes (e.g. bondage, guro, the circus) Zan’s opening is a weird mix of ideas and visual styles, all thrown together in a package that somehow works better than it should.
Probably the most interesting thing that SHAFT did with the show was create continuity between the episodes by having one of the three sketches cutoff half way, then continue in the later part of the following episode. I think this gave them more freedom in allotting time to each sketch, making the pacing tighter. And–as mentioned before–the “to be continued” created continuity where there was at first none, making the viewer wonder how that one sketch would turn out in the next episode. I feel that it worked quite well.
Zan also began using the original manga more as a guide for storyboarding. I have not read the manga beyond the first book, so I can’t tell you how much or how little they copied from it. While I’m not sure this is a direct result of that, the show had a visual style that seemed a lot sharper, and more consistent between episodes than the previous series. I also noticed more in the way of drawn backgrounds as opposed Photoshopped photos. Despite this practice, the show also seemed quite animated. It still had a lot of talking heads–typical for SHAFT–but characters burst out in movement a bit more frequently than usual. In fact think some episodes of Zan were more animated than Bakemonogatari (which I really need to talk about more, by the way)
As far as actual content goes–you know, the stuff people actually care about–the show starts off feeling a bit weak coming on the heels of Goku, but after an episode or two I found myself laughing to the point of losing breath. Even though the show does miss at points–and the points where it misses are simply jokes I can’t connect to–it hits hard a good 90% of the time, and I had a great time watching it. And despite most of the show being less adventurous than Zoku, it does give us this beautifully animated sketch by Gekidan Inu Curry, as well an ending sequence that more or less summarizes what my life will probably be in the next year or so.
Oh, and there’s IKENAI! Kaere-Sensei.