Maniac Road is a story about a run down electronics store, located in the backstreets of Akihabara, Japan. On its last leg, three sisters, the store owners, hire the resourceful Takezou. With a stroke of genius, Takezou, refashions the store into the perfect shopping ground for otaku. Business begins to boom and the adventure is on, as the sisters meet some of the strangest characters of the growing Japanese manga/anime scene.
Once upon a time the word "otaku" had a profoundly negative and derogatory meaning which was satirised, yet also compounded to a degree, in 1991 by Gainax's spoof Otaku no Video. In 2001 though, the release of the anime Comic Party heralded a new dawn in anime and manga, and otaku everywhere emerged blinking into the light of a new age. In this new world stories like Genshiken and NHK ni Youkoso! were huge mainstream successes, and lead characters who were thoroughly otaku stood tall in shows that had almost nothing to do with anime and manga (Nodame Cantabile and Hayate no Gotoku for example).
The so-called "Seinfeld of Anime" known as Lucky Star proved to be so successful, it even spawned a horde of copycats (Seitokai no Ichizon et al).
These days we have a plethora of tales involving otaku of all types, shapes and sizes, and like any other genre some are good, some are bad, and some are simply ... worth forgetting. Into this quagmire steps Kurihashi Shinsuke's manga about self confessed otaku Muto Takezou, and his assistance in the "rebirth" of the small Akihabara based electronics store owned by the three Kunishima sisters (Haruna, Aoba and Isuzu).
In short, welcome to Maniac Road.
One of the things that I enjoyed about this manga is that the tale is very much a "tongue in cheek" affair. The plot progresses at a nice pace and every chapter seems to offer up something new or interesting in terms of content. The downside though, is that unlike Genshiken, this is more of a slapstick comedy. While this may not seem like an issue at first, there are a number of interesting plot points that warrant more focus and development, in particular the model making aspect of the tale.
However, the comedy is pretty decent and there are a number of "in-jokes" that most anime fans will understand. In addition to this the series takes care to show that the word "otaku" covers a wide range of interests, and that those called by such a title are not defined by age, employment status or any other social aspect (there's even a couple of WWII veterans in the pilot issue).
The artwork is pretty good throughout the manga, although the characters do suffer from a slightly generic design. Kurihashi's environments are well drawn, and although there may be some vagueness on specific visual details, the overall effect is easy on the eyes. One nice addition was the parody usage of certain "effect frames" that are a clear play on a number of shounen manga methodologies (this is a comedy after all).
Where Maniac Road falls down a bit is with the characters as, while none of them are boring or hateful, there is also nothing truly great about them either. Takezou and Aoba are developed to a degree but their growth has a very staccato feel to it, while many of the other characters have little to no growth at all. The main issue is that instead of allowing for character development within the plot, Kurihashi has opted to develop the plot and keep the characters as an outgrowths of it (and before you ask, yes, there is a difference).
That said, Maniac Road is still surprisingly enjoyable. The fact that the series never really takes itself too seriously allows for a certain freedom with the more comedic aspects of the plot, and the story itself is rather engaging in its simplicity. There isn't anything truly deep or complex about the manga but this doesn't really hinder it in any way as the main point of Maniac Road seems to be entertainment, and it offers that in several ways.
While it may not match up to Genshiken and NHK ni Youkoso! in terms of content or character development, this is still an enjoyable manga that takes the stereotypical view of otaku and plays with it. A big plus for the series is that it is more inclusive of the much neglected model making pastime, and although it's not the only story dealing with this particular branch of otaku subculture, it's easily one of the better ones around.
It may seem a bit strange at first but Maniac Road is, on the whole, a surprisingly pleasant read.