It's the spring of freshman year, and Kanji Sasahara is in a quandary. Should he fulfill his long-cherished dream of joining an otaku club? Saki Kasukabe also faces a dilemma. Can she ever turn her boyfriend, anime fanboy Kousaka, into a normal guy? Kanji triumphs where Saki fails, when both Kanji and Kousaka sign up for Genshiken: The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture.
Undeterred, Saki chases Kousaka through the various activities of the club, from costume-playing and comic conventions to video gaming and collecting anime figures—learning more than she ever wanted to about the humorous world of the Japanese fan...
Genshiken was published as Genshiken: The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture by Del Rey Manga from April 26, 2005 up until volume 9 on November 27, 2007. Kodansha Comics USA picked up the license and published the series from volume 10 onwards as Genshiken: Second Season from September 4, 2012 to March 13, 2018. The previous nine volumes were republished in 3-in-1 omnibuses from May 22, 2012 to January 29, 2013.
Let me just say it beforehand: i think Genshiken is a must for any anime/manga fan who's minimally interested in the otaku/fujoshi culture and in how much things have changed from the 90s/start of this century to the present time. It's a social study in many ways. So, if you're interested in this kind of stuff or if you're not exactly new to the anime/manga world, you should definitely read this manga. Like, seriously, do it if you haven't yet.
Back to the review, it was a solid conclusion to the manga series/first anime season. The original Genshiken still stands as the best Genshiken for me,
but Nidaime had some great moments as well and besides, it focused on the unsung hero of the manga, Madarame. He and Saki are the soul of Genshiken, so him getting the focus was a much needed development and idea that was left nearly unexplored in the original manga. So, for that reason alone, reading Nidaime was worth it since it effectively tied the knot around Madarame's character. Madarame is the quintessential Genshiken character, the one that most accurately demonstrates what Genshiken really is all about. And then, there's Saki. Who steals the show every time she appears and always changes the status quo whenever she's present, since she's actually not an otaku by any means - she's the most grounded, realest, no-nonsense character in the entire story. And for that reason she's also what makes Genshiken special, together with her complete opposite, Madarame.
In Nidaime, there's also Hato, who basically takes the deuteragonist role with Madarame. Hato is a really complex character, in many ways. I enjoyed how things turned out with him and i somewhat understand what he represents and how important he is for the overall message of Nidaime. In many ways, the original Genshiken was all about the old otaku culture and Madarame is the one who best represents that culture. As for Nidaime, it's all about the new otaku wave, it's all about the new generation of otaku. And that is basically the reason we went from a nearly all-male cast to an all-female one. The otaku world has changed and Genshiken explores that change in dept while also tackles some important social issues that are now more prominent than ever. Lastly, the way Shimoku gave closure to most supporting characters (the cast is big and many characters take the spotlight over time) is also worth noting, even though some of them still remained kind of a mistery at the end given the lack of focus on them, and that's probably the least positive aspect of Genshiken, but it's hardly something off-putting, at least for me. Everyone gets their fair share of development, after all.
Going back to the start of this review, i've always seen Genshiken not merely as a manga, but rather as a social study about manga and otaku culture, with lots of subtexts orbiting around: like the limbo between reality and 2D, interpersonal relationships, even sexuality, gender identity and discrimination - a manga that deludes the reader to think in a 2D kind of way only to cheekily defy his expectations with the most realistic comebacks you could possibly pull. It's a story based on hardcore otaku that primes for its striking realism despite how the characters usually behave and think. And above everything it's an incredible work that deserves to be read by any manga/anime fan.
Genshiken: A character driven story
Overview and Analysis
Spoilers in paragraph 9
Genshiken is a story that is really about its characters than anything else, among all the, otaku humor, witty references, comedic relief, or romance, the characters are the epicenters. The plot of Genshiken revolves an otaku club in college which is known in English as “The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture”. As the name subtly implies, Genshiken has a lot to do with itself, anime, manga, video games, cosplaying, and the otaku lifestyle (hell, it even has it's own anime inside Genshiken), both good and bad. Oddly enough however, I never really
felt a specific emphasis on otaku culture asides from the occasional references of the characters doing otaku things. Not really once did the "otaku culture" progress the plot in a meaningful way. It seems as though it was a backdrop or setting for the characters to do their thing, unlike in other mangas such as say "Bakuman", which is specifically about making manga. I will talk about why later and in short I believe because it is a character driven story, therefore it seems as though the "otaku culture" isn't used so as much as vehicle for moving the plot but rather all it's other reasons.
The exposition of the manga brings us in the focus of a freshman college student Sasahara, who seeks friends with similar interests and so decides to join the Genshiken club. In beginning, we are introduced to several un-outstanding otaku club members, The president of the club (he's not important), Madarame, Kugayama, Tanaka, and Kousaka. What surprised me in retrospect is how at first, I didn't think any of them; they seemed boring and just a shell of nerds and otakus one would imagine in normal life, plastered into a manga. However after the long duration with all the characters, reading, watching and following them on their journey and also the subsequent addition of new club members, I find that I have come to love them all.
After their first encounter, the plot follows relatively smoothly. They do their university work, engaging in their hobbies, go on trips, most notably the biannual Comiket, and interact with each other, and often in hilarious and touching ways. I don't think Genshiken is particularly special in this regard, with the exception of the cast being college students. Being college students is slightly different from say high school students. Obviously high schoolers in anime are overly saturated. Being in college however frees up the author to do other things that one normally doesn’t see a high school based series, such as going out drinking, working on their senior thesis', working on their careers and so on. I think the fact they are in university does not make a terribly large difference in the grand scheme of things, in which I'm sure most of the plot could've existed much the same in a high school setting. Just that college in manga and anime is less common and adds a bit of variety and maturity to an already comedic and easy going series.
To segway on the maturity point, I believe the age maturity of the characters adds some nuance to the atmosphere of the series that one doesn't get to see play out often in other series that do not have their cast as young adults. Being a young college person means a lot of things, they independent, living their own lives, pursuing their own dreams, and completing each of their goals. We, as the viewer can see this play out through the series, and those who have been through it themselves could find it easily relate. We could relate by fearing about graduating and working right afterwards, we fear of the spite of social interactions between friends and or partners, we fear graduating a year late and being left behind by all your friends. All theses things from a young person's life experiences can make one very relatable to Genshiken's struggle, so that we enjoy their triumph with them and wallow with them in their despair or sadness.
Interestingly, I would say there is no main character in this series. It would seem like the characters tend to phase into and out of the protagonist spotlight. In an arc, one character may be the focus for many chapters while later they become a minor character in following chapters. If I had to guess, Sasahara would be the main character given how he was introduced, but Sasahara doesn't play much of a role in the later chapters. This is both good and bad. On the one hand since there is no main character, I feel as those it is easier to focus on all the cast rather than receiving the perspective from one character throughout the series. On the other hand, it feels as though the main character’s focus moves around too much and or that one gets stuck reading or seeing the point of view of a side character perhaps too often (I will talk about this later with Hato). For example, there is a clear shift of focus from the original cast second half of the manga, where new characters are introduced, however even so certain older characters seem to linger for much too long, hogging up the plot from the rest characters. Directionless or the collective direction of the genshiken group is vague which makes me feel like the series is going nowhere in particular, I feel that is a slightly bad thing. This detail arguably creates flaws that I see in the series.
As with my initial premise, I believe that character interaction and relation is the cornerstone of this series. It is with the characters that one gets to experience the hardships and also see the funny moments as they plays out. It is not really the plot itself that makes you interested to read or watch (come on let's be real, this is not a high quality action series or something) , but rather what these characters would do or say in a situation and the consequences of that. Because of, or rather maybe as the result, there is depth to the characters where one may or not be surprised to find them. For example, Sasahara, you get to know as a relatively nice guy and uninterestingly average, and sometimes as the lead character. But through development one can see how there is an ever so veneer of character depth and personality that lives and grows within the character. This is showcased when Sasahara decides to make a Doujin and gets into conflict with the artist, Kuguyama. He lashes out at Kuguyama, uncharacteristically up until this point. Later on Sasahara comes to the club with an untaken care of beard, and gets lectured by Kasukabe for being lazy (If I recall correctly). This is interesting because the show itself never really shows the cast doing class work and the view assumes everyone is doing well or working hard. This episode shows Sasahara's academic incompetence and anger seeping into their Doujin project. Of course by the end of their ordeal, Sasahara redeems himself, by taking responsibility, produces what he wanted to make, and makes up with everyone in the group.
Another club member that receives quite a bit of character of growth treatment is Ogiue. Ogiue joined the club subsequently since she was kick out of the Manga club. She is a sensitive and unapproachable character at first and we find that her propensity to hate otakus is from her past experience of BL and how it jeopardized her high school days. Her love for drawing manga is however cultivated by the other Genshiken members as she later helps Sasahara make his Doujinshi. We see her develop out of her shell as she agree to go with the group to Comiket and work to hand out the Doujin. The consequence of her development can be see towards the beginning of Genshiken Nidaime, in which she takes presidential role of Genshiken, loses her childish contempt for other members found in the early parts, and also find the courage to accept Sasahara as a love interest. Hell, she even loses her dorky, but ever so cute, hair style she started with the second half which shows her sincerity in growth as a character by the author taking her person seriously and not just as a purely eccentric or petulant character that was crafted to hold the viewer's attention.
Clearly the most interesting character in which their depth was thoroughly portrayed is with Madarame. Early on, we get to see a flashback of Madarame in his junior high years, in which he makes a wrong call in bad mouthing on a female classmate which causes another classmate to slap him so hard that he stays still in the classroom for hours. But in all honesty, this event was a watershed moment for Madarame. Previously he acted like a jerk to other people without consideration for their feelings, and once he received punishment for his actions, it hits him and is traumatized by it. We can see this trauma, if so subtly, in the way he interacts with girls or the deliberate lack of interaction rather. In the early parts of the story, Madarame claims he doesn't want a girlfriend and explains that he prefers 2D women over 3D ones. One can see this as a witty otaku response to brush off the other member's questioning, or rather more cynically or psychoanalytically as a self-defense mechanism to protect himself by avoiding the question.
Perhaps where this attribute of Madarame's characters comes into most importance is with his unrequited love and crush with Kasukabe. His love for her develops as they sit in the club room together alone. We see how Madarame develops feelings for Kasukabe, but is unable to confront her about it until much later. Madarame and Kasukabe's interactions are important, since it is through her that he is able to break his own shell and hopefully become more than just a “loser otaku” so to speak. Madarame grows confidence by forcing himself to go out buy new clothes, even in the disinterest of his otaku hobby, wear new glasses, in order to gain the approval of Kasukabe who is more or less impressed by his new fashionable endeavor.
Feelings for Kabusake never ceased, and it showed that Madarame still enjoys her company whenever they all go out in groups or when they competed in that one specific cosplay event. It is not until way later into the series, four years in their time, as they both graduated, that they finally confronted one another. For me, this moment was the penultimate moment in the whole story, Madarame building up the courage to finally tell Kasukabe his true feelings. The whole scenario is extremely heart tugging, and once Kasukabe finally turns Madarame down, it feels like a weight has been lifted from Madarame's shoulders and ours as well. Kasukabe poignantly remarks about how they could have been together in another “world”, referencing to how a visual novel game deals with possibilities of multiple endings or routes of love interests. I find this to be funny since throughout the series, characters often break the fourth wall and announce how the world they are in is real and it's not like some manga or anime. It also shows that Kasukabe knew all along that Madarame had feelings for her, and so does the rest of the cast apparently.
The real flaw of this situation with Kasukabe and Madarame is that of Kousaka, Kasukabe's boyfriend. Madarame seems to give little judgment, if any at all, to Kousaka even if he is formally Kasukabe's boyfriend. This inconsistency describe by the story in which Kousaka announces that he does in fact want Kasukabe and Madarame happy. At first I believe this was meant by him breaking up with Kasukabe so that Madarame can hook up with her, but that was clearly not the case. It comes off feeling that Kousaka is by far the least developed character, and that his personality seems to just conforms to everyone else's will so there is little conflict or drama as possible. One can see this fact since Kousaka's inner dialogue is never revealed to the viewer unlike other characters, and that he is personality always docile and neutral, which is nothing wrong in and of itself, however he lacks the interestingness and development time other cast members get. Perhaps Kousaka was just cool with Madarame having feelings for Kasukabe and Madarame wasn’t too worried about Kousaka’s reaction? Maybe so, it is clear that common sense was relaxed for the events for Madarame's plot to proceed smoothly.
Speaking of this show choosing to be not very dramatic, it does have it fair amount drama, gossip scattered throughout, with more towards the middle and end. This lack of 'overbearing drama' ties into what I believe as the show having a lighthearted tone. It is not very serious, unlike a similar series called "Welcome to the NHK" but it does have moments of seriousness. Another reason to why the series is lighthearted is that most of the cast are otaku, and that otaku tend to lack that vigorous personality that is required to act upon and create compelling and dramatic scenes. This is a generalized observation, but I see it rather that the interactions devolve into humor with the otaku, or rather shall I say, the socially inept characters acting as they would, rather then something event that entails drama; which is would argue that series is striving going for. The series tends to favor comedy and light-heartedness over the pure realism of how organic characters would actually play out in particular situation which is pragmatic and understandable enough. With that being said, the character interactions overall feel natural given their personality and proclivity to do certain things in a situation most of the time.
Genshiken is informally, but formally (in the anime) broken into two series, the second being called Genshiken Nidaime. This break in continuation does make a bit of sense since the change in characters and character focus is fairly significant to warrant a name change. In the second half up to now, we see most of the main cast graduated and continuing on with their own lives, having less time to come to hang out with Genshiken. The rest of the characters mostly take their leave in the story in exchange for a set of next generation of mostly female freshman members who join the club. I feel that this newly formed cast is mostly geared to female audiences, as most of the cast are female with exception of Hato who is quickly revealed as a male who crossdresses as a girl coupled with the only other forgettable concurrent male member, Kuchiki. What I find as the most noticeable change is that most of Nidame is focused on one character perspective, Hato. Which in and of itself is not a problem but that one get the perception that he sucks up too much attention, and I feel that it was out of whim to have Hato interwoven into the plot concerning the older Genshiken members.
With the addition of the new cast members, the plot is more layered since there are more possible interactions with characters that weren't there or possible before. The prime example Madarame receiving a harem, I personally wasn't really sure how to think about this. On the one hand, it is pretty funny to see a Harem with a male character, but the how it developed in accordance to Madarame person and how he is. I don't see it as all that convincing that he would get all these bitches! But I digress, it does create a problem since this plot device at least at the very moment of this review is dragged on too long in my opinion.
Which then brings us to the character of Hato. I think it is interesting that the author decided on which an edgy main character for his second half. Hato is a cross-dresser, but is not gay. He makes that clear very much through the instances in which he has a chance defend his sexual orientation when questioned. If I recall, he says "I don't like men but I like you" or something like to that regard. I don't know how true this statement is even though the statement was made by him. He clearly develops the most feelings for Madarame in story so it makes one believe he does like men, but only Madarame. I question his sexuality since it seems as though he is literally struggling with his gender. There is one point in which there is female version of him, floating around him, telling him to commit gay actions. If one looks at this in another way, this could be seen as pretty unsettling viewed as a sexual "Christian demon" apparition, hovering over him tempting him to do things he doesn't necessarily agree with. Sorry for that sinful interpretation (most of it was I'm sure purely comical intention, and not supposed to be seen as a twisted psychological insight) of Hato. He seems to at least suffer from some sort of gender identity or transgender issue that may well be address later on. My other more placid and less over-thinking theory to this ruse is that, what may the cause to Hato's instinctual tendency to crossdress emerged from his affection to Kaminaga, a high-school senpai, who he dresses in model of.
Also on a random note, Hato sort of reminded me of another manga/anime called Hourou Musuko, look it up if you're interested. It may seem like that I don't like Hato, but I do, I love me some gender bender, but I feel like it's hard to make a cross-dressing guy that likes one guy a main character without doing it with tender care like Hourou Musuko. Otherwise Hato's ordeal being in Genshiken does feel a bit unnecessarily out of place, or at least the issue was drawn out for too long.
Other things that were caveats but not really such a big problems were the "fake characters" of Sue and Angela. They exist, and play a role in the story but don't seem realistic at all and serve as purely fanservice or comedic relief, especially with Sue. The author even goes out of his way to point out they weren't (at least sue) genuine characters. Besides that point, I think they are fine (I don't dislike them), they spice up the series with some comedic relief and add variety to a rather tame and ordinary story.
Touching quickly on the ending, it ends as well it could end at the point where it did. In my opinion, the plot dragged far too a duration in the wrong direction to recover any semblance of a truly satisfying end such as Madarame’s confession, which I view as the real culmination and resolution. Despite all the criticism I spoke about throughout, Genshiken is not perfect, but it is a wonderful story of characters and their experiences of young adulthood that many of us otakus can relate and find humor, love and joy in.
There's a huge misconception in the Western world about the word "otaku", especially regarding it's usage. Most Westerners believe that the term refers to someone who is a zealous fan of something, in particular (but not exclusively so), anime and manga, with the word gaining a distinctly positive bias over the years. This is partly due to Gainax's tongue-in-cheek usage of the term in their 1991 movie "Otaku no Video", however the word has much darker and far more derogatory connotations in Japan, something which continues even to this day.
Bit of a sombre beginning to a review of a comedy manga isn't it? Well it
does have a purpose, particularly as Genshiken is a series about otaku in their various forms, from the cosplayers and fujoshis (girls who are crazy about "boy's love" stories), to the doujinshi mangakas and the game junkies, and everyone in between.
Created by Kio Shimoku in 2002, the manga quickly filled the void left by Comic Party and established itself as a firm fan favourite due to its realistically humourous take on otaku subculture. The story focuses on a university club called GENdai SHIkaku Bunka KENkyūkai (The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture - the capitalised letters show where the title "Genshiken" comes from), which, in truth, is nothing more than a collection of oddballs and social misfits who are only linked by a love of anime, manga, games, and other pastimes that are the "normal" realms of the social recluse. Into this strange environment walks freshman student and closet otaku Sasahara Kanji, a shy young man who wants to join a club that he would enjoy (and where he might be able to watch/read some hentai/porn).
If there's one memorable aspect of the slice of life plot that the manga adopts, it's the quirky, and often humourous, manner in which the various characters interact with each other. Genshiken is very much a character driven piece which, ironically enough, is also the main reason why the comedy works so well. In truth, the series is very much an otaku sit-com, and much of the humour is derivative of social stereotypes, particularly the more derogatory ones.
The thing that is most pleasing about the plot though, is that it presents a broad spectrum of otaku subculture rather than focusing on one single type. Each of the characters brings something unique to the story, especially Kusakabe Saki, who is basically the only "normal" major character in the series. Whilst it's true that otaku are portrayed through rose-tinted lenses throughout the manga, Genshiken also presents the characters as plausible human beings, something that no other otaku based story has done (until NHK ni Youkoso! that is).
The plot does have its flaws, but in truth these are mostly niggling annoyances rather than anything major. The story progresses at a good pace, neither too fast nor too slow, and because of the emphasis on the characters there are very few occasions where "events" are used to move it forward. Some readers may find certain chapters rather placid, especially those where nothing seems to happen, however it should be remembered that such small tales present the characters in ways that the manga may have only hinted at before.
As far as the artwork goes, I was honestly impressed by the level of simple detail in each panel. The author has taken great care with the designs of each character in an effort to make them as individual as possible while at the same time playing on the social stereotypes. This is particularly notable in the case of Kousaka Makoto, who is unlike the other members of the club (more on this in a bit). Given the focus on the characters and the fact that they are sometimes quite literally under the microscope, it's nice to see that the author has made them expressive in both mannerisms and actions. Facially the characters are pretty simplistic, however they are extremely emotive, and it's easy to tell what each character is feeling at a given time from their expression.
The backgrounds and settings, especially the clubroom where much of the story takes place, can sometimes seem haphazardly drawn, yet they are highly detailed, with very little in the way of open space used throughout the series. Each chapter takes place in an area that is literally filled with "stuff", and while the art may be a bit messy at times, each panel has a sense of realism about it because of the detailed nature of the artwork.
The characters form the centrepiece of Genshiken in terms of both the story and the club itself. Each of them are individuals to a tee, with their own thoughts, feelings, prejudices, hobbies, etc, etc. Genshiken is nothing if not a lesson in characterisation as each of the club members, together with the supporting characters, are complete from the start of the series. One needs to remember that because the story is set in a university club, the characters are adults for the most part. This gives the whole series an edge that many other otaku based tales lack in that the humour, the relationships, the prejudices, the emotions, the hang ups, etc, etc, are all presented in a manner that is more mature, more subtly humourous, and more accessible to fans of anime and manga, especially the older ones.
One of Genshiken's biggest achievements is the degree to which the characters develop over the course of the series. This isn't simply a story based on one year of life, but covers several years during which members of the club leave, whilst new members are admitted. Over the course of the manga there are many notable progressions for each of the characters, Madarame's attempt at shopping for "decent" clothes, Sasahara being made club president, Ohno and Tanaka's cosplay based relationship, and a whole heap of other points where the characters learn something new about themselves and the world.
Probably the most notable and interesting character is Kusakabe Saki, who is very much the epitome of normalcy. She is in a relationship with Kousaka Makoto, a self confessed otaku who, against all of Kuskabe's reasoning, logic and judgement, looks nothing like the stereotypical "freak". He is handsome, smart, stylish, sociable and amiable, and cares for her deeply. He is also the king of eroge (erotic video games), an anime junkie, and a dedicated club member. It is because of his association with Genshiken that she meets the other characters, and although she has a deeply rooted dislike for all things otaku, this openly conflicts with her desire to be with Kousaka, and with her gradual realisation that otakus may not be as bad as she first thought.
Kusakabe's relationship with Genshiken is probably the most important point of the story, as even though the otaku characters are very much plays on social stereotypes, she represents the voice of "society", and her gradual understanding of otaku subculture plays a huge part in the development of the story and every other character. In truth, one could say that Kusakabe is the most important character in the story, and that while Sasahara may be the main lead, she is the one whose influence on the other characters is the most telling.
Genshiken is a series like no other, not simply in terms of its realistic portrayal of otaku subculture, but also because of its sensitivity, humour, maturity, and the depth of its characters. Any fan of anime or manga will find themselves relating to the story in ways that they probably never thought of, no matter the age of the reader, and it's this level of accessibility that makes the series truly great. The dichotomy between normal and otaku is handled extremely well, however it should be noted that this is very much based on the Japanese perception of otaku.
At the beginning of the review I mentioned that the word "otaku" is misinterpreted in the Western world, and it's understanding this fact that brings new depth and meaning to almost every aspect of the manga, from Ogiue's unwillingness to "come out of the closet", to Kusakabe's efforts to have a "normal" relationship with Kousaka. If the reader remembers that, for Japanese people at least, the word "otaku" is generally a derogatory term (although admittedly this perception is changing as anime, manga and games become more and more mainstream), then much of the story becomes more understandable.
One thing I think will clear things up a bit more is the anime series called Nogizaka Haruka no Himitsu. In that show, the lead female character is a closet otaku who was shunned, teased and bullied to a degree when her schoolmates found out she was a huge fan of anime and manga. It may surprise many to know that this sort of reaction to fans of anime and manga was once considered acceptable, as otaku were, for the most part, shunned like lepers. This is how the word "otaku" is viewed in Japan. Not as something positive, but as something purely negative and derogatory.
Genshiken may be a comedy series, however it is in no way like Comic Party, Lucky Star, or any other otaku based comedies. The series possesses a sense of realism that is unlike many other manga, especially in terms of its interactions, and key to fully appreciating the story is knowing how the word "otaku" is meant to be used.
Now that you know the difference, give Genshiken another try. You may be surprised at how different it is.
With a medium-sized cast of characters, Genshiken provides a rich and realistic portrayal of otaku life, showing the otaku as not necessarily a positive or negative subculture, but simply one that is.
The characters designs are unique, with distinct yet reasonably subdued designs backed by an elaborately detailed look at the otaku world around them. The artwork changes significantly over time, but it manages to remain at a high quality all throughout. The only point in which the art suffers a little is in the volume 8 4-panel comics.
The series can be divided into roughly two parts, with the arrival of the character Chika
Ogiue. Her appearance results in a gradual shift from a more general view of otaku life to more personal character studies, prioritizing their lives as human beings over the fact that they are otaku. However, that should not be cause for alarm, as the characters remain true to their existence, and the story Shimoku Kio proves is emotionally satisfying.
I cannot recommend Genshiken enough.
Summary: Genshiken starts off good. Then Ogiue appears. Which turns it from good to great. No, great isn't a sufficiently positive adjective for it.
So I'll say that Genshiken turns from good to Ogiue.