on February 8, 2009
Note: This review is for the entire series and not just a single volume.
What is Genshiken about? Put simply, it's about a group of college students who hang around in a college club for the 'study' of manga, anime and video games, the club being called Genshiken (The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture). The group go to Comicfest (a convention held twice a year where fan made manga gets sold) twice a year and hold a school event once a year, but most of the series takes place within the Genshiken club room. Also, there's no real main character -- some characters got more 'page time' then others but there wasn't a character who was focused on a significant amount more than the others.
Genshiken is a very odd series. You'd expect a series with a small amount of main characters, not a lot of variation in the backgrounds and lots of repetitive otaku (people with obsessive interests, with manga, anime and/or video games usually being the interest) fun to get boring after reading for awhile. But that wasn't the case with Genshiken -- whenever I opened up one of the volumes, I found myself able to read the book from back to front without issue. Maybe it's because I'm into anime, manga and video games myself and, to certain extent at least, can relate to the cast? I don't know. All I know for sure is that the dialogue was well written, the art was very well drawn and the author just generally put a lot of effort into his work. As a series made for otaku by an otaku, it succeeds.
A large amount of the chapters involve the cast simply sitting in the club room and talking about whatever the chapter in question focuses on. This allows Genshiken to be easy to pick-up and read, but it also means that the manga will fail in the eyes of someone who isn't able to like or connect with the characters. So, in a nutshell, what makes Genshiken work is the characters, and that's why I'm going to spend most of this review covering the characters in as much non-spoilerific detail as possible.
One of the few negative comments I can throw at Genshiken is that a couple of the characters don't come across as realistic. The majority do, Madarame in particular coming across as very real, but I can't say the same about the best character (in my opinion, of course) in the story, Kasukabe, and her boyfriend Kousaka. It was a smart move by the author to attempt to link the lives of otaku to the the life of a 'normal', clothes loving woman because it allowed people who aren't as crazy as the rest of the cast to connect to at least one character. However, it's hard to believe that, for a period of around four years, a 'normal' woman would hang around with a group of otaku when she doesn't even have much interest in what the rest of the group are into. And as for Kousaka, her boyfriend, have you ever seen or heard of a real otaku that has sex appeal, doesn't wear glasses, spends money on fashionable clothes AND has an incredibly hot/understanding girlfriend? I rest my case. And in terms of personality, he's just an airhead...or, put in a more nasty way, he doesn't seem all the ticket. I assume his character was only created in order to link Kasukabe with Genshiken, and that's exactly why his character was a failure in my eyes -- rather than him having been created as a realistic otaku, he was made completely unrealistic in attempt to make 'normal' Kasukabe loving him and joining Genshiken to be with him realistic. For a story that's supposed to show the lives fictional but real people, the above two just don't quite fit.
I do love Kasukabe's character, though. Believable or not, she has the sort of fiery personality usually reserved for red-heads, and I must confess to having something of a fetish for the 'red-head personality'. Her character alone made the series funny at first with her comments and general lack of understanding with regards to how obsessive manga/anime/video games fans function. It was hard not to laugh when she had a serious discussion about her boyfriend deciding to switch positions during sex (doggy style, if interested) so that he could face the TV when an anime episode was on. Again, I have to question the believability since I find it hard (think anything twisted and you're a pervert) to imagine any male being able to focus on a TV screen whilst having sex with an attractive woman...but, of course, that didn't make the mental image any less funny. Her role did, sadly, become less important as the story went on due to her becoming more accepting of the group she, for some odd reason, spends a lot of time with for four years of her life. I kept hoping she'd switch from being more of a supporting character and return to being more of a main character but it became clear she wasn't going to once she stopped trying to get the Genshiken club to vanish.
As for the rest of the cast, only Madarame, a true otaku, was a truly memorable character. The rest of the characters have a quirk or two that separates them from each other but very little personality beyond those quirks. Madarame, on the other hand, came across as a person as well as an otaku. He had the 'camera' pointed at him a lot during the first half of the story, just like Kasukabe did, and that resulted in him receiving some decent development as he and Kasukabe, opposites in just about every respect, bounced words off each other. The most interesting aspect of his character is the hidden feelings he holds for Kasukabe and how he hides his true feelings because he knows she'll never return them, which allowed him to become more than just another otaku -- he became a person with understandable emotions; not just an insane guy. One of the best chapters involved Madarame attempting to act normal when alone with Kasukabe in the Genshiken room for the first time, with her oblivious to the fact that he he was sweating like a pig and didn't know where to look or what to do in order to look normal. Sadly, like with every relationship of this kind where, for one reason or another, the male won't reveal his feelings, the scenes the two shared alone never built up to anything beyond friendship...but there was a chapter close to the end that repeated the earlier chapter where the two were alone near the start, and this time around they actually managed to talk, which showed how much they'd both changed over the course of the story.
As the story moved closer to the end, a new character, who ended up getting a huge amount of chapters focused on her, came into the story -- Ogiue, an otaku in denial who enjoys drawing hardcore yaoi. The story started focusing more on the characters and less on otaku culture around the time Ogiue came into the picture. She was very difficult to like or understand because what she said (otaku hate) and what she did (joining otaku clubs, reading/drawing yaoi) contradicted each other. The reasoning behind her actions was explained in volume 8, but what was shown didn't seem to be a good enough reason for her to act as bitchy as she did for a lengthy period. Tsundere or not, I was never able to like her very much because what she did and the reasons behind what she did weren't equal enough for me to think, "Oh, I can understand why she was such a pain in the arse now. The poor thing..."
...If I keep going like this, talking about each character in detail, it's going to go on all year, so now that I've covered the most important characters I'm going to cover the rest of the important characters in a few sentences:
Sasahara (Kanji) - The first character in the story. He joins Genshiken right after he starts at his new college. At first he's afraid to admit he's an otaku and show his true colours, but the Genshiken group soon enable him to come out from within himself. He's a passive, rather boring character -- the sort that fades from memory quickly. He didn't have much to do until near the end, where he and Ogiue started spending a fair amount of time together. Out of all the characters, he was the most plain and lacked individuality.
Ohno - The cosplay freak. She joined Genshiken in order to cosplay. At first I thought she was just going to be there to show off her gigantic breasts in various costumes and smile (in other words, fan service), but her personality came out quickly once she started arguing about cosplay being a form of expression and the good of yaoi. She was one of the better, most likeable characters.
Tanaka - The model building and costume creating freak. He's not really a very important character, and he fades away like nearly all of the early cast do as the series goes on, but I thought I'd mention him because he's an important character for Ohno -- he makes all of her costumes and is involved in nearly all of cosplay related chapters.
There are a few other members of Genshiken but none of them are important enough for me to spend another couple of paragraphs covering. I'm sure after reading the above you will have a good feel for most of the cast and know if Genshiken sounds like your cup of tea already.
Like I said before I started talking about the characters, Genshiken doesn't have a main plot thread and, aside from a few chapters, most of the stories are self-contained. It's hard to rate the plot because of that. I was going to give the plot a 9 because, in this series, the plot and characters are one and the same...however, the open, inconclusive ending made me reduce the rating to 8 instead. Don't you just hate it when a story ends at a random point, without telling you anything about what happens to the characters? The Count of Monte Cristo did after 1250 pages; Welcome to the NHK, a very similar series to Genshiken, did and Genshiken also did. The blow was softened a little with Genshiken because there was a bonus chapter included that showed the characters talking after the end, but that didn't really make up for the abrupt nature of the ending.
Talking of bonuses, each Genshiken volume was full of extras. Every chapter has at least two four-panel stories, which connect to the chapter they appear after. They're all fairly amusing and added to my overall enjoyment. There was also a couple of bonus chapters, including what I mentioned above, and Del Rey spent a few pages in every volume explaining what certain words meant and what characters were referring to when they talked about certain otaku related things. If you're the sort of person who gets annoyed with buying anime DVDs and discovering no extras were put on the disc then reading the Genshiken volumes will please you.
And, finally, the art needs to be talked about a little. Each character was drawn excellently and I had no problem differentiating between them. It's worth mentioning that the characters often changed clothes between the chapters, which made the characters more real and showed that the author was far from a lazy person. And to back up that point, I'd also like to mention that the backgrounds are very detailed -- it was impressive to see that, in an attempt to make the rooms of the main characters look real, lots of games, books and models were included in their messy rooms.
The reason I haven't given the art max points? The Genshiken room. It appeared so much that I was able to memorize the layout, and that's saying a lot when I'm a goldfish. I got a little tired of seeing the exact same background over and over. It's not really a flaw when the series wouldn't have worked if not for the Genshiken room, but still...
Overall, I loved Genshiken. I put it straight into my top five after finishing it. There are few, if any, better character driven stories out there. It's a must read for every manga/anime fan because there aren't any out there that wouldn't be able to see parts of themselves in the characters. If money isn't tight or if you don't like to take the anti-piracy moral high ground then I recommend you read this series as soon as possible because you won't be able to stop reading once you start.