Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga Genshiken
by Jason Thompson, May 12th 2011
Episode LI: Genshiken
"You don't become an otaku by trying…you just wake up one day, and realize you are one."
Which do you like better: Genshiken or Otaku no Video? The answer says a lot about what kind of otaku you are. Of course, there are tons of self-referential manga and anime about Japanese geekery—I, Otaku: Struggles in Akihabara, Comic Party, Maniac Road, Lucky Star, etc.—but Genshiken and Otaku no Video are still some of the best-known. Both of them are about a seemingly ordinary college student sucked into the world of anime, manga and eroge, but their attitudes are totally different. Otaku no Video has a hyperactive shonen manga "I will become the Otaking!" mood, and it ends with a fantasy sequence (or is it?) of the heroes flying into outer space to spread the otaku message. Kio Shimoku's Genshiken, on the other hand, stays on earth in a crowded clubroom, and ends with the heroes graduating and having to get real jobs. Otaku no Video is a fantasy; Genshiken is realistic. Otaku no Video is about extroverted otaku who want to take over the world; Genshiken is about introverted otaku, and the first image in the manga is of a boarded-up door with a "KEEP OUT" sign.
The door leads to the clubroom of Gens>hiken ("The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture"), a club at a college in Tokyo. Neither the anime club nor the manga club, Gensh>iken's stated purpose is "tearing down the borders between manga, anime and video games." In other words, it's basically a place where people hang out, play video games and talk about the latest chapter of their favorite manga. It doesn't have many members, because it's the kind of club that scares people away who try to join it.
Kenji Sasahara, who isn't scared away from joining Gens>hiken, is a closet nerd. His Nerd Level is just nerdy enough to recognize Final Fantasy battle music when he hears it, but not nerdy enough to recognize from exactly which game. Not a guy with a very strong personality (in fact, he's probably intended as a stand-in for the reader), he sort of drifts into the Gensh>iken clubroom, not standing out, too shy to reveal just how big an otaku he really is. Then the other members of the club wander away, leaving him alone in the room, and he goes straight for the porn dojinshi. "I always wanted to check out one of these fanzines, but I never had the courage to buy one. So this is what they're like…" Before things can get too hot and steamy, the other members return. It was all a test, and he passed! Now he can become a member of Gen>shiken!
But Genshiken isn't merely the story of Kenji Sasahara's transformation into an otaku; it's a true ensemble manga, and it's hard to say who is really the main character. Gradually, we get to know all the other members of Gen>shiken. Tanaka is a scruffy, ponytailed guy who loves making costumes and photographing cosplayers. Big, soft-spoken Kugayama is a manga artist. Madarame is a snakelike, sneaky guy who loves eroge and porno dojinshi and, unlike the shyer members of the club, loudly boasts of his ero preferences…but you get the faint feeling that he acts so proud of it because he's covering something up. Lastly, there is Kousaka, who's the odd man out simply because he's good-looking. Kousaka's bishonen face conceals the fact that he is a shameless eroge and video game nerd, a fact that causes endless frustration to Saki, the girl who likes him. Think of the Tripod song "Gonna Make you Happy Tonight."
Saki, who doesn't have an otaku bone in her body, goes to Gens>hiken club meetings just to be close to Kousaka, filling the archetypal "bored girlfriend" role. But as Genshiken goes on, the club starts to pick up more and more female members, transforming from a sausage fest into a veritable Fujoshi Rumi. Long-haired, big-breasted, nervously energetic Kanako waltzes into the club one day, bringing her twin loves of cosplay and yaoi. Ogiue, the third female member, is also a yaoi fan, but she's got issues. "I hate otaku! Especially girl otaku!" she snarls when she's forced to join Gensh>iken after the manga club kicks her out. But deep down, the standoffish Ogiue is just frightened that her yaoi fixation will cause pain for her and the people she loves…for reasons which we eventually discover in a flashback. Towards the end of the story, Angela and Susie, two American girl otaku, show up, bringing their blonde hair and light eyes and their American imperviousness to caring what other people are thinking. "We have so many girls now! We could have a harem!" Kousaka says in the later volumes. "Uhh…no," Madarame responds.
The real pleasure of Genshiken is how realistically nerdy it feels. It covers most of the major otaku hobbies, including model painting, cosplay and dojinshi. When nothing else is going on, the characters sit around quoting lines and talking about their favorite games and shows—Gundam, King of Fighters ("These characters were pretty much made for whacking off to"), Wings of Honneamise—and even more references to Kujibiki Unbalance, a fake shonen manga invented by Kio Shimoku (which was later spun off into its own real series). The dialogue is as crammed with detail as Shimoku's super-detailed artwork, which seems perhaps constrained by having to draw nothing but rooms full of video games and dojinshi, when he's obviously good enough to draw anything he wants. (There aren't many fantasy sequences or 'manga-within-the-manga' moments.) Guys sit around playing video games and eating pork-kimchee bento. One chapter, the protagonists almost break character to go to the beach, only to spend most of their time sitting around under the beach umbrella, afraid to get a tan.
This being a slice-of-li>fe manga, there isn't that much ongoing plot. The heroes clash with the evil girl from the student committee, who wants to close the Gensh>iken club. They get together to make a dojinshi to sell at Comic Market. (Actually, in the last few years "combination book" dojinshi anthologies drawn by several people have become less common, and people prefer to buy dojinshi drawn entirely by one person). But mostly, they just interact and get to know one another better. "I've really started to blend in. I guess I'm just like all these other guys," thinks Kenji. Well, maybe not just like everybody. Genshiken is a pro-otaku story, but Kio Shimoku isn't shy about drawing some real weirdos. There's Kuchiki, the freak who has no social skills and no volume control and spends all his time running around annoying everyone because, apparently, that's the only way he can interact. (Doesn't everyone know someone like this?) There's Haraguchi, the lazy jerk from the manga club, who acts ingratiating and friendly in person but does nothing but talk sh*t about people behind their backs. On a more pathetic level, Kugayama has talent as a manga artist, but his attitude is so self-defeating, he can never actually finish a story.
And of course, even the main characters are pretty weird…but this manga isn't about shaming them, it's about celebrating them. It's particularly "YEAAAAHHH!!! LET'S DO THIS!!!" about masturbation, with Madarame, Kousaka and Kenji all seemingly vying to be the biggest consumer of eroge. Kenji is the eroge-curious blushing newbie to videogame-assisted masturbation. Kousaka proudly announces "I'd never give up eroge!" right in front of his girlfriend. And Madarame, as always, gives the loudest and most convoluted justification for his hobby, right in front of the disgusted Saki. ("A video game consists of nothing but numbers and code, and combining that with human imagination in order to create sexual desaire requires a far more advanced intellectual capacity than simple human physical attraction!" "Advanced intellectual capacity?! You're so full of shit! All you're doing is grabbing your wang and jerking off!") But however much they love the onanism, the Gens>hiken crew seem almost sweet and innocent compared to the fratboy types they pass in the street, boasting about how many women they just had sex with.
But this isn't a manga about getting off; it's about falling in love. Genshiken is that rarest of things: a shonen-esque romance manga which doesn't turn into a fanservice comedy. Genshiken is subtle. I knew it was going to be different from the usual "idiot plot" romance manga in the fourth chapter, when Madarame, sick of watching Saki pine away for the clueless Kousaka, tells Kousaka to stop being stupid and just kiss her already. In front of the whole club, Saki and Kousaka confess their love, kiss, and then happily go away to a love hotel. They don't show them in the hotel, of course; in Genshiken there's more scenes of the characters talking about sex than actually doing it. This, too, seems realistic. Nearly every character has their own love story: there's a romance between Kenji and one of the girls, and a particularly excruciating story involving Madarame, who has a secret crush on Saki. Perhaps he hooked her up with Kousaka just because wanted her to be happy. Even after he graduates and gets a job, he keeps coming back to the Gens>hiken club for lunch just for the chance of seeing her. Kio Shimoku is so into the little details of people's behavior that he can devote a whole chapter to Madarame's nervousness around being in the room alone with his beloved.
This mixture of bittersweetness and blossoming love, this hopeful message that there might be someone for everyone, and the subtle observation of how nerds act among nerds, is really the heart of Genshiken. Some otaku stories, like Otaku no Video, are more about the clash between otakus and 'normal' life, but in Genshiken, there isn't much clash. Apart from a few culture-clash scenes like when Saki runs into her ex-boyfriend, it's a mellow manga; the otaku have their world and the muggles have their world, and that's that. The Del Rey translation does a good job with a complex script, although it translates "dojinshi" as "fanzine" (but only for the first few volumes, then they change it) and "fighting games" as "fight games." When the other Gens>hiken members try to get Kenji to embrace his otakuhood, they chant "One of us! One of us! One of us!" like in Evan Dorkin's Eltingville Club comics (itself a reference to the 1932 horror movie Freaks).
Genshiken is the kind of manga where you feel you know the characters, where they remind you of people you know (or maybe of yourself). As I mentioned, it's a slice-of-li>fe manga which feels like it's drawn from someone's actual experiences at an otaku club…but it's also got a bit of fanservice as well. There's a certain meta feeling when you read the characters talking about what makes a good manga character, and then think Oh snap! These rules apply to Gen>shiken too! Consider that Ogiue is your basic tsundere character, or that Kanako's fetish for balding, middle-aged men might be a gift for oyaji fans of Genshiken. And consider the yuri slash potential when Kanako and Saki grapple on the rug, or Kanako excitedly disrobes Ogiue to try on a cosplay outfit. Personally, I agree with Kohta Hirano, who in his Genshiken pin-up in the back of volume 6 writes "Madarame is the sexiest moe character in Genshiken. No, really." Genshiken is sort of realistic, but not entirely. After a 4-year hiatus, Kio Shimoku recently restarted Genshiken in Afternoon magazine , with a new set of characters including American fangirl Susie and a cute crossdressing fudanshi who looks just like a girl and makes all the girls and guys' hearts flutter. (Inexplicably, the new version has not yet been licensed by Kodansha USA or Del Rey, who translated the original series.) It's an otaku-in-love situation too delicious to resist, but where does normalcy end and fantasy begin? When is it better to abandon reality and just go to outer space?
And now for shameless self-promotion: for those near the West Coast, I'm having a launch party for King of RPGs volume 2, which is coming out at the end of this month! Actually, TWO launch parties! If you're in Seattle or the San Francisco Bay Area, or somewhere close enough to fly, drive, or walk, stop by these events for gaming, snacks, drinks and general nerdage!
THURSDAY, MAY 26
Green Lake Games, Seattle, WA 6:30-10:00 PM
I'll be there to sign the first copies of King of RPGs volume 2 (hitting stores on May 24) and talk about making the book. Plus, open gaming at Seattle's best game store!
Here's the Facebook Event Page!
SATURDAY, JUNE 4
Cartoon Art Museum, San Francisco, CA 5:30-7:30 PM
Victor Hao, the artist of King of RPGs, and I will talk about making King of RPGs, and sign copies of the books for everybody! We'll chat about what it takes to make a graphic novel and how we got published.
And here's that Facebook Event Page!
Come on by for twenty-sided dice, general mayhem and a chance to say hello. I hope you can make it!
Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.
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