Review

by Bamboo Dong, Jun 21st 2005

Genshiken

G.novel 1: Society for Study of Modern Visual Culture

Synopsis:
Genshiken GN 1
A new school year has begun, and it's time for all the college freshman to decide which clubs to join. Do they risk holing themselves up with the manga club to draw doujinshi all year? Or would it be better to ally themselves with the Genshiken, and have weekly “This Week's Kujibiki Unbalance Was Awesome” meetings? For Kanji, a shy anime fan still not ready to come out of the otaku closet, he chooses the latter. Between all the crash courses he receives in shopping for porn and battling the crowds at Comic Fest, his journey into the land of the Mighty Otaku finally begins. As for poor Saki, she's stuck on the same path, but entirely against her will. Will her love for the dashing (but extremely nerdy) Kousaka overcome her utter disdain of anime and game fans? Probably not, but there's plenty more to uncover in the debut volume of Genshiken!
Review:
What?! No giant robots with beam cannons?! No little girls with magical powers and fluffy sidekicks? Not even any ninjas or even zombies? How in the world was Del Rey expecting this to sell?!? Oh, that's right. A sublime storyline and some of the weirdest people on the planet—otaku. Lots and lots of otaku, doing weird otaku things like reading doujinshi, sitting around watching anime, and playing video games. It sure sounds dull, but once you pick up Genshiken, you'll never feel that way about it again.

If ever there was confusion about what kind of titles counted as Slice of Life, Genshiken screams it from every page. Following the lives of a college club know as The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture (or Genshiken, for short), the series is a glimpse into a typical Japanese anime club and a look at a subculture so normal that it's fascinating. Like any good story, there are two sides at play. This time, instead of good guys and bad guys, it's normal people vs. “otaku,” a term that has come to describe anyone who is fanatical about something, be it anime, video games, or model trains.

Saki plays the role of the “normal person” in the first volume. A classy girl with a taste for expensive clothes, her life is inextricably intertwined with the Genshiken when she falls in love with a cute, trendy boy named Kousaka. His major downfall? Being a lame, lame otaku who would much rather stand in lines for midnight CD releases than stay at home and snog with girls. Try as she might, Saki just can't get him to quit being an otaku no matter how hunky he looks. Like Madarame, one of the other characters, says, “It's not like one day he just woke up and chose to be an otaku. He can't just stop.” Then there's the other side of the line, all the otaku. Composed of a vivid cast of characters, there's at least one person to represent all the fan stereotypes—the anime fanatic, the manga fanatic, the cosplay guru, the game nerd… well, the list goes on.

Considering there really isn't much of an active storyline to speak of, Genshiken pulls most of its appeal from the characters. Heck, even they're a refreshing change from the norm—instead of typical long-haired pretty people with angsty love stories and earthshaking secrets, the Genshiken members are like everyone reading the manga. Normal people, normal lives… In the same way that people-watching at the mall is so excruciatingly fascinating, so is staring at the stuff that happens to the anime club. Even buying porn becomes a fun adventure!! Who would have guessed!

Everything is so realistic and natural that flipping through the pages is almost like pulling up a chair at the club table and listening to the members babble about the latest volume of Kujibiki Unbalance (a long-running manga series that everyone's obsessed with). If ever North American fans wanted to compare and contrast American and Japanese anime club life, this is the release to do it with. From their buying habits and pastimes, to a quick glimpse of college club life, Genshiken is a means of checking out what life's like for anime fans overseas.

And, of course, there's that rift between “normal” people and otaku that is emphasized subtly throughout the entire volume. Through Saki's words and (priceless) facial expressions, the book raises a lot of questions about otaku culture and how outsiders view it. Can otaku be un-otaku-cized? Can normal people date otaku and have a normal relationship? What's the deal with porn doujinshi and however do otaku get off on anime characters? Do they even like real, carbon-based, three-dimensional girls?

Of course, in a huge slap of irony, why would you be reading a manga about anime fans and stuffed to the brim with references and in-jokes unless you were a manga fan? Still, it's one of those books that, through trying to bridge the gap between society and its nerds, makes a slice of life book so real and so casual that it could serve as a documentary of the friends in your life. After all, it doesn't matter how cool or casual of a fan you may think you are, chances are, you probably share you probably know people who share a handful of geek chromosomes with these characters.

It certainly helps the reality of it all that the art is painstakingly detailed. It helps even more that the folks at Del Rey have mirrored mangaka Kio Shimoku's efforts and have delivered fans an A-grade translation job that everyone will appreciate. Whereas the artwork excels with all the tiny little nuances in every panel, like all the posters on the walls, the doujinshi on the floor, and every single figure on the shelves (even all the shots of crowds have all the hair and clothing drawn in instead of vague ovals), the translators matched the detail by translating all the signs, posters, and covers they could. They deserve an even bigger thumbs up for leaving in all the sound effects and just throwing in a small translation next to it.

As a surprise for the anal reader who likes to nitpick every translation move, there's an extensive translation notes section in the back of the book. Explanations exist for in-jokes, honorifics, and cultural references that pop up. There's only one big beef: at the end of the book, Shimoku includes character designs for Kujibiki Unbalance, as well as descriptions of all the main characters. That itself is neat, but the font is incredibly tiny and really hard to read. The art itself also, fades out at times, so even that has to be squinted at. Even worse is the relationship map, which plops black font on top of a charcoal gray background, which makes it near impossible to read without staring at it under a bright lamp. Of course, since I don't have access to the original source material, it may not be Del Rey's fault at all, but it's still a bit of a bummer.

While the detailed backgrounds captured the scenes magnificently, what really impressed me was something completely trivial—jet black eyes. In fact, make that small jet black eyes. After all, how many people really exist who have huge, watery purple eyes that have big splotches of light bouncing off grossly enlarged pupil? Not that many. That's what makes the Genshiken characters so much more real. They all have either black or bleached hair, standard eyes, and average features. Even without all the bells and whistles, the facial expressions that are drawn are a sight to behold—little would readers ever know there were so many ways to express disgust and bewilderment.

Normally, one would blame plain characters on sheer laziness, but Shimoku disproves that easily. The Kujibiki Unbalance character designs are vastly different from his typical drawing style. Meant to portray a manga, all of the characters take on stereotypical “manga” features: big eyes, huge radiant pupils, crazy hair, and ridiculously short skirts. Bonus points go out to every single cliché that the author hits in jest, including the young-looking dominatrix-by-night school teacher. Makes sense: normal people look like, well, real people, and manga characters have big hair and sparkly eyes.

It seems unlikely that one of the best manga series out this year would be so commonplace. A story about a bunch of nerds buying porn and playing video games? It's boring enough when you have to watch your friends do it. Somehow though, Shimoku makes it seem really darned entertaining in Genshiken. Between all the colorful characters and the jabs the author makes at fandom, this first volume is sure to delight all manga readers. After all, maybe you won't like magical girls or monster hunts, but you're sure to like life, right? Now, if only reality TV were this interesting…
Grade:
Production Info:
Overall : A+
Story : A
Art : A

+ Hilarious characters; true slice of life comedy about otaku
Kujibiki Unbalance character profile extras are hard to read

Story & Art:Shimoku Kio

Full encyclopedia details about
Genshiken (manga)

Release information about
Genshiken: Society for Study of Modern Visual Culture (GN 1)

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