Reviewby Theron Martin,
Genshiken + Kujibiki Unbalance
DVD 1: Volume 1 + Box
Sasahara Kanji, a shy college freshman into anime and manga, decides to check out the Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture (aka Genshiken) during club recruitment. There he meets fellow freshmen recruits Kosaka, a pretty-boy gamer geek, and Saki, Kosaka's non-fan girlfriend, and, later on, cosplay enthusiast Ohno. Amongst them and the more senior otaku he finds a place where he can not only feel comfortable and accepted but learn to aspire to new levels of otakudom. Outsider Saki, meanwhile, tries to comprehend the nature of the otaku while attempting to distract Kosaka back into what she regards as a more normal mode of behavior.
A popular point of interest and discussion for Genshiken is the popular anime Kujibiki Unbalance, about a boy named Chihiro who wins a lottery to get into an exclusive high school heavily centered around competition, where he meets a girl who's a total mushroom freak and another girl who's both the Class President and a love from his childhood.
Though technically a comedy, Genshiken would be more accurately described as a humorous documentary about otaku culture. Viewers who have had experience with anime/manga/cosplay clubs will undoubtedly find the first few episodes hitting very close to home, while those who have not (including yours truly) should find it to be an intriguing look into such groups and the fans who populate them. It is a loving, nonjudgmental portrayal clearly made by people who have lived this life themselves. It is also as realistic and nontraditional as humorous anime get, for it uses few of the exaggerated reactions and none of the impossible physical moves commonly seen in anime comedies. Instead, the series simply shows what goes on and draws its entertainment from the fact that the behavior and passions of otaku and the people involved with them are, at times, inherently amusing.
“Passion” is the correct word here, too, for as Genshiken makes clear, it is the love of the hobby and enthusiasm towards it which drives otaku, regardless of what their individual focus may be. All of the major types are on display here: Ohno, the girl who regards cosplaying as a vitalizing experience; Tanaka, who loves to make cosplay costumes; Kosaka, the outgoing gamer geek and the otaku you wouldn't recognize as one just to look at him; Madarame, the militant, articulate otaku so devoted to his hobby that he won't let something as trivial as a fractured hand stop him from making the rounds of a major convention; Sasahara, the shy newcomer who gradually grows into his own as he learns the true Ways of the Otaku; Kugayama, the lovable oaf with the speech impediment who would probably be a social reject anywhere else; and the club president who doesn't do much but seems to have been in charge forever. On the outside looking in is Saki, whose love for Kosaka unwillingly draws her into the club circles as she tries to puzzle out the nature and motivations of the individuals in the club. Each character is also drawn as a distinctly different physical archetype, but as scenes at one convention show, the archetypes they represent are common ones for their hobby. (Especially telling is one scene in episode 3 where Kugayama sits down beside a whole row of fellow fans with very similar body styles.)
While there isn't much plot to the first volume of Genshiken, neither is it exactly episodic. These are simply the lives of ordinary otaku, ranging from a sort of hazing to visits to doujinshi shops in Akihabara to a visit to Comic Fest to activities at a school festival. Sasahara's development as a fan and Saki's efforts to sort things out and get Kosaka's attention are two of the binding threads through these four episodes. The other is the club's interest in Kujibiki Unbalance, which appears in video clips throughout both the episodes and closers and in one form or another is a recurring theme throughout these episodes. (See below for more on Kujibiki.)
The background artistry for Genshiken opts for a realistic style loaded with an impressive amount of detail, especially in the contents of the shelves of the Genshiken meeting room. Character designs are also mostly realistic, with bodies drawn proportionately and with normal-sized eyes. Though a moderately bright color scheme is used, it's muted enough that the artistry doesn't have the glossy look or the obviously digital feel common in recent anime series (in fact, the only obvious CG effects are the fighting game scenes, which are taken from actual Guilty Gear footage). Animation is very good, with background characters sometimes being animated, minimal use of still or panning shots, and characters often shown actually blinking. Movements generally look natural when walking or running, except in one case with Madarame which was clearly intended to be funny.
The heavily acoustic guitar-based musical scoring for this volume offers a nice, light compliment to the action but is not especially remarkable. The opening number is a lively, catchy rock number well worthy of a spot in any anime music collection, however, and the more sedate closer is a pleasant, likeable number easily tolerable for repeat viewings (the opener for the first episode is actually the one for Kujibiki Unbalance, while the opener for the remaining episodes is well representative of the series, art-wise). The closing artistry and animation changes slightly from episode to episode, reflecting events which took place in the episode, so it's always worth playing through. Sound is, unfortunately, only available in 2.0 tracks for both English and Japanese.
Casting for the English casting for the roles is generally quite appropriate, though how well they match with the original seiyuu varies from character to character; Kugayama is dead-on, while both Saki and Kosaka are a little deeper in English (in Kosaka's case, this is because he was actually voiced by a prominent female seiyuu in Japanese, but is voiced by a male VA in English). Performances are mostly well-delivered, with Kugayama's stutter actually sounding more natural in English than in Japanese, but the deliveries of several characters have occasional stiffness as the English VAs struggle to match up the voices/lip flap timing. The English script also strays more from the subtitles than it needs to, which creates minor discrepancies in meaning in a few places. This isn't a major problem, and overall it's a respectable dub that will probably be fine for most dub-favoring fans, but coupled with the delivery issues it's enough for me to rate the English dub down a little.
Aside from company previews on the DVD and adverts in the liner, the first volume contains a solid collection of extras. They include a clean opener, a complete set of clean closers, a set of (untranslated) promotional videos, and two video clips. One, titled “Character Show 2004,” contains footage from a convention interview with the seiyuu for two of the key roles in Kujibiki Unbalance anime and audio drama, while the other, titled “Under 17 Live,” is a clip of a live performance (from the same convention) by Under 17, the duo who performs the self-titled opening theme for Kujibiki Unbalance with great energy. The biggest extra, though, is the full-length bonus episode of Kujibiki Unbalance, which has its own separate menu set-up that, amusingly, lists Genshiken as its “bonus episode.” Viewers should also keep an eye out for the episode epilogues sandwiched between the closer and Next Episode previews on episodes 1, 3, and 4, which are all significant. Those who shell out the extra few dollars for the art box (it only cost me $4 more on sale) will find nice wrap-around artwork but no other frills.
While watching Genshiken, I couldn't help but be struck by some similarities to “Trekkies,” a documentary about Star Trek fans made in the U.S. and released in the late '90s. Genshiken reflects the same kind of passion, humor, and commitment towards anime and manga as “Trekkies” does towards Star Trek. Most importantly, it emphasizes two of the key points of “Trekkies:” that people who are members of such groups generally don't regard themselves as being strange despite any social stigmas, and that, for them, the sense of belonging in a group of like-minded individuals is almost as important as the fandom itself. That's really what Genshiken is about at its heart: finding a place where one feels like he or she belongs. That the first volume of Genshiken has accomplished this in such a clever way, by integrating in elements that most anime or manga fans are likely to be familiar with from first-hand experience, is why it's so entertaining. It is a well-made and lightly-humorous gem which should be on the shelf of any true anime fan.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Affectionate treatment of anime fandom, excellent opening number, good extras.
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