Review

by Carlo Santos, Apr 16th 2009

Genshiken

Official Book

Synopsis:
Genshiken Official Book
When the hardcore otaku of Shiiou University gather, they meet at the Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture—better known as the Genshiken. This guidebook contains all the essentials for fandom survival: an overview of the Genshiken's day-to-day activities, profiles on all the characters from the series, guides to Akihabara and comic conventions, and countless other tips on getting the fullest enjoyment out of Japan's finest anime, manga, video games. Fans can also immerse themselves in various side stories, learn more about the series-within-the-series Kujibiki Unbalance, and discover historical documents from the club's early days.
Review:

These days, there are plenty of works about it means to be a fan of the nerdly arts—but few have succeeded as eminently as Genshiken, which is as much a heartwarming coming-of-age series as it is a satire of the subculture. And like any great satire, the better you know the subject matter, the more enjoyable it is. That's where this book comes in handy, going beyond the usual character and plot summaries and providing an all-encompassing primer on Japan's greatest contributions to modern pop culture. Of course, most of this is explained through the series' highly entertaining cast, so in that respect, it also goes beyond the typically dry content of anime encyclopedias and otaku lifestyle manuals. While not all the content is an instant hit—did they really have to squeeze in that much KujiUn drivel, and what is Ken Akamatsu doing here?—the Genshiken Official Book, like the series itself, is clearly a cut above the rest.

The early chapters of this book are the closest thing to a standard fan reference, covering the basic premise of what goes on in Genshiken and discussing each of the characters in detail. Rather than provide dry, chapter-by-chapter summaries, most of this content is presented through short paragraphs and panel excerpts from the manga. Fans of the series' romantic side even get a full chapter devoted to the "girls of Genshiken" and the relationships they're involved in, although this also uncovers the book's most glaring flaw: it was published in the middle of the series' run and thus fails to cover some of the best stuff from the later volumes, like the relationship that develops between lead character Sasahara and yaoi fangirl Ogiue.

Such plot-summary deficiencies, however, are easily forgiven once the book plows deeper into otaku-lifestyle content. "Madarame's Ten Otaku Commandments," despite being a short chapter that contains more visuals than text, is a deeply powerful expression of fandom—and honestly, reading this chapter alone pretty much explains what Genshiken is all about. Of course, understanding the fandom also means obsessing over surprisingly mediocre anime titles, which is why we get a chapter on Kujibiki Unbalance, the made-up series that ended up becoming real anyway. Even as a catalog of silly anime clichés, it's not all that great, and having an entire script from the first half of KujiUn's first episode is an unnecessary drag. Fortunately, things pick up again with an "old-school Genshiken" chapter (there's a certain satisfaction in being able to catch all the references to 80's and 90's anime), but having an interview with manga-ka Ken Akamatsu—who apparently is the archetypal fanboy-who-made-it-pro—seems like an odd choice when it would make much more sense to get the esteemed otaku opinion of someone like, say, Kio Shimoku himself.

The last few chapters of this book contain all the other odds and ends that didn't quite fit anywhere else: a couple of fan-contributed side stories turn out to be pretty good entertainment, staying true to the characters and maintaining the series' lightly humorous tone. After that comes the most enlightening of the otaku-lifestyle chapters, explaining what the big deal is about anime, manga, games (especially of the bishoujo variety), cosplay, action figures, doujinshi, and the general overwhelming desire to consume all this merchandise. True otaku probably won't learn anything new here—it's all been explained already on the Internet—but few other works provide such an effective summary of the subculture. By comparison, the final chapter where Shimoku explains the characters' profiles from Volume 1 is something of a head-scratching letdown, but perhaps it's better to end on a subtle note after reaching such dizzy heights of otakudom.

As a quasi-reference book that covers all the angles of modern visual culture, this is definitely a translator's challenge when it comes to Japanese slang and otaku jargon. The American edition is sure to have its share of nitpickers, with word choices like "fanzine" for "doujinshi" (then again, it's not like "self-published work" rolls any easier off the tongue), or "girly games" for "bishoujo games" (there is a difference between something being "girly" and something having pretty girls in it). But looking at the big picture, this translation does a remarkable job of making almost any style of writing understandable—character summaries, nonfiction articles and short-story dialogue all flow easily. The slightly oversize page size provides sufficient room for the content, and the sharp print quality reminds us all of what a great artist Shimoku is when it comes to nailing the little details. In true Del Rey tradition, the book also comes with a glossary of cultural footnotes—a necessity for the series, of course—and the pull-out mini-poster in the front happens to be another eye-catching bonus.

If Genshiken is a love letter to the otaku lifestyle, then this book is the postscript—an entertaining collection of odds and ends for all those who seek a deeper understanding of why we obsess over "those weird Japanese cartoons." And comics, and video games, and toys ... Yes, Genshiken Official Book is just as wide-ranging as the characters' tastes. It's not a perfect book—as a collection of miscellany, it's only to be expected that the quality varies from chapter to chapter—but for fans of the series, this is the next best thing to a new Genshiken storyline. Well, either that or an Official Book 2 to cover the rest of the series...

Grade:
Production Info:
Overall : B

+ Sums up the plot and characters of Genshiken in an entertaining way, while also providing informative material about what it means to be an otaku.
Didn't really need all that Kujibiki Unbalance content or the Ken Akamatsu interview. Only covers up to about Volume 5 story-wise.

Story & Art:Shimoku Kio

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