Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, May 12th 2008
Chihiro, a bespectacled lad with world-class rotten luck, is attending a new school with Tokino, his childhood girl-pal who happens to have world-class good luck, when he's asked to draw lots at the school gate. Faster than you can say kujibiki, Chihiro is named incumbent school president with Tokino as his second-in-command. Together with fiery class secretary/inventor Renko and diminutive treasurer/resident moe girl Koyuki, they must complete the tasks placed before them by the current student council or not only face the loss of their positions, but also expulsion. It's a panda-hunting, trash-cleaning, mouse-catching, bomb-disarming frenzy of horribly mishandled gopher tasks as the inept foursome blunder their way towards power, their quest made all the more difficult by the fact that Chihiro and Tokino's childhood friend (and the current President) Ritsuko has somehow... changed.
Brilliant idea: creating a terrible fictional television series for the characters in your slice-of-otaku-life series to hilariously over-analyze. Not-so-brilliant idea: transforming said fictional series into an actual series. Genshiken manga-ka Shimoku Kio created Kujibiki Unbalance as an in-joke about obsessive folks and the kind of bad entertainment that they get too far into. It was intended to be bad, so is it any surprise that the series based on it is, well, bad?
Though based on the same material, the television incarnation is rather a different beast than the OAV included on first three Genshiken DVDs. Most of the original cast is MIA, those that do return are voiced by different (Japanese) voice talent, the character designs are more generic, and the plot is a task-of-the-week creampuff rather than a tournament-based serial. Add to that that leading lady Tokino has somehow transformed from a buxom mushroom-obsessed blonde into a svelte, orange-headed girl-next-door (though her personality remains largely intact, even if her karaoke-singing prowess has yet to be mentioned), and that the truly wacked-out humor of the original is largely excised, and you have a very different series indeed.
The animators explain the differences away during the disc's lone, and oh-so-lonely, Genshiken episode by referring to this incarnation as the “second season.” So be it. Anyway, the real failure of the television series isn't the changes, but the retentions. The original OAV wasn't a show, it was an extended joke. And the television series rather disastrously forgets to change that. Goofy mecha, elaborate pratfalls, powerful school organizations with deep secrets, love triangles, childhood friends, sisters, timid schoolgirls, and aggressive dominatrices: the series is more a comprehensive crash-course in otaku tastes than a narrative. Chihiro's sister alone—with her violent swings from cutesy to sexy to trash-talking hardass—could be a one-woman harem, and the population of every slot in the cast with a different prefabricated character type is actually impressive, in an Ig Nobel Prize kind of way.
That feeling of straight-faced, purposeful derivation was fine so long as the time spent with the, really quite irritating, cast was short. By the umpteenth time that Renko has precipitated some tornado-sized disaster with her wacky inventions, the joke has officially gone from extended to over-extended. Four episodes in, and the riot of car chases, ridiculous missions, explosions, and hyperactive, paper-flat characters is already the stuff of migraines. One can only shudder to think of the possibilities if it is allowed to continue unabated for another eight.
With generically round and smooth character designs and a color scheme that should have been left on the Candyland board it was stolen from, the art is a perfect complement to the content. When in motion, however, the series is a little more idiosyncratic. Bursts of unexpected fluidity haunt some of the chases, and director Tsutomu Mizushima does his best to regulate the runaway pace of the series. Under his direction, incongruously skillful scenes—such as the spare character establishment of the opening shot—lend some sequences a rhythm reminiscent of more introspective series. Unfortunately, Mizushima is fighting a losing battle against his content. Ultimately the flash-edited, circles-running antics utterly crush the oases of directorial restraint. Even the relatively understated score can't compensate, though the quiet opener and closer do make for pleasant respites.
Media Blasters' English version is surprisingly strong given the frivolous nature of the project. Renko has a lower, less obnoxious tone, and the decision to use a voice actor for Chihiro (instead of a voice actress as the Japanese version did) works surprisingly well, even during the flashback sequences. Anna Morrow effortlessly nails the President's aloof delivery, while Veronica Taylor struggles to project Tokino's hyper-chipper personality, with only partial success. The script is faithfully adapted, with only minimal changes, which makes for some clunky dialogue; but as Kujibiki isn't aiming for realism the increase in cheese is hardly a hindrance.
So why buy it? Perhaps a kandy-colored goulash of comedic and dramatic clichés appeals to you. Perhaps the circular irony of being an otaku watching a “fictional” series that was created to parody otaku tastes appeals to you. Or perhaps you're an optimist; the fourth episode—during which Mizushima's regulated pacing has free reign, abandoning the strident action and clanking contrivances for a bit of simple, free-spirited fun—does have enough hints of romantic drama to make the future seem a tad less bleak. Most likely, however, you'll be buying this disc for the single Genshiken episode it contains.
And it'll be worth it.
Proving once again that honesty, rather than love potions and ink-sniffing robots, is the recipe for truly great humor, this episode, like it's predecessors, is funny, insightful and just generally delightful. What other show would even attempt to use otaku self-loathing and female porn preferences as fodder for humor? And then succeed? The characterizations remain strong and discomfortingly accurate, the attention to visual detail obsessive, and the overall tone comfortable and relaxed—like the Gen>shiken club itself. With a parent like that, is it any wonder that Kujibiki feels fake in comparison? Even the Genshiken OAV's one extra—a rollicking, informative commentary track by sieyuu Kaori Mizuhashi, Ayako Kawasumi, and Takanori Oyama—outclasses the Kujibiki extras by an order of magnitude.
Genshiken grade: Overall (dub): B+, Overall (sub): A-, Story: A-, Animation: B+, Art: A-, Music: B+
Overall (dub) : C
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : D+
Animation : B
Art : C+
Music : B-
+ Fourth episode; Genshiken OAV.
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