Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Genshiken: Second Season GN 11
The Kuchiki-graduation-slash-Madarame-harem-resolution party continues, with the Genshiken's members now pairing off by lottery as they wander through shrine gates. Tensions are high, but Madarame seems only marginally closer to actually choosing a winner. Sue and Hato seem highest in the standings, but when each of them get a chance alone with Madarame, things only seem to get even more complicated. Is Madarame really prepared for what a relationship with Hato might entail? And even if Sue truly loves Madarame, can she overcome her own walls to actually say it? With no clear solution in sight, even Angela's proposal of an actual harem end is starting to sound like a passable idea. Good luck, Madarame!
Genshiken's Madarame harem arc has gone on for a long, long time. It felt like an unrealistic nod to the original Genshiken's breakout character from the start, and since then, it's wound through so many repetitive turns that it feels more like punishment than fanservice. Even the cast itself has started to complain, with Yoshitake seemingly voicing the audience's feelings when she reflects on being bored of all this Madarame drama, and more interested in what's going on with Hato and Yajima. Here's the bad news: this whole volume only takes place across a series of hours on the same day as the previous volume, and still doesn't resolve the harem plot. Here's the good news: Shimoku Kio really does make the most of this tired arc, and some of the individual conversations here stand as the most intimate and incisive of the series to date.
Genshiken's saving grace is that even in the midst of a narrative that feels utterly unrealistic, its cast still feel like real people with real anxieties. That comes through clearly in this volume's first new pairing session, where Hato and Yajima are matched up just moments after Hato learns Yajima has feelings for him. Though the path towards this conversation may be contrived, its substance reflects thoughtfully on the headspace and anxiety of each of these characters.
Yajima's feelings for Hato have always been threaded with her own insecurities. Initially, her resentment of Hato expressed itself as wholesale denial of his crossdressing, a refusal to see his identity as genuine. But having come to respect Hato, Yajima is forced to acknowledge that a great deal of her frustration comes from the fact that Hato seems to effortlessly embody a femininity Yajima sees as totally absent in herself. Yajima simultaneously cares about and resents Hato, her unhappy feelings about her own body made manifest in the boy she likes.
Of course, having never struggled with Yajima's particular issues, Hato sees things in an almost opposite light. There's no ambiguity with Yajima for him: she has always possessed a clarity of womanhood that he sees as unattainable for himself. Hato's identity is a complex topic that I'm frankly not even sure Kio is wholly equipped to address, but this sequence of Hato and Yajima comforting each other through their anxieties felt true to both their characters, and awkwardly honest in the way Genshiken does best. The story refuses to settle on easy answers, validating these characters' struggles with identity and body image as compassionately as it can.
Hato's ultimate “date” with Madarame is another such standout conversation, highlighting the uneasy relationship between fandom fantasies and real-life relationships. Genshiken is predicated on the fact that we can't really help whatever kink we're into, but how do those kinks inform our actual romantic prospects? Madarame seems to most enjoy play-acting the tropes of romance with Hato, but how much of his comfort comes down to Hato's crossdressing? Is he really prepared for what a gay relationship implies, both practically and socially? Festooned in the terminology of Hato's BL preferences, their near-argument presents one more painfully acute articulation of the complexity of romance and identity, elevated through smart details and consistently pointed dialogue. These feelings and situations are messy, and Kio is again smart enough to let them be messy, offering no solutions beyond what the characters themselves decide.
Outside of its standout emotional exchanges, this volume mostly just maintains the dramatic neutral that has defined Genshiken's last several volumes. The manga's humor has disappeared almost entirely, but that actually feels like a welcome shift, an acknowledgment that this arc has mostly run its course. Kio's art is livened through great expression work and his usual eye for background detail, as well as some very effective paneling. One of the best visual moments comes right after Hato has fully articulated his anxieties, and essentially accused Madarame of not truly considering the possible consequences of their relationship. Madarame's shaken, insubstantial “I'm sorry” feels lost in its wide-open panels, the stark insufficiency of his response triple-underlined by the scene's visual pacing.
On the whole, this volume doesn't quite justify the continuation of the Madarame harem saga, but it does its absolute best to find resonant character drama in the midst of that arc. Its grounded reflections on self-image and the practical problems of romance give it an edge that's felt lacking in recent volumes, drawing great emotional moments out of all of its leads. Second Season may be messy, but Shimoku Kio remains incredibly good at what he does.
Overall : B+
Story : A-
Art : B+
+ Digs into issues of body image and relational comfort levels to offer some of Second Season's most thoughtful character drama yet, great use of basically the whole main cast
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