Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Genshiken: Second Season
Kuchiki's graduation party rages on! Of course, Kuchiki is hardly the man of the hour - and with every member of Madarame's harem in attendance, it's looking like things are finally going to come to a head. First off, an evening of drunken celebration ends with Madarame and Hato alone in a hotel room, in a scenario that's ripe for all sorts of romantic shenanigans. And then it's off to a shrine visit, where Yoshitake's harem-poking plans will lead Madarame into one dramatic confrontation after another. Having a harem is supposed to be a good thing, but for Madarame, it seems like it's just one slow-rolling disaster.
If you're still reading Genshiken at this point, you've likely accepted that it is no longer the manga it once was. A story that was initially renowned for its thoughtful realism and nuanced articulation of fandom friendships has gone through plentiful ups and downs since, and at this point, any claims of naturalistic storytelling would have to explain their way through the last several volumes' consistent harem nonsense. The unemployed and directionless Madarame, the original series' unlikely breakout star, has become the centerpiece of an absurd romantic struggle pitting Sue against Angelica against Hato against Keiko. If you're not here for that, I don't have good news.
That said, as far as the shambling zombie that Genshiken has become goes, this is actually a pretty okay volume.
The first few chapters, which are basically consumed by Madarame and Hato stumbling around each other in some sort of drunken, quasi-romantic stupor, are not particularly satisfying. Though there was once pretty interesting drama to be mined from Hato's difficult relationship with his own gender identity, framing Hato's feelings as “can I be a suitable partner for Madarame” feels like the least satisfying place to take that story. The biggest issue is that it's become unclear whether Hato personally or Hato's writer Shimoku Kio are even considering the possibility that Hato may well be a woman.
Hato's desire to dress as a woman is constantly framed as an “expression of fandom,” and any preludes toward romance immediately run aground on a firm, unquestioned “but I'm a man”. But framing Hato's choices as more of a fanciful persona than a key truth of his identity seems to run counter to how he himself frames his crossdressing, and the fact that his sexuality or gender identity are never at least questioned feels like a major blind spot in the narrative. In a story that's usually hypersensitive to questions of identity, treating Hato's identity in such a nebulous way creates a lack of realism and sense of emotional distance.
On a more immediate storytelling level, the main problem is that we've seen this particular conflict play out far too many times before. As the most prominent and least gimmicky suitor in Madarame's harem, Hato has tripped over Madarame, been tripped over by Madarame, and gone through every permutation of blush and hesitation and self-doubt in the book. Watching these stale harem tricks play out isn't any more satisfying just because the characters know these are stale harem tricks.
Fortunately, this volume's second half fares much better. Though it's still a bunch of contrived harem shenanigans, the second half's contrived harem shenanigans actually do push these characters into compelling conflicts. A trip to a local shrine prompts Yoshitake to create a kind of harem lottery, where the different members of the cast all draw straws to group into pairs for segments of the trip. Forcing pairings like Yajima x Keiko and Madarame x Angelica actually does move the drama forward, leading into a series of refreshing confrontations between the main romantic leads.
Given that Angelica can't speak Japanese, Sue can't speak period, and Hato can only stammer, it falls to Keiko to push the story forward. Though she's blunt, her position is also understandable, and her frank conversations with Hato, Yajima, and Madarame are the highlight of the volume. It's become clear by now that losing straightforward non-otaku Kasukabe was a fatal blow for Genshiken—but if new non-otaku Keiko sticks around, she may get this story moving yet.
Overall, this volume is about par for neo-Genshiken, meaning it's a dramatic step down from the original, but still a reasonable step up from your run-of-the-mill harem manga. With Kio's art retaining its usual consistency and the cast finally butting heads, it's looking like things may finally be moving towards some sort of resolution. Genshiken is far from the story it once was, but there's still life in it yet.
Overall : B-
Story : C
Art : B+
+ Second half breathes some life into stale harem shenanigans, Keiko keeps things moving
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