Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Genshiken: Second Season
The school festival is drawing to a close, and it's confession time - with Madarame and Saki finally stuck together in the club room, all the Genshiken's old secrets will finally be aired. But Madarame's not the only one having a tough time, as the approach of graduation has Ohno sweating her own future, and even the Genshiken's new members are dealing with drama. The Madarame love polygon is beginning to take form, and there's no stopping it now.
Honestly, it can sometimes be kinda hard to review Genshiken. The manga's just too consistent! The art is always crisp, character work always thoughtful, dialogue always grounded and natural. It can be tricky to find new things to highlight every volume, because the volumes all tend to be roughly equally good in very similar ways. In light of that, it's almost a relief that volume five is such a distinct mix of highs and lows. Almost, but not quite - it certainly makes my job easier when I've got some real missteps to point to, but I love this manga. I want it to be the best it can be.
In contrast to last volume's narrow dramatic focus, this volume's conflicts are diverse in characters and tones, and their effectiveness is likewise various. The first chapter, featuring Madarame's long-awaited “confession” to Saki, demonstrates the volume (and Genshiken overall) at its best. The awkward distance between Saki and Madarame has always been one of the manga's greatest strengths - they're both among the story's most unique and dynamic characters, and old moments like the hair-in-nose scene this chapter references, or the chapter where Madarame and Saki got sushi together and then rode the train home, were highlights of the original series. This chapter paid homage to their classic un-chemistry in typical Genshiken fashion, with Madarame attempting to sidestep the actual confession, being parried by Saki's blunt refusal to let him hide in noncommittal “you know”s, and ultimately blurting out what he'd long been dying to tell her - that he still remembers that one time she had a hair in her nose. Saki laughs at this, but accepts his “confession” with grace, and then promptly tears up at the thought she's been making him feel uncomfortable for years. The whole chapter is a great sequence that really celebrates the friendship between these two, and Shimoku Kio's excellent layouts do great work in managing the energy and small moments of humor between them.
And then, in the next chapter, Tousaka gets everyone to cosplay for Madarame. Even Saki, who before now had always been so hesitant to cosplay, ends up cosplaying as a boy in a dress. This near-fantasy sequence serves as the first example of a problem that keeps cropping up in this volume - Kio leaning into indulgence in a way that betrays the reality of his characters and world. This issue is articulated in different ways throughout the rest of the volume, and almost seems to mirror Madarame's own descent from adulthood back into extended adolescence. We get Saki advising Madarame that “if he keeps trying, he might get a harem” (a statement I wish weren't actually true), a chapter of Ohno feeling insecure about graduation that loses its sting in its rush to get Ohno drunk and mugging for the camera, and all manner of scenes of both Hato and Sue feeling flustered by Madarame's presence. “I don't think I can win against her” thinks Hato about love-rival Sasahara, and you have to wonder whether it's the character or the mangaka who's descending into cliches.
Fortunately, it's not all indulgence and romcom blushes. That question of the line between fantasy and reality is actually key to Hato's personality, and somewhat excuses the way his behavior keeps falling into classic manga cliche patterns. Hato cautions himself make sure to separate his fantasies from reality, and that “if I mistake one for the other, I'll only wind up hurt” - but Genshiken is all about people whose fantasies are deeply tied into their identities, and though defending the line between the two is certainly important, none of these characters can really help the way the two bleed together. These characters need their fantasies - they are key to their identities and part of the foundation blocks of their friendships, and it's only natural that people without much social experience would end up parsing their lives in terms of the narrative patterns they've absorbed. Genshiken might be slipping into the narrative excesses its characters embrace, but given how much this crew is defined by those stories, it almost makes sense.
Shimoku Kio's art remains strong, though the more farcical and overblown content doesn't leave as much opportunity for the regular nuance of his panel pacing to shine. Characters are expressive, full of unique faces and distinctive body language, with Yajima in particular getting some great reactions this time. Overall, this is likely the weakest volume of Second Season, but Genshiken is still a strong manga. Moving in a more overtly dramatic direction is resulting in some growing pains, but the fundamentals are strong enough that I'm hopeful it'll all work out in the end.
Overall : B
Story : B-
Art : B+
+ The Madarame-Saki confession scene demonstrates Genshiken at its best; art remains consistent throughout.
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