Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Genshiken: Second Season
Valentine's Day is approaching, and with Madarame's improbable harem members all jockeying for position, it looks like this year's celebration will be a lively one. While Hato seems to have come to terms with his feelings, his confidence only makes the rest of the Genshiken that much more nervous. And Madarame is having plenty of trouble dealing with his own feelings, as his uncomfortable attraction to Hato makes him doubt his own identity. It turns out being an unemployed twenty-something in the eye of a harem storm isn't all it's cracked up to be.
Genshiken's claim to fame has always been its ability to capture the unvarnished humanity of its otaku heroes. Whether they were heading to a comics festival or arguing about pairings or introducing one of their members to a new hobby, the manga's great strength was its consistent naturalism. Genshiken portrayed the reality of fandom life without either glamorizing or condemning it, and in doing so found something universal in the trials of its quirky characters. It wasn't a perfect manga, but it always had that going for it.
Genshiken: Second Season has moved further and further afield from that naturalism, at least in terms of its overt narrative. Fan favorite Madarame has now become the in-story favorite as well, surrounded by several girls and one boy who all want him for themselves. It's an unlikely situation, but one that's familiar to any manga fan - and of course, all of Genshiken's characters are manga fans. And so, several volumes after the concept was introduced, Genshiken: Second Season's stars are all both aware of and complicit in the fact that they're participating in a textbook harem. Now they just need to figure out what happens next.
That premise could dampen Genshiken's ability to convey any real dramatic truth, and it certainly does come with its issues. Sue's personality is one of the biggest problems - she's positioned as one of the central members of this harem, but her character has never really been more than a caricature. Sue never actually communicates with anyone else, but they treat her as if she's a normal young adult, meaning that not only is she a bad character, but she makes the characters around her seem less realistic through their interactions with her. Her presence feels artificial at almost all times, like an abrasive mascot character in a manga that couldn't have any less need for a mascot.
The other issue here is repetition. Madarame's harem has now been the driving force of Genshiken's conflict for almost half the Second Season's runtime, ever since Saki formally rejected him. In light of that, some of the chapters in this volume feel like lukewarm retreads of previous conflicts - Sue and Hato competing over Madarame, Yajima stressing about her feelings towards Hato, Angela and Keiko offering the clear adult counterpoints to Sue and Hato. Genshiken is better-written than most harems, so this material still has some appeal, but it doesn't really result in any new emotional truths. And the longer it goes on, the less convincing it feels.
And yet, for all those negatives, Second Season's eighth volume is also full of wonderfully intimate conversations and moments of true emotional honesty. Madarame gets some of the best of these, which makes sense given that his situation is weirdly relatable. Not many people have dealt with having an actual harem, but the general idea of feeling out of your depth in relationship drama is a universal experience. His uncomfortable conversation with Kugayama, where he has to get drunk in order to even admit questions about his sexuality to himself, is a great sequence that makes strong use of a generally underused character. And his later confrontation with Keiko, where he admits that part of his discomfort comes from the fact that he can't understand why anyone would want him, is equally charming.
Other small moments throughout offer more of the unvarnished conversational writing that makes Genshiken special. There's one chapter that contrasts Yoshitake talking about college with her sister against Hato and Yajima doing the same, and plenty of nice incidental exchanges in the leadup to Valentine's Day. Plus the manga's art is as consistent as ever. A strong mix of expressive faces and scrupulously detailed backgrounds, it offers the same steady charms you've come to expect from Genshiken.
Overall, Second Season's strange choice of dramatic subject matter is continuing to present problems, but Genshiken is still Genshiken. Even if the idea of a harem is ridiculous, and even if promoting Sue to a central romantic rival was a terrible idea, there are still plentiful moments of emotional honesty and charm sprinkled throughout these pages. Second Season is a very good manga doing a very silly thing, but if you're okay with that, there's still plenty to like here.
Overall : B
Story : B-
Art : B+
+ Still offers plenty of the grounded and intimate conversations that have always made Genshiken special, art is consistent throughout
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