Thursday, 14 July 2011

げんしけん / Genshiken

When the first season ended, back in March 2005, I didn’t think all that much of Genshiken. It was culturally interesting, I said, and had some classic pieces of character-based comedy, but I didn’t really see myself in the characters and was more amused by the parody anime-within-an-anime Kujibiki Unbalance, fleshed out into three OVAs and later a full series. By the end of the second season, though, I had a real affection for the characters and their club, and care enough about them to snap up every new manga ‘Genshiken II’ chapter, still released sporadically after the title’s official end.

Genshiken, quite simply, is the story of a ‘visual culture’ club in a Japanese high school. Everyman Sasahara at first wants to come over as fairly normal, but the rest of the club soon get his true otaku nature out in the open. The rest of the series follows the various members of the club as they attend cons, put together a doujinshi comic of their own and struggle to justify the club’s existence alongside existing manga and gaming societies.

Turning the camera – or, perhaps, manga artist’s brush – onto its primary audience is nothing new, and in many ways Gainax’s Otaku no Video is the predecessor to this. Other recent series have heavily focused on anime fans and shut-ins, from Welcome to the NHK and Sayonara Zetsubou-sensei to Eden of the East. Of all these, though, Genshiken is the most accessible and consistent, not attempting to make an epic story or satirical statement, but focusing on strong characters and their relationships. And the characters are great.

At first, the other men in the club seem daft caricatures: Madarame is a lizard-like oddball with delusions of grandeur. Tanaka is scruffy and laid-back. Kugayama is drawn almost like he’s in a newspaper gag strip, overweight and stammering. Then there’s feminine, slightly overly-perfect Kousaka, who is the quintessential geek but with a very pretty face and nice clothes, making for some great juxtaposed comedy when his girlfriend Saki tries to fit in with him. Later on come cosplay obsessive Ohno and prickly Ogiue, as well as other funny, odd characters like Kuchiki and Suzie. The latest manga introduces a new set of first-years, who have yet to grow on me and are a little harder to believe in.

The simple set-up gets developed in really interesting ways, mostly in conventional soap opera directions. The otaku element is the delicacy that brings the customers in, but what keeps them returning is the twisty relationship drama that could be in almost any soap opera. But the spice of seeing the characters go to cons, being awkward in very typical otaku ways or poor Saki trying to participate in her boyfriend’s hobbies – these make me care, and as a result this ended up a favourite.

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