It might seem a bit too dramatic for me to say that Genshiken changed my life, but as I look at the influence that Genshiken has had upon me, including but not limited to the very existence of this blog, I have to say it isn’t an exaggeration. To celebrate the one year anniversary of Ogiue Maniax, I have decided to review Genshiken, by Kio Shimoku.

Before we begin, I will warn that this is in no way an objective review. Rather, it may be the most biased thing you will ever read.

Genshiken: The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture centers around a student club at the fictional Shiiou University (located in Tokyo) . This club, the Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture (or Gendai Shikaku Kenkyuukai) is a gathering of nerds dedicated to the unification of gaming, anime, and manga clubs. At least, that was the original intent.

Along the way ambition was replaced by laziness and Genshiken has simply become a place for its members to hang out. As new members join and older members graduate and leave, so with them go old and new ideas as to what the club should be, leaving behind small legacies and transforming Genshiken’s very identity.

The main character of Genshiken is Sasahara Kanji, a young Japanese student who at the beginning has just started his life as a freshman at Shiiou University. Sasahara is what can be described as an unrealized otaku, someone who fits the category but doesn’t seem to be aware of that fact. It is through Sasahara’s eyes, inexperienced in the ways of fandom, that the story unfolds. Looking for a club to participate in, Sasahara tentatively decides to check out Genshiken. Though he is originally put off a little by its members and their rampant geekery, Sasahara eventually becomes more comfortable with himself and the other club members.

The most prominent member of Genshiken is a lanky, bespectacled upperclassman named Madarame Harunobu. The spitting image of otaku,  Madarame’s spending habits follow the philosophy of “don’t look at the price tags,” a philosophy which increasingly digs into his food budget. He even at one point gives an impassioned speech about how being attracted to drawings is only natural for human beings and that those who deny that are only fooling themselves. Taking over as chairman of Genshiken part-way into the story, it is Madarame who nurtures Sasahara’s realization into a true otaku more than anyone else. Madarame is still a dork with all the awkwardness one would expect though. For all of his posturing, Madarame is still an introvert by nature and vulnerable to little things like public displays of affection.

While Madarame is one main driving force in Genshiken, the other is a girl named Kasukabe Saki. A freshman like Sasahara, Saki is a fashionable sort, very keen on maintaining her own looks. Intelligent, confident, beautiful, Saki is many things, but otaku isn’t one of them. Eager to break up Genshiken, Saki only hangs around with the club due to her boyfriend, Kousaka Makoto, whose good looks and strong fashion sense belie the fact that he is an otaku on par with Madarame. Kousaka is not afraid to simply have (anime) porn lying around his apartment when Saki visits.

Other members include the big-busted cosplayer with a geriatric fetish Ohno, the stuttering heavy-set amateur artist Kugayama, the craft-loving Tanaka, and others. There are many characters in Genshiken and pretty much all of them are worth your time and admiration. Though I’ve given them rather brief descriptions, they are not the entirety of their characters. Almost none of the characters in Genshiken are flat, and the few who are still provide plenty of entertainment.

The first half of Genshiken concerns itself with the world of otaku through the eyes of otaku, and does so with a surprising amount of realism. When I first showed my friends in college Genshiken, they could not help but point out moments that mirrored their own lives. When I showed it to another friend, he had to stop reading because Tanaka scrutinizing over how to bend the joints of a model kit reminded him too much of himself. The club’s initiation ritual involves gauging a potential member’s fondness for erotic doujinshi (the greater the better). It’s a humble, self-deprecating, yet optimistic look at otaku.

If Genshiken stayed in this comfort zone, resigned to being about “those wacky otaku,” it would have still been very good. Genshiken goes further however by giving real, almost tangible development to its characters. Sasahara goes from being an amateur otaku to a cornerstone of the club, eventually becoming Genshiken’s chairman. He spearheads the initiative to create an actual Genshiken doujin circle. Ohno, once shy and hesitant to reveal her “preferences” to even fellow anime fans, slowly becomes a mother figure, confident and firm in her own otakuhood. Saki, initially antagonistic towards Genshiken, becomes a good friend and member of the club, gradually melting away the societal barriers that separate otaku and non-otaku. She still isn’t an otaku though.

More than a comedy, more than a story about otaku, Genshiken is about the individuals in the Modern Visual Culture Society and how they transform each other’s lives. This is no more evident than in the character of Ogiue Chika. Born in the Tohoku region of Japan, she is the catalyst which elevates the story of Genshiken from memorable to life-changing. I talked before about Genshiken’s first half. The introduction of Ogiue is the start of the second.

Ogiue is a quiet, yet abrasive girl who badmouths otaku at any given opportunity. Unable to co-exist with the female members of the Manga Society, Ogiue is moved into Genshiken with volatile results. Her unsociable personality however turns out to be a defense mechanism of the highest order, as Ogiue Chika is a fujoshi with crippling self-hatred. Sasahara may have simply been an unawakened otaku, but Ogiue is an otaku in denial. She draws doujinshi in her spare time, fantasizes about male Genshiken members giving each other some intensely x-rated favors, and attends events celebrating these acts with regularity, but is loathe to admit to these activities. One might ask, “If she hates being an otaku so much, why would she join clubs or do anything which would give her away?” and the answer is simply that Ogiue cannot help it. “How does one become an otaku” is a constant theme throughout Genshiken’s story, and the answer is that you don’t, you just realize it one day. Having discovered yaoi as early as 5th grade, Ogiue exists at the point of no return, and it is Ogiue’s rocky path to self-acceptance which leads Genshiken to its finale. Through Ogiue, what was once a story of people with unique hobbies enjoying each other’s company transforms into a very personal look at what it means to face reality without letting go of yourself.

The Genshiken manga and anime differ in a number of ways, but the stories are overall similar. The anime adds a few extra scenes, gets rid of some others, and rearranges elements of the story or puts them on drama cds. The anime adaptation’s voice cast is stellar. Kawasumi Ayako (Lafiel, Crest of the Stars) as Ohno, Seki Tomokazu (Chiaki, Nodame Cantabile) as Tanaka, Hiyama Nobuyuki (Guy, Gaogaigar) as Madarame, and Mizuhashi Kaori (Miyako, Hidamari Sketch) are among the many who put forth an incredible effort in Genshiken. A lot of them use voices very different from the ones they’re famous for, showing both their talent and their desire to make Genshiken enjoyable. Mizuhashi’s Ogiue has to be heard; her constant inner conflict comes through in every one of her lines. Of note is the fact that between Genshiken season 1, the Genshiken OVA, and Genshiken 2, the visual style changes drastically due to animation studios and even character designers switching.

The anime is good, but in the end I prefer the manga and would recommend it over the anime if only for the fact that as of this post the anime has still not completed the full story of Genshiken. Also, the art is a joy to look at and the panels flow well into each other. The style evolves tremendously over the course of nine volumes, with 1 and 9 looking almost nothing alike. One stylistic element that remains intact through the manga are the detailed backgrounds, something the anime doesn’t do nearly as well with more and more CG shortcuts being taken with every sequel. Ogiue is also at her most striking and beautiful in the manga, with eyes that can render Ogiue Maniax bloggers powerless.

Genshiken is like a best friend. It knows me well and points out my flaws, flaws which I may at first deny. It gives me confidence and inspiration, and it has helped me learn a lot about who I am, what I stand for, and how I should approach life. And among the many characters in Genshiken who have taught me these lessons, Ogiue is the most important of all.

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