The lyrics of Genshiken’s ending theme poetically summarize the show’s content:
We are not yet adults
Both simple and complex, a shiny marble
When we looked through it back then
It was nothing special, but our world was shining
What we see now through this marble in our hands
Is a little different, but it will shine on
Discreetly next to us
As a college-aged anime lover myself, these words have affected me to such an extent that I could sing you the song, memorized, this very moment. Never has any other piece, or any other series, given me so much pride in my otaku-ness. Our lives would appear simple or even artificial when filled with the wondrous stuff of Japanese animation, video games, and comic books, but to us it makes our lives shine as brightly as a glistening marble, continuing to do so as we stumble into our adult years.
This is what renders Genshiken such an arresting work. From the eyes of a layperson, the show provides an unadorned look into the college life of an anime nerd: No sparkles, ninjas, improbable harems, other dramatic accessories, or even an overarching storyline added. It seems unnecessary. Why spend your precious entertainment time looking at…real life? Sometimes, though, a show like this is indispensable, where the characters you see are raffish reflections of your own selves, and you can laugh and clap in the middle of an episode exclaiming, “I totally understand what these people are going through!” Genshiken’s humor is as subtle as it gets – to the point where you’re not completely sure how to react. It becomes even better for the American wannabes: Here is a taste of true, authentic, Japanese otakudom. Either fling yourself into the fire or run away screaming.
Genshiken’s visual style may not be for everyone. Character designs look slightly blocky, colors are on the dull side, and the animation flows like an airplane on the tarmac – you keep expecting for it to take off but it never does. But the sheer eccentricity of the style may add a rather “genius-like” flourish to an otherwise eyebrow-raising piece of artwork. For one, the utter lack of exciting movement suitably fits Genshiken’s unique pacing, designed to replicate the ambling commonality of a college student’s life. For another, the colors’ darker, earthier tinges seem a little too dark and earthy to not be purposeful. In some ways it acts like how a looming homework assignment would to a middle schooler’s afternoon in front of the tube. As the blander colors of reality (adulthood) creep around the edges of your screen, you acknowledge in a remote corner of your brain that the fun has a limit. Which, I think, is quite clever. (Or it may just be my imagination).
In many ways Genshiken’s tonal palette consists of little more than recorded traffic, college hustle and bustle, buzzing silence, and other mundane soundtracks of an unembellished world. As with the animation, one could view this anomaly as either a stroke of genius or an indication of bad taste. In any case, voices are terrifically gauged to fit their roles, and the luminous opening and closing themes are among the most thoughtful I have encountered.
The best way I can describe Genshiken’s cast is to liken it to an orchestra: Each person plays a different instrument (in which certain ones stand out more than others), and each holds the ability to perform them to a certain extent. But only when one character steps onto the podium as conductor does the group settle into place and commence its harmonious – or hilarious – collaboration.
Of course, every member of the Genshiken club promises his or her own personality bonus, ranging from Madarame’s neuroticism to Sasahara's endearing timidity to Ohno’s love of cosplay to Kohsaka’s understated fanaticism. But only so much can be done in twelve episodes. The writers for Genshiken simply don’t have the time to lavish histories, flashbacks, and emotional turmoil to every single club member. Fortunately, these characters do not allow themselves to be defined by solely one stereotype; their murkier individual personas lend to fluid and interesting interactions, which eventually tie the individuals into a strong group product. Who does the tying? Saki, of course.
As the black sheep of the club, Saki is able to endure the geek-heavy atmosphere for a single end: to spend more time with her boyfriend Kohsaka, and hopefully fish him from his fanboy activities (with little success). Her ferocious grappling with otaku culture singlehandedly becomes the fodder for Genshiken’s humor. Whether it’s through terrorizing Madarame, entering a cosplay contest against her will, dismantling a week’s worth of work, or accidentally setting the school’s courtyard ablaze, it is Saki who highlights the entire group in all its eccentric, riotous glory.
Genshiken remains rather difficult to summarize. It’s part documentary, full comedy, a warm immersion into modern Japanese culture, an illustration of vanishing youth tinged with a hint of nostalgia. The meaning increases with amount of anime watched, so I may not be particularly apt to predict how people will feel. Nevertheless, I find it highly unlikely for anyone to dislike this series.
Why the careful, strange score of 7.25? One thing I wished of the show was a more convincing transmission of intent onto the screen. I feel that the makers of Genshiken held more in their hearts than they showed: Otherwise, an entertaining twelve-episode series about otaku could have blossomed into something much more powerful.
Ever wanted to join an anime club but felt its geekiness would hurt your reputation? Sasahara feels your pain. Genshiken, the Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture, is an organization of college otaku obsessed with anime, manga and video games. Their daily activities include holding impromptu cosplay photo shoots, braving the crowds and avoiding injury at doujinshi conventions, and tolerating harassment by Saki, a girl irked by her boyfriend's otaku-ness! It's a perfect match for Sasahara's interests, so why is it so difficult for him to join?
When I first stumbled upon the anime scene, I demanded only slice-of-life high school romance and Naruto (Weird combination!). I've opened up a little bit since then, but I suppose the high school shoujo type will always be my "comfort zone."