What is about us anime and manga fanatics that draws us so much into everything related to that world, like videogames, action figures, conventions, cosplaying…? And what is it about being an “otaku” that causes us to bathe in the self-glorification of our pathetic lifestyle, that makes us love it and yet be ashamed of it, that we get so friendly and open with fellow “otaku”, and that any work depicting our lifestyle becomes an instant hit? This 2002 manga by Kio Shimoku is one of the works that perfected the genre of otaku-lifestyle-centred slice-of-life (or "slife", as I like to call them), so, with no further ado, let’s take a look at this 9-volumes journey into the way of accepting ourselves with our childish passions, and let’s be proud of filling our daily speech with Japanese words, dressing up in silly costumes, spending the equivalent of a small African state’s GDP in figurines and comics, and being socially awkward. Wait, that came out wrong…
“Genshiken” is simply enough the perfect slice-of-life story. It’s a look on four years of the lives of a bunch of young men and women, forming their relationships and living their passions together, buying and creating dōjinshi, going at the Comifest, cosplaying, chatting, playing videogames, going out together at New Year’s Eve, discussing erotic manga and videogames, and so on and on. There is no single, coherent plot, just a series of events as the characters grow, get to know each other, fight, fall in love, spend time together, become closer and closer as friends even while progressively seeing each other less often as work and study get between them and their clubroom (a sort of refuge of light-hearted peace), live their conflicts, their projects, their dreams. In other words, real life. The story is firmly rooted in reality, apart from a couple more over-the-top situations and character traits serving the comedy. The atmosphere is always masterfully created, with witty dialogue and countless hilarious moments, as well as with a slightly more serious tone with the character of Ogiue, and with a somehow melancholic, happily nostalgic feeling in the later volumes as graduation comes closer. Predictably, the manga is full of references to the world its characters love, citing popular anime and videogames (often through pseudonyms but, come on, we get them anyway…), which is something that, coupled with the “otaku lifestyle” I summed up earlier, is always sure to involve the reader. Surprising fact in this genre, the finale is actually exactly where it needed to be: at the right moment of the protagonists’ lives to wrap up what needed to be wrapped up, to leave open what needed to be left open, to feel like the end of a cycle and the beginning of a new one, ending these four years of university on an optimist, but still somehow nostalgic note. The kind of finale I personally love.
As always, it’s the characters that make the slife: since there’s no plot to keep you sucked in, they need to be particularly strong and likeable to keep you involved; luckily, this is the case. The characters are not only all likeable, but are also well-assorted and –developed enough to be interesting. They capture well the various “otaku types”: the average one progressively losing his inhibitions and accepting his passions without shame, the cosplayers, the plastic models-lover, the videogame ace, the yaoi-loving fujoshi, the sweet timid girl progressively loosening up to become more energetic, the one deeply ashamed of her fantasies and passions but still unable to let go of them or to accept them, the socially inept artist, the eroge maniac, the guy too insecure to confess his love…later on there’s even an American girl who just keeps spouting random anime quotes whom I find absolutely hilarious. Kasukabe is the only “normal” in the group, who hates otaku but has an otaku boyfriend; from the dynamics between her and the club members derives not only a lot of the comedy, but also some merciless bashing of the otaku lifestyle’s big defects and weaknesses. So the otaku is, yes, “glorified”, especially under the light of the recurring theme of accepting ourselves and our passions, but with a sort of bitter aftertaste, a serious vein which, if developed deeper (especially about the difficulties otaku have in relating to the “outside”), could have turned this manga into even more of a masterpiece. A couple of the characters (Ogiue, easily the most complex character in the work, and to a certain extent Madarame) are also given some depth.
Kio Shimoku’s character design is not particularly striking, but it does its job; what really gives it strength is the facial expressions, always effective in both seriousness and comedy; Kio has mastered the caricatured visual style of manga comedy to side-splittingly hilarious results, with a lot of expressions conveying more than what even the most witty of lines ever could. Something else that I think must be praised of his style is also the great care he gives to the details in the background (the stuff in some of the otaku’s rooms, for example) and in the cosplay costumes the characters sport here and there. It shows a lot of dedication in portraying what otaku like.
Well, to sum it up, Genshiken is a manga on otaku, by otaku, for otaku. And, a perfect slice-of-life: strong, identifiable characters each with their own growth, hilarious humour, relatable situations, and even a good ending. Not a masterpiece of depth and complexity and drama, but a definite masterpiece in its genre; with its portrayal of the otaku world, it will be easily loved by those of us who belong there, and since it never relies on shameless moe fanservice or overly clichéd situations I’d dare suggesting giving it a shot to everyone, even those who normally don’t like slife. It’s smart, it’s involving, it’s an influential milestone in the genre, and it’s a light, entertaining and unforgettable read.
There’s also an anime adaptation, but I’ve yet to see it so I don’t know how it holds up. I read it’s good, though.