GENSHIKEN, by Kio Shimura. First published in 2002, and first published in North America in 2005.
It's Kanji Sashihara's freshman year of college, which means it's time for him to pick a school club to join. He has loads to choose from, but finds himself weirdly drawn to The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture (or Genshiken, for short). Upon joining the club, he discovers it to be composed of a weirdly loveable group of otaku and in turn he starts to open up to them about his own interests, along with enjoying new experiences like shopping for doujinshi in Akibahara or attending
I feel like I'm at something of a disadvantage when trying to review this series. I got into anime and manga well into my 20s, long after I had left college. As such, I never considered joining any anime clubs or similar social groups. As such, I can't really speak as to how accurate or inaccurate Genshiken is at portraying them. On the other hand, Genshiken is less about a formal club so much as it is about a group of friends finding acceptance and enjoyment in what they love most, and that is by far the series' greatest strength.
Kanji isn't a terribly memorable protagonist, but then he really doesn't have to be for terribly long. He's simply the hook to bring the reader into the world of Genshiken, where the real characters are. Honestly, it's kind of surprising that a kid like Kanji hadn't already dived into the otaku scene. After all, if his inner monologue is anything to go by, he's already fairly familiar with a lot of the material these guys talk about (along with all the porn). He wins the group over by quoting Mobile Suit Gundam, for God's sake. It's not like this series is too old to account for the internet - as noted above, this series came out in 2002, when any geek could have thrown a few terms into a search engine and found plenty of fansites, forums, and fanfic for just about any fandom you could wish.
Anyway, within a chapter or two, the story shifts focus to the more colorful characters of the club. There's militant otaku Madarame, the shy, stuttering manga artist Mitsunori, the mellow, loveable cosplayer Tanaka, and spacey Makoto, another new member to the club. Makoto is rather interesting in that he is by far the most conventionally good-looking and social member of the club, but he is also the most committed of the group when it comes to merchandise, as his tiny apartment is packed wall-to-wall with every sort of geeky delight. By the end, they even add a female member to the club, the soft-spoken cosplayer Kanako. While some of the members (*coughMadaramecough*) do fit the general otaku stereotype, it's good to see a wide variety of people and body types in the club, and that they all do generally get along and support everyone's unique interests. They truly are less of a formal club than a gang of friends who get together once in a while to shoot the shit or buy some doujinshi.
We even get to experience the group through the perspective of an outsider thanks to Saki. In less talented hands, she would come off as an intolerable bitch, but I have to give a lot of credit to Shimura for making her so weirdly likeable. She mostly comes around because of her interest in Makoto, and the club even helps her out by clueing Makoto in on Saki's desire to date him. She's very resistant to the club until Kanoko joins, as their shared mastery of English and mutual interest in fashion (albeit for different reasons) gives them some common ground. I'm genuinely curious to see how their burgeoning friendship will play out, and how this in turn will affect Saki's attitude towards Genshiken.
This series is very much a slice-of-life story. There's no real overarching story, so instead we just follow these kids around town as they teach Kanji how to be a proper otaku and slowly expand the club. The closest we come to a climax is having the club visit "Comic Fest." Actually, that reminds me of an interesting point about the translation. The text and character profiles bring up a lot of copyrighted franchises, so clearly someone at Del Ray had a lot of fun changing the names of all them. It must have been a challenge to come up with changes that do enough to avoid royalties while keeping the names recognizable enough that the reader could get the joke. I think they went a little too far, though, because they also felt the need to translate or change some of the otaku terminology. As such, the club goes shopping for "fanzines" instead of doujinshi, and go to "Comic Fest" instead of Comiket. The only things they didn't have to change were the names for the made-up anime series Kujibiki Unbalance, a show that the club is obsessed with. Based on the glimpses we see of it, it seems to be composed entirely of anime and moe stereotypes and would be the sort of show to get middling reviews in your average anime season.
While I can't specifically relate to a lot of the story here, I can understand why people like this series so much. There's a casual, almost lived-in quality to the story that's oddly appealing, and the characters in turn are fleshed out enough that even the most repellant of the lot is still entertaining in their own way. Of all the "let's form a club to make friends!" manga out there, Genshiken is the only one that makes their characters actually feel like real friends and knows how to make something as ordinary as geeky friendship interesting.
Shimoku's artstyle reminds me a lot of Moyashimon, another series about quirky college kids bonding over obscure subjects. It's a little bit cute, a little bit realistic, and a little bit cartoony all at once. It's a tough style to describe, but an easy one on the eyes. Shimoku really excels at the gonk faces, be it Kanji's swirly-eyed delirium at the prospect of porn or Saki's incredulous reaction to whatever the Genshiken guys are talking about that day. One thing that I think adds a lot of the appeal of the series is the homeliness of its setting. Shimoku puts a lot of detail into Genshiken's cramped, dingy little club room, and he does the same with everything from Makoto's packed apartment to the shops of Akibahara to the crush of people at Comic Fest. These places feel real and lived-in, and while they may not necessarily be pretty, they are appealing and welcoming. They don't feel too far removed from our own world, and that's a comforting thing for a lot of readers, and it only adds to the atmosphere of the story as a whole.
I will happily take a series like Genshiken over a million other manga about cute girls learning about friendship in a club. Genshiken doesn't glamorize its characters' nerdiness, but still manages to make it comforting and relatable even to those who never joined an anime club.
This series is published by Kodansha, formerly Del Ray. The series is complete in 9 volumes. The single volume release from Del Ray is currently out of print. The 3-in-1 omnibus release from Kodansha is currently in-print.
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