"Genshiken," an abbreviation of the Japanese for "The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture," exists as a sort of alternative to the main manga club at a university in Tokyo, with different members focusing on cosplay, model-building, and the like, but with all of them sharing a love for anime and related pieces of popular culture. At the start of a new year, two incoming freshmen come across this club for different reasons: the first, Sasahara Kanji, something of a closet otaku, begins tentatively attending meetings, while the other, Kasukabe Saki, essentially follows her attractive and gaming-obsessed crush, Kousaka Makoto, to the club in spite of being highly averse to otaku culture herself. The series follows the shenanigans of the club and the comedy resulting from Kasukabe's reactions to the members' obsessions.
I've considered myself an anime fan for some time but have rarely, if ever, referred to myself as an "otaku." I feel that this has less to do with negative associations with the term, and more to do with the fact that I entered the anime world out of an interest in animation in general rather than as part of an immersion in what I think of as "complementary" interests: video games, model-building, role-playing, and the like. Thus, Genshiken is of interest to me for several reasons, firstly as one of the better (if still flawed) anime or manga series that examines its own fandom, and secondly as a look into a subculture that parallels my own hobbies but in which I don't quite fit into. It has aged poorly in some ways and it isn't especially pleasing on the eyes, but it's worth watching as one of the more even-handed treatments of otakudom, in contrast to, say, Welcome to the NHK's greater focus on its negative aspects.
Now, Genshiken isn't a show that I exactly found easy to fall in love with. For one thing, although it sounds good thanks to solid performances on the part of its seiyu and a nice, upbeat opening theme that suits it well, it just isn't very nice-looking. The art and animation are ugly, to be frank, while the character design is typical of those from early 2000's manga (prior to the arrival of the moe era) and just a bit drab. It's just cheap-looking and ineffective on the whole, and while this isn't always a key component of comedy, the overall ungainliness of the show and its character design didn't exactly improve my opinion of it.
Speaking of the characters, I'm not especially fond of any of them, with two exceptions, and that also made Genshiken a bit of a hard sell. Part of the problem is that while Genshiken's basic structure is that of an outsider's take on otaku culture, it can't seem to decide which character should actually be granted that perspective. The purported protagonist, Kanji Sasahara, is frankly one of the most bland and uninspiring leads I've ever come across. Initially present as a prospective new member of the club, it soon seems as if he's already been in the club for quite some time, but as opposed to, say, Makoto Kosaka's obsession with video games, he has no one interest within otakudom that makes him stick out, and in some episodes I could count the number of his lines on one hand. It's a bit sad that the most entertaining aspects of his character turn out to be some arguments with his bratty (and distinctly non-otaku) younger sister. Of greater interest is Genshiken's female lead, Kasukabe Saki, though she's also quite difficult to like, honestly. Kasukabe downright verbally (and sometimes physically) abuses the members of Genshiken much of the time, and while she complains about "having to deal" with its members, it's not easy to empathize with her when one considers that it's odd that she spends so much time with the club, given that you'd think she'd find other friends at a university this large.
Even if the characters aren't easy to like, however, they at least largely serve their purposes, Sasuhara aside. Though Genshiken is laden with references to anime such as Laputa and Record of Lodoss War, it isn't completely impossible to approach if one isn't familiar inside-and-out with its trail of allusions, and as much as I don't care for her, Kasukabe does assist with that, in part. When watching this show, I was reminded of a friend's experience with her high-school "friend group," in which said people spent almost all of their free time playing games and essentially spoke exclusively using anime and gaming references. Here, Kasukabe is in a similar situation; even if she isn't ultimately very nice, her skepticism is sometimes a welcome touch and she's more effective than Sasuhara is as an "outsider" point of view. It's also pretty funny, in a dark and sardonic way, when her moments of hypocrisy are pointed out, such as her criticizing the club for being obsessed with fluff while falling for Kohsaka for the shallowest of reasons, that of his looks, or her finding fault with their hobbies while not finding much productive for herself to do.
Speaking of Kohsaka, he's more than a bit of a milquetoast and thus a bit irritating, but it's amusing if somewhat depressing to see someone who otherwise would seem at home in a host club completely neglect his purported girlfriend in favor of gaming; it's an understatement to say that he and most of the other characters aren't especially mature, though it's a believable degree of immaturity for college freshmen, I suppose. Of the other club members, Harunobu Madarame is perhaps the closest to the negative stereotype of otaku owing to the the possibly unhealthy degree of his obsessions, to the point at which he spends virtually all of his money on doujinshi and, in one episode, even neglects a potentially serious hand injury in order to not lose his place in line at a convention. On the other hand, however he's at least the most honest about his intentions, which gives me a bit more sympathy for him. I'd say that the only characters I actually liked were resident costume designer Souichiro Tanaka, who (luckily) seems to have a strong understanding of the "cosplay-does-not-equal-consent" concept (which Haruhi Suzumiya could take a page from), and Kanako Ohno, the group's only female member and a cosplay fanatic herself. There's one other member who's mainly notable for his stuttering, and not much else.
Now, in the introduction to this review, I say that Genshiken comes across as dated, in some ways, and Ohno's being the only female member of the club is probably the best evidence I have for this. That's not to say that the show isn't amusing anymore, for I think there's humor to be had for anybody whose interests have so strongly clashed with the apathy of outsiders; as much as I don't especially like either Kasukabe or Madarame, watching them squabble over her misunderstandings can be hilarious, to a point (the physical abuse goes too far, I think). Furthermore, Genshiken handles its references well. The show-within-a-show, Kujibiki Unbalance (which later became its own, real-life anime) cleverly combines many of the most recognizable tropes of anime, such as the childhood friends, bizarre outfits, and ridiculous vocal tics, in order to make a genuinely god-awful piece of silliness that works perfectly as Genshiken's resident obsession. It spares the audience from necessarily having had to see, say, Kiddy Grade or some other random early '00s anime in order to find this funny, while still letting us laugh at the over-seriousness of the club members' conversations about each episode, which definitely parallel some conversations I've had. The references to real series, smartly, stick to the 90s series that escaped the pits of obscurity in which the majority of anime eventually find themselves and avoid anything that aired while the manga was published (excepting Kujibiki, of course). As a result of all of this, Genshiken is surprisingly easy to enjoy considering how old it is.
But Genshiken has aged badly in the sense that the fandom portrayed, at least in this season, is both extremely male-centric and very specific to a particular personality type. While there's some diversity in personality among the members, the majority of them are portrayed as extremely socially awkward, nerdy, physically unattractive, and overweight, which, I'd say, neatly fits the most common negative stereotypes regarding otaku on both sides of the Pacific, and which ultimately puts anime fandom (or at least otakudom) in rather simplistic terms. Indeed, when Kohsaka joins the club Saki is baffled that someone as attractive as he would be so interested in video games, doujinshi, and animated pornography; when Ohno joins the club, furthermore, almost nobody even believes that she's actually in the right place.
Now, it's difficult for me to make comments on anime fandom in Japan, given that my experience has, of course, been entirely within the United States, but I'm under the impression that women have become a much more visible portion of the fanbase there, as they have here, even though issues of sexism continue to plague the scene unabated. In Genshiken, Ohno is treated as something of a novelty for being a woman within the club, and at times as something of a mascot rather than a full member, and while I'll give the show credit for at least treating her with some respect, I have to give it a strike for still constantly pointing out how "odd" she is for being into anime, cosplay, and model-building, not to mention for frequently making note of her "not taking care of her appearance." Perhaps the show's mistake is that it almost seems hesitant to acknowledge that a female fandom even exists, honestly, for works targeted at non-male demographics are rarely (if ever) referenced, and while at a convention, Sasahara snarks at another attendee for "bringing a girl along." It's a horridly antiquated comment, considering that the gender ratio was at least 50-50 the last time I went to a convention.
In terms of series made about the process of making anime and manga, Shirobako and Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun are probably the closest to perfect that I've seen, but I've yet to find a series about anime fandom that feels entirely relatable to me. Genshiken is a serviceable option in that regard, but while some of its observations are in line with my own experiences, its vision of otakudom is both specific to a single personality type and very male-oriented. This doesn't negate its amusing moments, for me, but I do think it limits its appeal, ultimately.
One of the better options if you're interested in an anime about otakudom that isn't either a fanservice-fest or more of a social commentary. Its cast makes it a bit harder to recommend, and its male-centered approach makes it harder still. — Nicoletta Christina Browne
Recommended Audience: The characters often talk about pornography (although nothing is shown onscreen), and several get very drunk in one episode. What violence is present is generally slapstick, and there's little in the way of fanservice, surprisingly. Teenagers and up should be fine.
Version(s) Viewed: Digital Source (Japanese with English Subtitles)
Review Status: Full (12/12)
Genshiken © 2004 Kio Shimouku/KODANSHA/GENSHIKEN Partnership
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