Genshiken vol. 1
Chad Clayton rates it:
(Reviewer’s Note: The rating will be explained at the end of the review.)
How exactly does one review, let alone try to rate, a manga like Genshiken? I’ve been asking myself this question ever since I finished reading it. Genshiken is, in many ways, the manga equivalent of a Rorschach inkblot test: its value is almost entirely dependent on the individual reader’s interpretation of the contents. It does what no other comic I’ve ever read has had the courage to do: it holds up a mirror to fandom, and even its own audience, and encourages them to take a look at themselves. That takes guts, in a genre that sometimes seems centered around pandering to its audience.
Genshiken is a manga about the collective day-to-day life of the Genshiken Club, also known as the “Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture.” That may sound like the namesake of a snooty modern-art appreciation society, but it’s actually a club for otaku who, for one reason or another, don’t join the more productive anime and manga clubs. As much as this description might make Genshiken sound like a slice-of-life comic, it actually has more of a weird documentary feel to it. It’s less about the joys and hassles of everyday life than observing, and maybe finding some humor in, the quirks, idiosyncracies, social structures, and behaviors of some obsessed Japanese anime fans.
Genshiken is supposed to be a comedy, at least in genre, but it lacks the wide-eyed, eager-to-please demeanor of most manga comedy. It’s actually pretty uncompromising: it doesn’t particularly seem to care if you find it funny, enjoy reading it, or even particularly understand it. It doesn’t go to any great pains to be funny; its humor is very subtle and largely dependent on reader interpretation to make it funny. That’s where Genshiken and I clashed; I simply don’t think it’s funny. Humorously self-aware, perhaps, but not funny. It’s not that I don’t “get” the manga’s sense of humor; I do. I generally know when something is meant to be funny, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to laugh at it. Genshiken‘s “funny because it’s true” sense of humor has the potential to be savagely amusing, but its range of humor is extremely narrow. Some people will undoubtedly find Genshiken uproarious, while others will find it pathetic and/or creepy. The humor in this comic is kind of one-note, so if your sensibilities fall outside of its range of humor, there really isn’t much in this manga that will amuse you.
For me, Genshiken didn’t quite make it as a comedy, but it did hold up quite nicely as a running commentary concerning fandom and society. It raises a lot of questions, but doesn’t make any effort to provide an easy answer to any of them. Some of the questions raised include: Is it really any worse to be obsessed with anime than to be obsessed with anything else? Are hardcore otaku really any more shallow or stupid than anyone else? Is it really justifiable to be hateful towards people, even if you don’t approve of their hobbies? Can you date an otaku? Why would you want to? There are many others, but the point is that Genshiken raises questions about the otaku lifestyle, and it seems to be asking its readers to take a look at themselves concerning their relationship to their hobby. At least, that’s the effect the manga had on me.
Above all, however, Genshiken is to be commended for its approach to portraying fandom. It’s the most…no, it’s the only portrayal of fandom I’ve seen in comics that I’d call truly realistic. It neither tries to lionize all fans as super-friendly, good-looking, accepting “cool kids”, nor does it try to demonize them all as terminally creepy, obsessive mouth-breathers who may or may not keep a refrigerator full of schoolgirl skin at home. It portrays hardcore fans as many of them really are: people who take too much interest in an unusual, nerdy hobby; lack of social skills, lack of personal hygiene, and being screwed up in the head are optional. The reader may identify with one or more of the comic’s characters in some way, but the characters themselves aren’t instantly likeable or particularly charming. In fact, I think the only way anyone would find themselves attached to any of these characters is if they see something of themselves in the characters. From a strictly fiction-writing perspective, they aren’t terribly vivid or interesting characters, but then, neither are most real otaku. Not that the Genshiken is any more kind to its “normal” characters; the sole non-otaku main character, Saki, is shallow, superficial, and flat-out mean, so she’s even less likeable than the otaku most of the time. It remembers that people in general can be real jerks, whether they’re otaku or not.
I’ve heard tell that the Japanese fandom has embraced Genshiken as a comic they can truly identify with, while the early reception with American audiences has been lukewarm at best. If that’s indeed true, I can kind of see why. Genshiken is sort of like a smirking anthem for the hardcore Japanese fan – an Otaku no Video for the new generation. It’s a far cry from most of the comics “about” fans I’ve seen from Western authors, which tend towards action, drama, or fantasy plots centered around, say, an anime or sci-fi club. They’re not actually comics about fandom or fans, they’re standard genre comics containing characters that happen to be fans. It’s fandom as distinguishing characteristic (or “marketing tool” for the more cynical among us), rather than as subject matter. This leads me to wonder, does Genshiken stand much chance of finding success over here? Does Western fandom have a sufficient sense of self-awareness and irony to laugh at this manga, and consider what it has to say? Or has it fallen so completely in love with itself that it’s more likely toss this comic aside with a sneer, and go back to holding “Will make out for money” signs at conventions? I don’t claim to know the answer, but it’s an interesting question. I will say this much, I applaud Del Rey to undertake releasing such a risky title in America. That was a pretty gutsy move.
I’ve always thought that ratings are the bane of my existence as a reviewer. Even though they’re only meant to give the reader some idea of my estimate of a title’s relative quality, people treat them like they actually have some concrete meaning. But even so, how should I even assess the relative quality of Genshiken? On what criteria should I rate a comic that’s going to spur very different reactions out of everyone that reads it? Should I rate it for failing as a comedy, or for succeeding as a commentary? I can’t seem to come up with an answer that leaves me feeling satisfied. So for the first time, I’ll decline to assign a rating to Genshiken, simply because quantitative ratings don’t seem to apply here. (Editor’s note: Postnuke doesn’t actually allow reviewers to decline to rate titles, so the review is stuck at two and a half stars– the dead middle of the road.) I may as well try to rate the weather, or perhaps the nature of fandom itself. Doing so would be little more than a meaningless formality.
Added: Monday, June 06, 2005
Related Link: Del Rey Manga