Introducing Genshiken

GenshikenOtaku[1] is the Japanese equivalent of “fanboy.” My run-ins with the subject of fanboys in American comics have been limited to short pieces in Evan Dorkin’s Dork, Sergio Aragonés and Mark Evanier’s perennially funny mini–series Fanboy, the store scenes from Kevin Smith’s Bluntman and Chronic and more recently the 3 Geeks series.

Genshiken (Gendai Shikaku Bunka Kenkyuukai) or “The society for the study of modern visual culture” is a 7-volume manga series on an otaku college club. The English translation is published in the U.S. by Del Rey books, and there are five volumes out so far. The fifth was released in April 2006, while the sixth is to follow in June-July 2006. I’ve read the first four. It’s written and drawn by Kio Shimoku and published in the otaku fanzine Afternoon. The English version translated by David Ury who lives in Tokyo. Each single story is about 20-30 pages long and has to be read from back to front in the manga tradition.

The characters in the book each have their own skills and peccadilloes, and the foundations for their future relationships are laid out in the first book:

Kanji Sasahara: the everyman who wants to partake of the otaku lifestyle, particularly doujinshi,[2] but finds himself ashamed about wanting to play, read and watch pornographic videogames, manga, fanzines, and anime. (Porn pre-dominates the otaku lifestyle in addition to their obsessions with regular manga, anime, video games, toys, models, cards.) On his first day at the club, he befriends Makoto Kousaka, a naïve good looking freshman who’s unbeatable at video games. They meet the rest of the club.
The “Prez”: an older collegian who has been there from long before and is due for retirement.
Kanaka Ohno: an American-Japanese transfer student who’s a Cosplay[3] fanatic and has a fetish for bald middle aged men.
Soichoro Tanaka: another Cosplay fanatic and expert model-maker, costume designer and tailor for the group.
Mitsunori Kugayama: a large, silent boy whose secret talent as an artist goes unnoticed for most of the first three books.
Haranobu Madarame: possibly the most obsessed of the group and who is rendered in the classic image of the Japanese otaku; skinny, slick greasy hair, thick large glasses and constantly in the thick of discussions.
Lastly is Saki Kasukabe: a seniorwho’s mad about Kousaka and joins the club to try and bring a halt it’s activities so Kousaka can spend more time with her, but as time goes by she immerses herself into the otaku lifestyle. Kanji adopts a formal attitude with her from the beginning calling her Kasukabe-san.

Volume Four sees two newbies join up:

Kuchiki: first tried to join up in Volume Two, but Saki pitted him against Kousaka, and he was ragged into leaving. He got expelled with Ogiue and joins the Genshiken. He’s sort of a ‘pikachu’ kind of a character — cute and poncy. He addresses everyone with the –chan suffix.
Chika Ogiue: the last member to join Genshiken (joined with Kuchiki). She got thrown out (literally fell from the first floor window) from the anime and manga clubs, because she hates otaku and yaoi fangirls, the latter of which she almost certainly is or why else join the Genshiken?

While most of the first three books centres around Kanji’s initiation into the Genshiken, it doesn’t revolve around Kanji himself. It revolves primarily about the otaku ideal demonstrated through various club meetings, conventions, shopping trips and expeditions to the beach (a monumental effort for the average otaku). The series eschews a plot in favour of an episodic narrative. It’s remarkably effective. There’s a sense of documentary in the narrative flow with all the heightened melodrama that you’d expect from most shonen-manga.[4] I use the word “melodrama” loosely. Genshiken is a very lighthearted take, or better yet a celebration, of the otaku lifestyle. In Japanese cinema and manga, there is plenty that deal with otaku as characters both in a negative and positive light. The word itself has an insulting condescension to most anyone in Japan other than a real otaku, as Kanji says to himself on seeing Kousaka’s room, “I lack the courage to accept myself as who I am”. Acceptance, not tolerance, is the theme of the book. There isn’t any degradation or humiliation in the humour, rather a sense of playfulness. Even with Saki Kasukabe, who frequently lashes out and hits the boys in the club, and yet is not treated as an outsider or an irritant but more of a big sister.

A running joke in the comic is in the initiation ceremony which has the older members file out on some excuse or the other, leaving the newbie alone in the room. During Kanji’s initiation, his first thought was to investigate where they kept the porn. While he was in the middle of reading some, the others burst in and caught him out. But they don’t make him feel ashamed, rather they tease him about not having any porn himself. Each member of the Genshiken has a fetish for characters in their favourite manga, anime or video game and often launch into a boisterous tirade expressing their views.

Much of the first book is filled with quotes from various manga and anime series which are dropped at an opportune moment. One really funny quip occurs when Kanji, in a bid to be nice, asks Kasukabe if she is an otaku, and she smacks him really hard. He pulls back and mutters under his breath “Even my own father never hit me.” a popular quote from the lead character Amuro Ray in the popular mecha anime Mobile Suit Gundam. Kujibiki Unbalance is a manga which is seemingly enjoyed by them all and is specially created for the series by Kio Shimoko. It’s also the subject of several fanzines. The Genshiken have a weekly ‘this week’s episode of Kujibiki Unbalance was awesome/terrific (add your adjective)’. Saki even dresses up as the president in an eye-popping gut-busting episode in Volume Four. The covers that begin every issue have references to classic manga from Robotech to Ozamu Tezuka’s Adolf and often feature the team or a lone member dressed like one of the characters. The characters have their living space almost entirely occupied by the objects of their affection. They’re essentially middle class and have little disposable income, but whatever they have goes into their lifestyle. Almost the whole series takes place in claustrophobic crowded spaces (the club room, convention centres, stores, their rooms). It’s something that firmly grounds the book in its own reality — at any moment at any given time — all an otaku can think about is “anime, manga and videogames.” (Madarame quote)

For the otaku, there is a sense that the real world seems to be beckoning outside their door. The Prez quits to finish his thesis, and Madarame, who’s in his senior year, relinquishes his post as president to start looking for a job. The realities of managing a budget and juggling their ‘needs’ is one of the things that grounds the book firmly in reality. A classic moment is when Kanji stands in line at a midnight sale to pick up a special edition computer game as it is his duty to do so, and he does not have a computer.

The translation is spot on by David Ury. David resides in Tokyo and manages to hit the right notes with the dialogue. The end notes (OK, the book reads right to left so they’re at the front of the book) are insightful into some things you’d miss out if you’re not otaku or Japanese. Something that puts a lot of people off is the idea of a language or cultural gap in Japanese manga that deals with daily life or quintessentially Japanese situations. I’ve always found that a little appendix and liner notes go a long way to easing in new readers.

A point of comparison that sticks out in my mind when I read the series was that, unlike fanboys, otakus don’t seem big on preserving their comics with baggies and boards. Nowhere in the book does it show the idea of manga obtaining more value if it is mint or near mint. Most any fanboy book has that crucial scene with the discovery of a golden age or near mint modern age comic. There isn’t any scene of otaku trading or buying comics, games or cards for terribly exorbitant amounts. Also, there’s a readiness to part and share with their stuff that most fanboys with their Mylar would find appalling. Is it that otaku acknowledge this lifestyle as only temporary? Could someone shed light on this? I wonder if they maintain that lifestyle after they leave college; that’s ground I’d like to see explored in a manga series.

I really enjoyed reading the series. Volume Six should be out this month and Volume Seven will be a while in coming. I’ve only discussed the flesh of the series, but Kio Shimoku is a man with great comic timing. It’s not laugh-out-loud slapstick, but there’s a sense of something about to burst any moment. One of the reasons I loved the book was its frankness about teenage sex, masturbation and porn. While no one is perfect, it never tries to condemn anyone. In fact, personal hygiene (you’ll have to read the scene about the athlete’s foot) is a more shameful secret than any porn fanzine.

Footnotes

[1] Of the several meanings of otaku, the word is derived from the Japanese word for house お宅 and is used to imply someone who has no social life and is stuck at home all the time. Other connotations include someone with an unhealthy obsession with anything. The obsession of the person is often appended before the person i.e. in the context of the series Genshiken; we shall consider it a reference to anyone with an ‘interest’ in manga, anime, fanzines, video games, cosplay, models and toys. Otome is the feminine of Otaku. Ohno and newbie Chika Ogiue (end of Volume 4) are otome.

[2] Doujinshi, or fanzines, are magazines which have sketches and drawings of popular anime and manga characters and are pornographic in nature. They’re drawn by members of college clubs much like the Genshiken. They are not only heterosexual; they can contain homosexual elements.

[3] Cosplay (a contraction of costume and play) is a Japanese sub-culture which has it’s proponents dressing up as characters from their favourite (not entirely necessary) or popular manga, anime or video games. It’s resulted in a slew of wig, makeup, costume shops around the same. Several cosplayers like Tanaka prefer making their own costumes. Ohno and Tanaka cosplays characters from anime and manga series like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Kujibiki Unbalance, Guilty Gear X, Mahoromatic.

[4] Shonen manga is manga written especially for teenage boys. While most otaku are teenage boys, most teenage boys are not otaku. I would make an argument that Genshiken possibly works both as a shonen and a shojo (girls) manga. It’s not pornographic in character despite the inclusion of such elements and works as a broad human comedy rather than a narrow otaku genre piece. One of the reasons it’s been so successful in its trade collections is because it appeals to both sexes.

Some Moments from Genshiken

01. The classic line from Gundam and the result.

02. Kanji’s moment of self-realisation — It builds up sweetly from the moment of their first introduction and is the first look at an otaku’s room other than the Genshiken meeting room.

03. This is one of my favourite scenes because of its design. Remember you’re reading from left to right. It opens up with Kanji nervous over Kousaka inviting the guys over — it builds up with Madarame’s serious expression as he walks into the door and explodes into otaku discussion on the next page. It ends with Kanji having this supremely relieved look on his face. He finally fits in.

04. Loads of things I loved here — one is the passionate look on Madarame’s face as he discusses Kujibiki Unbalance — a series created specially for this comic. It leads to a discussion of the pornographic potential of the same series. One of the best in-jokes is a jibe at Kodansha manga which publishes shonen manga for boys in Japan and which is publishing the Genshiken series abroad but not in Japan.

05. This is a cover scan — I picked it out of the whole lot because of how it establishes the hierarchy and character of the members through a single image. It’s these little details that give me so much pleasure reading this series. Kio Shimoku is a man in control of his art and story, and everything I’ve read so far does not belie that.

06. The ‘girl next door’ character is the one of the ultimate fantasy of every otaku — to fall in love with someone you grew up with is the subject of every second romance manga-anime in Japan.

07. The page has two loud revelations at the start (upper right) and the end (bottom left) of the page and builds up between the panels superbly. Madarame’s declaration leads to hilarious consequences on the next page.

08. This style of vertical four panel joke telling is the standard for newspaper cartooning in Japan unlike its Western counterpart. This kind of cartoon is quite popular and series of popular cartoons are regularly collected in digest form.

09. Kanji’s mild-mannered desperation to watch porn.

10. Tanaka explaining modeling to Kanji, There are several segments scattered through the book which explain aspects of otakudom without getting too dense or fixated.

11. / 12. This is something everyone who’s been in a comic store and on a budget can identify with. It also shows the sharp differences in living the otaku lifestyle for each member.

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I am currently working on a new mode of distribution and publishing for comics in India akin to the Japanese model rather than the American or European models -- cheap, newsprint quality, multi-vernacular and wide range of distribution.

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