No mechs. No monsters. No high schools!? It's Genshiken, a poignant and realistic slice of Japanese college life.
It's been a while since I posted an anime review, so I thought I'd continue the series with a review of another of my favorite anime from the 2000s, Genshiken: The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture.
What Are Genshiken's Stats?
Genshiken: The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture is a seinen anime that ran for two seasons. The first aired in 2004, and the second aired quite a bit later, in 2007, under the name Genshiken 2, though it continues the same story.
The anime is based on a manga by Shimoku Kio, and is pretty faithful to the plot of the manga (though, from my read, some plot elements were simplified a bit for TV). More of the manga was adapted in a subsequent TV anime called Genshiken Nidaime, which I'll discuss a bit more later in this post.
What's It About?
Genshiken is a comedic, and often poignant, look at the lives and loves of the members of the titular otaku club at a Japanese university. Though most of the characters are a little bit ostracized on campus for their otaku ways, they find a home and a group of like-minded friends in the club. Throughout the two seasons, we follow the characters through the entire four years of their university journey. Even compared to most slice-of-life anime, Genshiken is quite realistic in its treatment of the characters and their surroundings, and my personal theory is that it's probably based, at least in part, on the author's own experiences.
The story begins with Sasahara Kanji, a first-year at Shiiou University, looking for an extracurricular club to join. He stumbles upon a club called "Gendai Shikaku Bunka Kenkyūkai"--or Genshiken, for short--that seems to fit his mildly otaku-ish interests. Upon visiting the club, however, he finds it pretty intimidating, particularly due to one particular hardcore otaku, Madarame Harunobu. He flees the club, only to make an otaku friend elsewhere on campus, who convinces him to give the club another try.
Meanwhile, Sasahara's friend, Kousaka Makoto, is a happier member of Genshiken, and Kousaka's girlfriend, Kasukabe Saki, also joins the club in order to keep an eye on him. Kasukabe is vehemently not an otaku, and is hoping that she can change Kousaka into a more "normal" boyfriend. As you may guess, she instead becomes grudgingly fond of Genshiken's members, even if she doesn't quite take the step of becoming an otaku herself.
As the anime progresses, the attention gradually shifts away from Sasahara and onto Kasukabe, Madarame, and some of the other club members, as various plots play out. Though there's a lot going on in Genshiken, one plot line that continues throughout the anime is a love triangle between Kousaka, his girlfriend Kasukabe, and Madarame, the previously mentioned very hardcore otaku.
As this romance plays out, we see a softer side of Madarame, as he puzzles through his own feelings, his fears of rejection, and his jealousy of Kousaka, who is a very easy-going person who doesn't even seem (to Madarame) to deserve Kasukabe. In fact, Kousaka doesn't even seem to mind Madarame's obvious crush, and is quite a good friend to Madarame, which makes things all the more difficult.
It's hard to call this the main plot of Genshiken, however. There are quite a few shorter but engaging plotlines, including the preparation for and visit to a doujinshi convention that's remarkably similar to the famous Comiket; a cosplay arc in which the club's resident costume otaku, Kanako Ohno, enlists the other female club members as reluctant models; and some unending battles between all the club members regarding the merits of the fictional anime they all watch, Kujibiki Unbalance.
Throughout all this, we watch all of the club members--not just the main characters--grow from college students into adults, and that may be the most compelling plot line of all in Genshiken.
Why Should I Watch This?
There are a few things that, for me, at least, really make Genshiken shine. The biggest thing, which I mentioned a couple of times above, is that it's an unusually realistic anime. In the absence of superpowers, magical girls, or battlemechs, we find compelling and relatable characters, some poignant romance, and generally about as close as you'll find in any anime to a look at what life is like for college students in Japan. That alone is worth the price of admission.
Beyond that, there's some great comedy going on in Genshiken. One comic plot line I particularly enjoyed is a series of episodes in which the club is visited by some American friends of Ohno's. We, as foreigners watching the show, get a really interesting (if not entirely flattering!) view of how the Japanese see gaijin, and Americans in particular. Ohno's friends have blonde hair and blue eyes, speak halting Japanese, and have little sense of personal space. However, the Genshiken crew are an accepting bunch, and we soon find that Ohno's American friends are generous and friendly people (and one becomes a main character in the sequel anime).
Another fun thing in Genshiken is that the anime the club watches (and endlessly debates), Kujibiki Unbalance, was later made into its own spinoff anime, which parodies some standard anime tropes. It's no Genshiken, but it's fun to watch if you like the snippets the club members watch.
If you watch Genshiken and like it, good news! There's a sequel. In 2013, a new anime was adapted from the ongoing manga, this time called Genshiken Nidaime. Confusingly, this translates to "Genshiken Second Season", but shouldn't be confused with Genshiken 2, the second season of the original Genshiken anime.
In Genshiken Nidaime, most of the original Genshiken characters have graduated, and while some of them make appearances in the new anime, Genshiken Nidaime focuses on a new set of first-years (including Ohno's American friend Sue), who have their own concerns, plot lines, and romances. Genshiken Nidaime deserves its own review, as it takes on some more serious issues than the original, and has a more focused plot. However, it's worth checking out if you like the original Genshiken--and it has some hilarious references to other anime that came out around 2013.
Where To Watch
This is tricky. The rights to Genshiken outside of Japan are owned by Media Blasters, which is a relatively small company, and, as such, you probably won't find Genshiken streaming on the big anime sites like Funimation and Crunchyroll. I had to order the DVD set in order to watch it, and that's getting hard to find as well.
However, I really recommend searching for Genshiken on Amazon or on the smaller streaming channels. If you can find it, it's a true gem of an anime with characters who will start to feel like your own friends.