Genshiken is widely acclaimed for its realism, making it one of the more respected anime in the “slice of life” genre. I find this statement difficult to judge, as the show deals with the sort of subject matter that I have little or no first hand knowledge of. Like most slice of life stories, it’s set in Japan, but how realistically it portrays contemporary life and culture there is a complicated matter that’s beyond me and my simple gaijin ways. Perhaps there are some American viewers who could weigh in on the subject with authority, but I remain committed to my belief that most of us don’t know half as much about Japan as we think we do.

In a nutshell, Genshiken is about a group of college students in a club devoted to manga, anime, and video games. When it comes to anime and manga, I’ve yet to truly experience it in a communal setting similar to the small group comprising the Genshiken members. Sure, I’ve been to a few conventions. And of course, my girlfriend loves this stuff as much as I do (possibly moreso). But I’ve never really found a place where I could indulge in it with a group of people on a regular basis. It’s something I keep to myself, basically, preferring to avoid the kind of awkward explanations that inevitably have to take place once you out yourself in a group of people who have very little understanding about what “anime” is. So just how realistic of a portrayal of modern (and surprisingly well-adjusted) otaku culture Genshiken is (in Japan or here, for that matter), I cannot say.

Browsing the Internet for discussion on the series, I find myself encountering common complaints: Genshiken is unrealistic, too idealistic, “wish fulfillment.” These are most commonly hammered out from the Mountain Dew-stained keyboards of self-proclaimed hikikomoris, mostly young, out-of-shape, shut-in Internet addicts who were all too happy to latch onto the Japanese term once it reached our shores, as if it suddenly validated their miserable existence, selfish choices, and “fuck the world” attitude. The big mistake here is assuming that Genshiken was really attempting to profile all otaku, or at least the lowest common variety of them. I’m sure that hikikomori exist in the Genshiken universe, but thankfully they’re all off-screen, giving us a clear look at some intelligent and sympathetic characters instead. If Genshiken is guilty of petty idealism, then so are all of us. We all want to find companions that will understand and accept us for who we are. We all want to connect with others who share our passions and interests. If this is suddenly wrong, then maybe it’s time we ended this social experiment we call civilization, go back to living in caves and pass our time stabbing each other with dirty pikes.

So I can’t testify how “realistic” Genshiken is overall, but I can say with certainty that its characters’ emotional complexities are as genuine as they come, revealing a both a passion for their hobbies but often a deep ambivalence as well. In the first scene of the series, Sasahara wanders through his university’s club fair, spotting the booth for the manga club but quickly averting his gaze when he catches the club members’ attention. For the rest of the series, he struggles with his identity as an otaku, slowly feeling it out at first with the help of his fellow Genshiken, until he’s eventually given the reigns of the club and decides to go all-in. But the mounting pressures of graduation and finding a job eventually leave him questioning his decision. Would he have been better off shrugging off his hobbies at the beginning of college and investing his energies elsewhere? I imagine that many otaku eventually find themselves at a similar crossroads as they struggle to find their direction in life and pinpoint what’s most important to them.

Madrame, one of the Genshiken’s senior members, dodges such doubts by wholly embracing the otaku lifestyle. Total devotion to his hobbies provides him an escape from dealing with the kind of frustrating social puzzles that left him scarred in his younger years, which Madrame is more than happy to leave behind. For him, the Genshiken not only serve as an outlet for his passions, but as a safe haven where he experiences a sense of control and occasional social mastery. Needless to say, he’s in no rush to leave the Genshiken behind for a nine-to-five job, no matter how inevitable and necessary a transition it is.

I don’t know if I was naturally drawn to the character of Ogiue as I watched the second season of the series (or rather, as I read the manga about a year or two beforehand) or if I was predisposed to liking her after reading countless essays devoted to her from sdshamshel on Ogiue Maniax. The most intriguing character in the series, her gradual shift from the angry, toxic fujoshi stereotype she’s first introduced as into a complex and sympathetic character is believable and perhaps Genshiken‘s most emotionally satisfying development.

Both seasons of Genshiken (and the OVA episodes, frustratingly missing from both boxed sets…um, until this week, apparently) constitute some stellar entertainment. The series’ blend of drama and comedy, along with its unique setting — I’m trying to think of other college-themed series, and failing hard — puts it in a unique niche that’s almost all its own. My only quibble with the series would be its sudden end, which leaves several key issues unresolved. Would any viewer who hasn’t read the manga be troubled by (or even notice) this? I cannot say. But the series, which finished airing in late 2007, is long overdue for the proper conclusion that it really deserves (and is looking less and less likely to ever receive).

Genshiken‘s portrayal of the otaku lifestyle can’t please every viewer. Whether or not it should is another matter. Viewers who come to it with an open mind, or at least a willingness to accept anime fans that might be slightly different than themselves (gasp!), will find watching it just as fun as hanging out with a group of friends. Those who’d criticize it for being too positive, or simply dismiss it for not reflecting their own pathetic existence: hopefully your next bag of Doritos will be the one you choke on. Stick to /a/ and leave real life to the rest of us.

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