Genshiken: The Story in the Details

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It is often said that detailed artwork can help to bring a setting to life. Capturing all of the nuance and chaotic happenstance which shapes an environment gives a world the sense of being lived in, or at least of having been brought to its current state by an identifiable set of circumstances. In a truly great setting, the environmental details will hint at their own stories of how a location came to be the way that it is: and sometimes those stories are more readable than others. Here I’ll be taking a look at the narratives which are told in the background art of the early chapters of the manga series, Genshiken–and how I think that changing or neglecting these details in the anime adaptation actively weakened the story as a whole.

Genshiken is a manga series about the daily lives of a group of otaku in a college club dedicated to the study of modern visual culture–AKA otaku bullshit. The story goes out of its way to feel true to life, to such an extent that it’s difficult to even really think of it as fiction–it’s just the story of what it meant to be a college-aged otaku in Japan in the early 2000s. And that last part is important, because Genshiken is very much a time and place kind of story. A lot of the cultural landscape surrounding otaku has changed over time, and the manga itself even addresses this in the course of its run. Whereas the series originally ran from 2002 through 2006, it later was brought back in 2009 and ran through 2016, focusing on a different set of primary characters and exploring a lot of the ways that the culture had changed over the course of that decade.

The original series opens up with college freshman Kanji Sasahara trying to work up the nerve to put in an application for the manga club during this big club recruitment event at his school. As he approaches, there is a lot of focus on the posters which both the anime and manga clubs have at their booths. The manga club’s poster features a somewhat down-to-earth illustration of a young girl–nothing overtly moe or overly stylized–as though this club is trying to portray themselves as somewhat classy; which fits the pretentious air of that club that we’ll learn about later in the series.

Meanwhile, the anime club has a display of a cute robot girl, or perhaps a girl in some kind of power suit, striking an action pose. The look of this character is very reminiscent of the power suited warriors from the 1994 anime series Metal Fighter Miku, though given the time period I wouldn’t be too surprised if it was also in reference to 2001’s Angelic Layer, especially since we’ll be seeing a reference to another CLAMP manga later in this chapter.

As Sasahara continually orbits the anime and manga booths, he sees this cute little puni-moe girl with a sword and deceptively large tits, who’s design reminds me of something like Popotan or Pita Ten from 2002. There’s also a picture of a sad girl in the snow, which is almost certainly a reference to the popular visual novel Kanon, which had its first anime adaptation that year. A couple of pages later, when Sasahara finally notices the Genshiken, we can see a poster of a fairly generic schoolgirl who looks like she could possibly be a reference to To Heart. This is when Sasahara finally opens up his guidebook and sees that in lieu of information about themselves, the Genshiken has just put in a dramatic pose from the fictional manga series Kujibiki Unbalance, which will be a running reference throughout the manga. It may be worth mentioning that this girl looks a lot like Kino from Kino’s Journey, which had been running as a light novel series for two years at that point.

What interests me about this scene is how it sets the tone for what college-aged otaku were interested in at the time. While cute girls and moe are taken for granted as a dominant stylistic force in anime and manga today, this wouldn’t really have been the case in 2002. Moe was booming for sure, especially this puni-moe style that I described which isn’t really around anymore in the form that it was in the early 2000s, but it was hardly mainstream or nearly as widespread as it is today. The way that this scene contrasts the realistic faces of its characters against the ultra-cutesy girls on all of these posters really gives a sense of just who was into this stuff at the time, and what that stuff was.

The anime version of this scene unfortunately introduces a problem which kind of runs rampant throughout the first season of the series–way too much focus on Kujibiki Unbalance. Whereas KujiAn is simply one of many manga which the main characters are interested in in the manga, and which is made reference to as a running gag, in the anime series it seems to be all that anyone cares about. Sasahara’s room is decked out in posters for it, and he’s watching it on TV at the start; most of the iconography around the anime and manga clubs is related to the series; and when we finally make it to the Genshiken club room, most of that is KujiAn focused as well.

I think it’s cute that Kujibiki Unbalance exists as a show within this show’s universe, and I’ve written before about how I think the three-episode tie-in OVA which came out later was a great look into what kind of stuff was popular in anime at the time. In particular, it’s always reminded me of Mai-HiME, which had started airing just about a month before the Genshiken anime and was extremely popular amongst otaku, with maybe a bit of Maburaho thrown in as well. But nonetheless, I really think that something was lost in putting so much focus on this one fictional series, as opposed to the stew of direct timely references which are placed in the manga.

In the Genshiken clubroom, among posters of various moe girls, we also can see stuff that resembles Street Fighter characters, a poster of the Big Zam which is something of a meme in the Mobile Suit Gundam fanbase, a very obvious Cardcaptor Sakura poster, a cardboard cutout of that same sad girl in the snow who was on the poster before, and something reminiscent of a Di Gi Charat poster. This presents a bit more nuance in the kinds of things that the Genshiken members care about–a combination of otaku-oriented moe stuff, shoujo manga, classic mecha anime, and fighting games. In the anime series, it’s just a whole bunch of Kujibiki Unbalance. In fact, as much as I kind of love the fact that the anime also features tons of references to Guilty Gear, including footage of the actual game in the show, I kind of resent that this is the only fighting game made reference to in the show, as the manga references a huge variety of them.

Aside from losing some of the nuance of the story’s time and place and of the diverse interests of the characters, I also think that the anime loses something in that its environments generally feel a bit more open and less cluttered than those of the manga.

Something I’ve always appreciated about the manga’s artwork is its almost claustrophobic panels which are loaded with as much visual information as possible in their backgrounds, because I think that this kind of imagery is integral to the nature of otaku lifestyle. Japanese rooms are known for being incredibly small, and otaku are known for covering their walls in as much crap as they possibly can, creating these little caves of anime visual overload that they call home. Take it from someone who’s got an anime girl bedsheet stapled to my ceiling, I actually drew a lot of inspiration from the look of the Genshiken clubroom in how I modeled my room when I was a teenager, and the series artwork really spoke to me in such a way that I was disappointed to see it toned down in the anime adaptation.

This was especially the case with the doujin store which the characters visit in chapter three of the manga, and in episode two of the anime. In the manga, this is a tiny outlet store with so little space that you have to wait in line to get in so that it isn’t at capacity. The entrance to the place is so covered in posters that it’s hard to say if there’s any white space in the building. Once inside, it is presented as a labyrinth of unending porn–and the fact that it is, indeed, porn, is much more apparent. Most of these resemble the kinds of doujin covers that I’ve seen no shortage of. The anime, meanwhile, tones the entire experience down considerably. The store is a lot more spacious and open, and the doujins don’t even look all that dirty. That sense of entering a dark otaku world of sleaze and excess just isn’t quite there.

If it seems like I’m putting an almost undo level of stress on this difference in details, it is only because Genshiken is one of my favorite manga series of all time, and because I think this difference is the biggest reason that I would choose to revisit the manga over the adaptation every time, and to recommend it more readily to people who aren’t familiar with the series. The anime adaptation isn’t bad at all, and even features a whole lot of great casting choices for all of the characters, but it’s unfortunately rather shoddy production values really take away from the overall feeling of the series. Genshiken is a manga that often lets the environment do more of the talking than the characters, and relies a lot on facial expressions and minor details to convey its story, and the anime just doesn’t capture those things nearly as well as the manga does. It’s not to say that you can’t basically get the point by watching the anime, but the manga really sucks you into the world of 2002 anime fandom in Japan in a way that I just don’t think the anime is capable of.

If you’re a fan of Genshiken, then let me know if you ever felt strongly about this difference, or if the anime just seemed off to you in its presentation of details. Be sure to share this video with anyone whom you think would be interested in it, and support me on patreon if you’d like to help me to make more videos like this. Check out my other channels for more of me, and as always, thanks again for watching–I’ll see you in the next one!

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