Keeping it real with Genshiken

[Potential spoilers all over the place. Then again it last aired in 2013, so… maybe not so much?]

Wow, 2016 has been insane for me in terms of my personal life. Nonstop stress from being underpaid for the cost of living in the area in which I live, a Hunger Games competitiveness in the job market, and rent being jacked up by 50%. The hits keep coming, and it’s been rough to put it politely.

2013 was also a tumultuous year for me, with a fairly epic breakup of a long-term relationship, part-time employment, nowhere to live and crashing with family, an ancient car that couldn’t go in reverse (nothing hones your parking-fu like having to find parking in a city that will align your vehicle so that it can roll backwards so that you can get out of the parking spot); Stress.

So it isn’t surprising that I completely missed Genshiken’s Second Season anime airing in 2013. Interestingly, in this equally trying time for me right now, I found myself scrolling through anime on Crunchyroll today. I had seen Genshiken in the listings before but without looking closely wrote it off as being the first anime season and never clicked on it, since I had seen all of those episodes already, have all of the manga (up through the first anime), etc. Today I saw it and clicked, thinking it would be nice to re-watch, since the manga and anime have always been high on my list of Excellent Visual Art. I wanted to take a little comfort for a bit in watching a story that I’ve loved for a long time.

Surprise, surprise, I started the first episode and had a minor double-take; This wasn’t the beginning of the original anime, not at all. I paused and walked over to the bookshelves and looked at the last tankobon issue that I had and the story definitely was taking place after that. Happy and excited to see the story continuing, I dove in and marathoned the whole season straight this evening.

Genshiken hits me on a number of levels, but the throughline across the board lies within its Ibsen-esque realism. The art is extraordinary and beautifully composed, both in the manga and the anime. It’s not eggregious or caricatured in any way. There are no overly-elongated limbs, no chibi lollipop heads on eensy bodies, it’s simple yet is composed in a structure that moves the gaze to notice the little details along with the primary focus points. There’s a sense of capture, and each frame is a beat unto itself. In Kio’s work, you can blink, you can breathe, and you can absorb each image in its entirety; the pacing is clear, but there’s no rush.

I first came across Genshiken via fansubs back in 2007. I loved the anime so much that I went out and bought the manga, since the anime only covered the second half of the original story. That story is the most extraordinary part of this work.

Genshiken is so utterly unique. I’ve yet to come across another anime or manga that comes close to the realism in which Genshiken operates. The closest might have been Nana, but that story still operates within a measure of the fantastical, revolving around rock bands and the music industry, worlds that the everyday person doesn’t and likely will not encounter. Genshiken is absolutely real. It’s a group of college kids who belong to a nerd club, The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture. It’s something anyone could join, it’s a club that could exist at any college or highschool, in Japan, in the U.S., in Johannesburg, anywhere.

The key to Genshiken’s magic is its lack of magic. There are no wizards, no demons, no one has special talents beyond the norm. It doesn’t take place in an alternate timeline, Neo-Tokyo is non-existent. No tragic accidents happen. No one is sleeping with the other’s significant other. It’s just… life. It’s simple, and Kio gently leads the viewer to look at the moments of the everyday, of what is mundane. Taking a moment to look within at these small moments draws the viewer into a state of seeing the specialness that exists in these moments. My background in theater already has conditioned me to always look for motivations — actions, objectives, super-objectives, subtext — in my everyday as it is, so this kind of focus holds a special place for me and is absolutely indulgent, without crossing into gossipy secretiveness.

Genshiken develops characters thoroughly; not a single person is one-dimensional. The viewer witnesses growth at unexpected points. Just when you think you’ve got a solid understanding of a character, they suddenly demonstrate even greater depth. Sasahara learns to embrace his otaku self without shame, and without compromising who he is is able to translate that into deep connections with the other members of the Genshiken. Madarame surprised me by becoming my favorite character in the series. Initially served up as a stereotypical nerd creep, he wrestles with feelings and internal conflicts that are experienced amongst most people; unrequited love, the trials of having to Get A Job out of school, balancing what you love with needing to earn a paycheck, and that growth from brashness to a calm maturity and strength in being able to absolutely Be You without needing to prove anything to anyone. My heart broke a little when he confessed his feelings to Kasukabe in Season Two, in his very typical Madarame way. Those pauses, the beats, the silence, the gentleness within the tension and preciousness of that scene were visceral. You, the viewer, must sit with this, no popcorn at the ready, and be present with these two in this moment. You will feel the myriad emotions as they do.

The introduction of Hato was incredible. I wasn’t entirely certain if there was a plan to create a conversation about gender and sexuality, and they do touch slightly upon that. There’s the development of acceptance within the Genshiken group of a character who cross-dresses, but the acceptance becomes absolute at the end, in particular from Madarame, whose opinion holds the greatest weight for Hato. The characters in Genshiken automatically adjust pronouns without difficulty depending on whether Hato presents as male or female. Hato is not transgendered, nor gay, but Hato’s character demonstrates how one can love a genre (boys’ love, in this case) and not have that be defining of the self, or create a stereotype or caricature. Hato cross-dresses initially as a device to allow him to express his love for boys’ love manga without ridicule, and when faced with acceptance and the removal of the stakes and impetus to cross-dress, Hato is left figuring out whether he’ll continue to cross-dress or not. In the final episode, Hato dresses in masculine clothes and doesn’t wear a wig or makeup to the weekend trip. However, Hato still brings his dresses, makeup, and wig with him in a bag nonetheless. Only at the end, after the baths and long conversations, when the whole group begs him to cross-dress because he’s “super cute” does he declare that he will, and changes into a pink kimono and wig and alters his voice to a more feminine tone as before.

None of this is extraordinary. None of this is outside of everyday human interactions amongst a close group. None of this is without the potential to exist for most people. My own group of friends is wonderfully diverse, and I likely function as the group nerd or weirdo amongst friends who are eccentric artists, or stylin’ critics and writers, or hoodie-wearing tech kids, or stay-at-home moms, or gun-toting libertarians. Genshiken and the characters and situations encountered are extraordinary because they are so ordinary, and those ordinary moments to which Kio directs our focus become the most persistent and precious.

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