I haven’t been very kind to the slice-of-life genre lately. None of the popular ones have worked for me, and it feels like I’m trapped in some sort of bizarro world where everyone can get enjoyment out of the most banal things whilst I have to watch my cool, almost-forgotten “girls kill random helicopter crew” anime all by my lonesome. So after Michiko Yokote’s new work that actually doesn’t suck (according to most people and not me, obviously) started capturing a crowd, I decided to go back to his other anime-related slice-of-life show that I actually enjoyed to see if my feelings for it have changed over time due to my increasing intolerance for the genre – although given that Genshiken is based off of really good material, it’s hard to say how much of a hand he had with actually writing the anime scripts.
If you’re one of those newcomers to the genre who refuse to watch anime that came out pre-Haruhi, aside from Cowboy Bebop obviously, let me fill you in. Genshiken is a manga-turned-anime centered on a college club consisting of a bunch of otaku and their lives inside and outside the clubroom. Unlike most of the otaku-centric stuff we get nowadays, Genshiken is acclaimed by a majority of the fans due to its deep insight into a specific sub-culture, balancing the pros and cons of the otaku lifestyle whilst providing good character drama centered on relationships, the future, and how the next Comi-fest would turn out. Although there were tons of adaptation problems regarding the show – each season was done by a nobody studio whose animation looked as good as a bullet-ridden Bronx citizen, barring Production I.G. obviously, and the original manga was never fully adapted – it became well-regarded upon release and still continues to be remembered fondly now even if we’d rather talk about how “anime needs to be saved” because Fractale let us all down.
Now the reason Genshiken is considered to be a slice-of-life with actual teeth to it is because of the character of Saki and her struggles to deal with the lifestyle due to having an otaku boyfriend who, along with Madarame, proves that looks are inversely proportional to brains and likability. Although Saki never takes her annoyance of otaku to ludicrously cartoonish levels, it’s clear that she’s not happy to be around a bunch of loser males talking about the next episode of Kujikibi Unbalance and whether filler was necessary or not, and it’s this conflict that primarily drives events whether it’s the characters building models or just plain shopping for clothes. Things start to warm up for her a bit when the primarily male club gets a female cosplayer to join, because it’s easier to talk with someone who’s of the same sex as you, especially in a 99% monogender world. And then other events follow so that the first season ends with her finally accepting the lifestyle, even if she refuses to be a part of it, which is still one of the most thematically rich character journey endings to come out of the medium.
This is why the subsequent seasons are not remembered as fondly, because once the conflict ended, so did the support that made us care about all the background information that Genshiken had to give. The author did his best to introduce new conflicts in order to help us avoid a K-ON-ish world, but whilst Ogiue has her fans and job-hunting is a pretty heavy part of any slice-of-life story in general, they just weren’t as strong and sometimes their weakened prevalence just led to pure style without structure. The first two episodes of Genshiken 2 fell into the same trappings that made me dislike Shirobako’s first two episodes¹ with the group just talking about how to setup Comi-fest with very few scenes focusing on actual grounding and if it wasn’t for my familiarity with the established material, I would have dropped the show right then and there.
Thankfully it recovered after that once the more personal drama started, although given that said season was made by Arms, you still have a lot of moments that feel like edutainment and random monkey-cheese, and it didn’t help that the season ended prior to the original manga’s conclusion so things were kind of left open-ended. They did give us the yaoi episode though, so I guess some forgiveness can be had.
Not that the first season didn’t have its lulls. Rewatching it again made me realize that a lot of the anime’s strength came more from the material and less from the actual direction. Although the bad animation aids in making the characters look more realistic – especially compared to Nidaime’s prettiness – very few of the jokes actually work due to poor comedic timing. Even the Kujikibi Unbalance parody wasn’t much better at laughs than the actual anime that came years later. This leads to some of the more “pure” slice-of-life sections being more “meh” than I remembered to the point that it got to Nodame Cantabile sequel-level bad, which despite what the fans say, is worse than you’d think.
But at the end of the day, I came out of the rewatch thinking “that was pretty good”. Because it’s Genshiken, and Genshiken is good. It may be a little lighter on the human drama than I remembered and there are times when the jargon is just there, but for the most part, it still knew how to engage people without going into pander-territory. It’s still fun to watch these characters grow over the span of a few years. It still has smart things to say about a specific sub-culture. Even Nidaime in all its cluelessness of how fangirls worked is nowhere near as bad a sequel as you’d expect from something that took more than three years to make.
¹ Why yes, I’m dying to hear about the support that “supposedly” drives Shirobako’s antics.