Genshiken is a slice of life comedy about a bunch of college students who are all members of a club, "The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture". The name sounds pretty hoity-toity, but it basically boils down to a clubhouse for Otaku who spend all their time playing video games, watching anime, reading manga, and sometimes cosplaying.
Genshiken was surprising on a lot of different levels for me. First and foremost, the art-style wasn't what I was expecting at all. Every single slice of life anime I've seen to date (Pretty much Lucky Star and Azumanga Daioh) have featured girls as main characters and tended to go a cutesy and moe route. Genshiken is drawn in a much more realistic style which felt completely odd at first as I kept expecting it to turn into something like a detective noir series.
Second, it dealt with the topic of Otaku in what I imagine is a much more serious and realistic manner than anything I've ever seen before. I've read many times how the Japanese in general have a very negative view of Otakus and many consider it an insult to be called one. That's always seemed odd considering how so many Wapanese in this country embrace the term as a loanword and happily self-identify as Otakus. In other works of anime and manga where there has been a focus on Otaku characters, they end up being portrayed as cutesy or slightly geeky at the worst. In Genshiken, you can see that in the eyes of non-otakus the term might as well be synonymous with freak. Well, to certain characters anyway. It also shows a more hardcore form of Otaku than I've ever run into before. We're not talking about people who like to watch anime and occasionally dress up as their favorite Sailor Moon character. Instead it delves a lot into the adult and pr0n'y nature of Otaku-dom as almost all of the characters are running around playing pr0n games, buying ridiculous amounts of pr0n mags, and basically wanking it until it falls off. This goes for the female Otaku as well in one scene I won't be forgetting anytime soon where there's a battle over whether they wank to yaoi (male-male homosexual content) or more specifically middle-aged baldies. As one of the club presidents puts it:
"Those people who say that they can't jerk off to anime must have something wrong with their brains!"
Perhaps true, but not exactly a view you usually espouse and champion to the world.
Genshiken follows the various characters over a course of a few years in the anime and is fantastic at creating realistic and well-rounded characters. True, almost everything they do is focused on Otaku culture, but you actually see them grow as characters over time. I was incredibly disappointed when I got to the end of the series and would have happily watched on if only it had been continued. The anime actually ended before the manga and I was interested enough that I'm now reading the manga just for the chance to see what I missed. This is not to say that Genshiken is all a bed of roses. I ran into a real problem in the form of yaoi.
As I mentioned before, yaoi is male-male homosexuality in anime/manga/etc. The English equivalent would be slash where there are probably thousands of middle-aged heterosexual women out there at this very minute churning out stories where Captain Picard seduces Captain Archer (and Wil Riker is an ocelot). Slash and yaoi have never been my personal cup of tea but I've never felt a real revulsion for it until now. One of the female characters in Genshiken spends a good chunk of time fantasizing about two of her male friends imagining stories where they're involved in a sexual relationship. One entire episode is actually her fantasy come to life as the characters are changed to fit her conception, becoming bishonen (pretty boys) and basically running around in a homosexual soap opera. What I found sort of disturbing is that almost every scene seemed to focus on the weird power dynamics turning all the characters into what felt to me as near rapists. The whole thing gave me the willies and I'm not altogether sure if it's because of unfair prejudices on my part or if there really is something to it. It just didn't seem right to twist the characters like that and turn some of them into massive jerks. Perhaps it's fitting that the Japanese term for female otakus who are into this sort of thing is Fujoshi, literally: Rotten Girl.
Another thing I really don't get is how it's kosher and even 'gay friendly' to reimagine all these supposedly straight characters as being gay in slash and yaoi when everyone would probably agree a concerted effort to turn gays straight in the same media would be wrong. Am I completely off base here? If there were a group of fiction writers who did nothing but take gay characters and people and write them into stories where they're in exclusively heterosexual relationships, it'd be viewed as wrong somehow, right? I can't imagine a situation where that would get the thumbs up from the very community which seems to view slash and yaoi positively. Hell, maybe I'm just overthinking all of this.