#1 The joy of being an otaku
I have never been one for referring to myself in disparaging terms, but so long as it’s meant in a tongue-in-cheek way, I am willing to admit that I am quite an otaku. Kanji Sasahara is not entirely unlike me: he is a young man with a deep fondness for anime and everything related to it, but who is cautious about expressing his love for all things nerdy. When he starts going to college, he finds himself feeling out-of-place with the existing manga and anime clubs present there. However, far away from the crowds he finds an office belonging to Genshiken, The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture.
With a small group of strange, but deeply-passionate otaku and a drive to discuss and analyze anime in a meaningful light, Genshiken is entirely different from your regular club. With only a little convincing, Sasahara eventually joins them and begins to finally experience some of the more adventurous parts of the otaku lifestyle. He is finally exposed to comic cons, Akihabara, doujinshi, hentai, and, most importantly, being surrounded by people who are supportive of his hobby.
Genshiken is an anime about all the fun things otaku do, about all the wildly different people who have adopted that moniker, and about how enjoyable the hobby can be when you dare to share it with others.
#2 The “real” feeling
What I appreciate the most is that Genshiken can be a reality. Of course, you can’t actually be friends with these characters, but if you have friends to share this hobby with, a lot of the show can mirror your own interactions.
Episode 1 was immediately a hit for me, as Sasahara finds the Genshiken club room, a geeky mancave filled with manga, game systems, and figurines. As he joins the existing members in watching a rebroadcast of a show he loves, you can see him light up as he hears the others debate about the directing work, the history of the people involved in the production, and he realizes that he has truly found people on the same wavelength as himself. While not an exact match, it’s not entirely unlike how I am with my own friends, in which case my man Brian is a dead ringer for Kuchiki.
While the characters are exaggerated a fair bit, it’s just fun to watch them talk about regular topics like their favorite Gundams, how to act when buying lewd books, or just regular smacktalk while playing a fighting game.
#3 Young adult character
Being set in a college instead of the usual high school setting means that the members of the club are all pretty much adults already, but who haven’t sorted out their lives quite yet. Shimoku Kio’s character designs are a wonderful fit for this turbulent age group and provide us with a cast that looks just as diverse as their personalities.
Everybody has their own body types, distinct features, preferred hairstyles, and voice-actors that complete the characters. This has many interesting effects, most prominently that the characters look more like regular people than idealized anime designs. Even the star couple consisting of the otaku-hating Saki and pretty boy Kousaka are kept sensible and it’s fun to see how subtly some of these characters age over time. A secondary benefit is that fan-service becomes more of a surprise.
The characters don’t look like they were deliberately designed to be sexually appealing, they were designed to be people and those people can be sexy. I can appreciate a good ecchi show for sure, but there is an entirely different appeal to watching a storyline in Genshiken build up the romantic tension between two regular-looking characters, culminating in a somewhat-awkward but passionate love scene. It feels more real, if that makes any sense, and I find it an encouraging that Genshiken promotes the idea that even otaku can establish healthy relationships.
Of course, there is plenty of Genshiken hentai out there on web, but I imagine the characters would appreciate that if they knew.
The characters of Genshiken are the real selling point, and season 1 in particular makes a deliberate effort to include people from every spectrum of otaku culture. A gunpla expert, a cosplayer, die-hard anime fans that know all the trivia, unbeatable gamers, and, most importantly, reluctant girlfriends dragged into their nerdy mess.
I quickly fell in love with the cast, even as members eventually graduate and make room for new additions. Since the story spans many years, we also get to see these characters evolve in meaningful ways, which is most obvious in Saki Kasukabe. She is the childhood friend and current girlfriend of the handsome geekboy Makoto Kousaka and starts off trying to somehow get him to part with the club and hang out with her instead. She spends a lot of time moping in the clubroom and mocking the other characters, which cast her in a bit of a villain role throughout season 1.
This backfires heavily when things do actually go wrong and Saki’s harsh, unapproachable nature births suspicions that she causes these problems deliberately, which drives a lot of her early character development.
A lot of episodes make a habit of focusing on such interesting, little dilemmas that motivate the characters to see things in a different light. A favorite episode of mine comes in the OVA, where die-hard otaku Madarame finds himself taking remarks about his clothing to heart and reluctantly accepts that society would take him more seriously if he put effort into tidying up his appearance.
#5 In-universe fiction
Throughout a lot of Genshiken I found myself being somewhat confused in regards to its in-universe fiction. Not because it was strange or anything, but because it was almost impossible to separate references to other media from what was made-up just to be included in the show.
Most of the Genshiken members are fascinated with a high school cooking anime that had me wondering, and eventually googling, as to whether or not it was real. Turns out that it wasn’t, until it proved so interesting that Kuchibuki Unbalanced was made into its own OVA and 13-episode TV series, the latter of which preceded the start of Genshiken’s own second season.
The fact that Kuchibuki turned out to be a real show (eventually) did raise further questions about everything else in Genshiken. The characters read manga, magazines, play games, and reference other series, all of which looks real enough that I could imagine it existing for real. Especially the hentai stuff. It’s a sign that people really cared when you, as the viewer, would really like to watch the stuff that the characters themselves are watching.