Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Manga Reviews: NHK ni Youkoso, Genshiken

Some more exploration of the darker end of the room called "human nature"...

(Image from wikipedia, use for review purposes only.)

Genshiken, by Kio Shimoku, Grade A
The title comes from an abbreviation for "The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture". It's not easy for a writer to discuss otaku culture pragmatically, because you're either going to come off as disparaging or patronizing, or you're just going to be dismissed as a self-serving otaku yourself. From my point of view, Kio has succeeded in creating a story about a group in an otaku university club. New members to the group either can't fit in with regular society, and end up grating on the club's members' nerves as well, or they don't want to admit to themselves that they're otaku (anime and manga geeks) and try to get out of the club. Yet, over time, they learn to accept the fact that they enjoy manga, anime, video games, figure creation and cosplay even to the point of trying to get jobs in those fields when they graduate. The secret is to not let others control your thoughts, which actually requires that you open yourself up to them and become vulnerable.

Genshiken follows a group of college students in a manga/anime club, and their experiences leaning how to draw, to make costumes, and to buy doujinshii in Komiket. They grow, mature a little, and by the end of volume 10, they are even ready to take baby steps out into the real world. The artwork is a bit crude to the point of caricature, but the backgrounds are highly detailed, and the subject matter is handled very evenly. There is a dark side to fanaticism, as the hero learns after hearing about one girl's suicide attempt following the exposure of her hentai drawings in front of the rest of the school. The series has ended, so you can easily read it from start to finish in a couple of days.

Summary: It's easy to make fun of people that avidly read comics or watch cartoons. Kio avoids all that to explore otaku (both male and female) nature in a balanced way. The artwork isn't all that great, but it's not that bad to look at. A slice of life drama involving university anime fans. Recommended if you want to learn more about figure making, cosplay or komiket.

(Image from wikipedia, use for review purposes only.)

NHK ni Youkoso, written by Tatsuhiko Takimoto, art by Kendi Oiwa, Grade A
Here's where things turn black. "NHK ni Youkoso" (Welcome to the NHK) explores the world of the hikikomori - those that shut themselves in a room and refuse to come out. "NHK" was initially written as a novel by Takimoto, then released as a manga and a TV anime. Tatsuhiro Satoh is a university dropout that hates leaving his apartment. He makes up excuses to his family for his inability to attend school and lies about trying to find a job. While he does occasionally force himself outside, he quickly sabotages himself in order to head back to the safety of his den soon after. Over time, he encounters other hikikomori that all have different ways of dealing with their fears of rejection, by using drugs, alcohol, self-denial, self-sacrifice and suicide attempts.

Hikikomori is a real, recognized problem in Japan, but it's not well-understood and tends to be swept under the rug. Takimoto created a dark comedy that explores this problem, which seems to stem from a combination of not being able to deal with the pressures of having to fit in with a group, an overblown paranoia regarding what other people think about you, and agoraphobia. Sufferers hide because they think they can't succeed at what they try, and when they cause themselves to fail, take it as proof they should never have tried in the first place. It's an easy trap to fall into if you're a shy introvert, and the manga can really prey on you if you're reading it alone in your apartment. It's easy to lie and just tell the other person what they want to hear so they'll leave you alone. And in Japan, with its emphasis on the group over the individual, it's a sad, unsurprising fact.

Takimoto takes a wide brush to paint an overblown picture of the hikikomori, treating everyone as caricatures. But, it's not at the expense of illustrating the core problems. The artwork is a bit rough and the characters are a little unattractive, but that adds to the realism. It's a short series, only 8 volumes, and while there is a sort of resolution at the end, it's a precarious balance at best.

Summary: Social outcasts hide in their rooms and lie to their family, friends and themselves in order to wallow in the safety of being rejected by society. When that doesn't work, there's always the escape into alcohol, or self-mutilation. "NHK" attempts to look at this problem in an honest light, and I think it succeeds. Highly recommended to anyone that wants to really understand Japan and its social problems.

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