Amateur Thoughts on the Atelier Games

I’m not terribly familiar with the Atelier RPG series. I’ve never played any of the games, and I didn’t even realize that Sue was cosplaying the main heroine from Atelier Meruru in a chapter of Genshiken (see above). But I was asked by one of my Patreon sponsors to write something about the games, so I decided to do some research. While I can’t even pretend to call myself an expert, what I’ve found out about the Atelier games has intrigued me, particularly the way they eschew Final Fantasy/Dragon Quest-style “save the world” scenarios.

Before I go further, I’d like to thank two YouTube channels: ValkyrieAurora, whose overview of the entire Atelier franchise allowed me to better understand the overarching themes of the games, and WeLoveGUST, whose Atelier Meruru play-through introduced me to the feel of an Atelier game. Watching them is no substitute for actually playing, of course, but they were quite helpful nevertheless.

Video games have classically had a violence issue. I don’t mean that violent video games are bad, or that they inherently corrupt people, but that fighting is a convention that’s so easily relied upon in games that it can be a kind of crutch. Fight to save your kingdom. Fight to get revenge. Fight to prove your worth. This doesn’t define all games, but those that step away from violence, also tend to go so far left-field from that world as to be considered a practically different universe. I’m talking about puzzle games like Tetris or gentler games like Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons or Animal Crossing. There’s a wide space in between those approaches (“violence solves everything” vs. “what’s violence?”), and the way the Atelier games strike a middle ground is rather fascinating.

Rather than having a looming evil that must be defeated, the narratives of Atelier games are more often based on personal growth. The key gameplay involves the player as the main character learning to make potions and other concoctions in a quest to master the discipline of alchemy. Experimentation is encouraged, and while the games can vary in terms of how demanding the clock is, they more often than not lean towards the leisurely. It’s still clearly a non-mundane environment, and there is combat involved when it comes to gathering ingredients, but violence clearly takes a backseat.

In this respect, I find myself drawn to Atelier Meruru‘s soundtrack, which is very heavy on recorder and flute usage. There’s a certain sense of innocent fun that permeates the game as a result, and it communicates a certain message, that there’s room to breathe, explore, and maybe even relax. It really sells the games well and really entices me to try out one of the games myself.

The franchise is hardly devoid of a more fantastical setting, as all of the Atelier games take place in classic fantasy settings full of magic and kings and queens, but the balance it strikes is very alluring. It’s not so far into “farm plants and drive trucks” territory as to feel like a simulation of the mundane—the games give the impression of adventure, just not in the “defeat evil” sense. At the same time, I do wonder if it can be hard to balance the niche appeal of that classic Atelier pacing with the desire to draw in a more mainstream audience. In her video, ValkyrieAurora talks about how some of the games put more emphasis on going out on a quest. It makes me wonder if GUST (the company behind Atelier) thought that they needed to draw in more general RPG players, perhaps at the expense of the more core fans.

Atelier is hardly the only RPG series to try and minimize the impact and importance of violence, but its approach is a refreshing one, at least to someone like myself who didn’t really know about these games. It’s a celebration of a certain mellow pace that the world could use more of.

This post was sponsored by Johnny Trovato. To find out how to request topics, visit the Ogiue Maniax Patreon.

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Kio Shimoku’s Kagerowic Diary and Its Influence on Genshiken and Spotted Flower

A special edition of Kio Shimoku’s Kagerowic Diary (aka Kagerou Nikki) just came out last month, which prompted me to read an ebook of it I purchased ages ago. Having now finished it, I find myself reevaluating certain aspects of Kio’s more recent titles in Genshiken and Spotted Flower.

Kagerowic Diary is split into two parts. Part I concerns a female college student named Suzuki Touko (above) who seemingly has it all figured out but hides the fact that she’s a virgin from her friends. Part II follows a different woman in college, Tachihara Hatsuho (below), and the complicated web of sex, emotion, and deceit she finds herself in. To Genshiken fans, it can feel both comfortably familiar yet also exotic due to the strong emphasis on physical relationships.

Touko’s story shines new light on Genshiken, specifically the final volume of the first series. In the epilogue, the characters begin a discussion of how Saki, the sole non-otaku of the bunch and by far the most mature character, could be viewed through a moe lens. After some deliberation, Madarame says that she would have to be a virgin (Saki very clearly is not). When I previously read this scene, I thought the purpose was merely to show how Madarame’s mind works and to embarrass Saki. Now, I realize it’s actually a reference to Touko and Kagerowic Diary.

Hatsuho’s story, on the other hand, makes me feel that Spotted Flower and its adultery subplot are not as out-of-left-field as fans assumed. While it’s a far cry from Genshiken, the tangled web of love and lust in Spotted Flower is not unlike the plot of Part II in Kagerowic Diary, where Hatsuho sleeping with a male friend of pity and then discovering that her boyfriend cheated on her too (and probably has been for a while) It’s charged, it’s messy, it’s complicated. In other words, Spotted Flower is sort of a return to the old days for Kio, when writing realistic characters meant more than just realistic portrayals of awkward nerds.

In addition to Kagerowic Diary, there’s a special edition of Kio’s Yonensei (“4th-year Student”) out too. I intend to read through it and see how that other early work of his compares to his more famous material.

Return to Genshiken – Volume 9: Don’t Call It an Ending?

Here we are: the end of Genshiken. At least, that’s what we could’ve said if the sequel never came out. It’s fascinating to look at this last volume while both remembering the finality with which it hit back around 2006, and being cognizant of the developments that have occurred since then.

What is Return to Genshiken?

Genshiken is an influential manga about otaku, as well as my favorite manga ever and the inspiration for this blog, but it’s been many years since I’ve read the series. I intend to re-read Genshiken with the benefit of hindsight and see how much, if at all, my thoughts on the manga have changed.

Note that, unlike my chapter reviews for the second series, Genshiken Nidaime, I’m going to be looking at this volume by volume, using both English and Japanese versions! I’ll also be spoiling the entirety of Genshiken, both the first series and the sequel, so be warned.

Volume 9 Summary

A visit from Ohno’s American friends, a New Year’s shrine visit, a fight between Sasahara and Ogiue, and a failed confession from Madarame all lead to the finale of Genshiken: graduation for Sasahara, Kasukabe, and Kohsaka. Good times, good memories, and an open future are in store (at least, until the sequel shows up).

A New Ogiue

It surprises me that even to the very end, we’re still learning a lot about Ogiue. It might be because she’s had such a dramatic shift in her own life in the previous volume (i.e. resolving her inner turmoil and starting a relationship with Sasahara) that we’re seeing sides of her that were previously obscured.

One of the most notable qualities in Ogiue after her change is that she loves being in love. She wants Sasahara to hold her. She enjoys walking and talking. She’s easily embarrassed, so public displays of affection are out of the question, but the thrill of being with Sasahara permeates her being and helps to make every day of Ogiue’s a less angry one compared to her past. However, what becomes evident is that Ogiue did not undergo a total transformation. That anger and confrontational stubbornness is no longer omnipresent, but it’s still there, and it still fuels Ogiue when she needs it.

This quality of hers is seen in Volume 9, when Ogiue asks Sasahara (who’s now working as a manga editor) to look over her submission for a published manga magazine (Monthly Afternoon, the home of Genshiken, as we later learn). Here, we find out Ogiue tends to take criticism very personally. In her eyes, comments about the lack of a clear protagonist and a too-long introduction are attacks on her character and her ability, and she lashes out at Sasahara. But as Yabusaki points out, Ogiue’s not the type to give up easily. Motivated by rage, she revises her manga (and draws a second submission!) in a way that incorporates Sasahara’s advice. So it turns out that she’s bad at receiving criticism but great at utilizing it—a volatile combination that Sasahara somewhat laments.

The unique editor-artist/boyfriend-girlfriend relationship between Sasahara and her is another facet of Ogiue hat is revealed in this final volume. In the sequel, this dynamic is constantly referenced, even as early as the first chapter of Nidaime, making it a vital part of how they interact with each other. While I’m loathe to simplify everything into S&M relationships, there is a sort of subtle sadomasochistic quality to their relationship because they keep going through this pattern of criticism, anger, and renewal, only to come back for more. But given that Ogiue’s both willingly letting herself get mad and taking it out on Sasahara, it’s not like there’s a clear-cut “S” or “M,” if you can even use those labels at all.

As an aside, Yajima in Nidaime goes through a similar thing, creating a highly entertaining manga after getting fed up by her lack of apparent talent compared to Hato, but I wonder if that’s less anger and more frustration.

Silence

In Chapter 53, “Confession,” Madarame runs into Kasukabe alone in the club room, conjuring up the memory of when he first started to develop a crush on her. Sure that she’d be forever out of his reach, Madarame elects to stay quiet about his love, preferably for the rest of his life. Back when I first read it, I thought Madarame did, if not the right thing, then the Daidouji Tomoyo route of “I want the person I love to be happy.” I think it was and is easy to relate to the plight of a noble (or perhaps spineless) nerd and his unrequited feelings, and to see Madarame as a mildly tragic (perhaps moe) character.

Of course, things have changed since then with Madarame in Nidaime confessing, being turned down, and ending up with Sue after a drawn-out competition from a bevy of female suitors, but I distinctly remember back then thinking that leaving things unspoken and unsettled might indeed be Madarame’s fate. And now, looking at this whole plot thread in full, I’d say Madarame confessing in Nidaime was the right choice because it’s clear he just couldn’t move on. In order to find another potential partner, he needed to be rejected because he’d be stuck in perpetual emotional limbo otherwise.

But Madarame’s confession isn’t the only time silence plays a major role. One of the highlights of Volume 9 is a special chapter dedicated to showing Kasukabe finally doing a joint-cosplay photo shoot with Ohno. The story has Kasukabe an unwilling victim of her own promise, Ohno trying to sneakily give photos of Kasukabe to Madarame, Ohno getting clocked for her efforts, and everyone getting ready for the graduation. This is done entirely without dialogue or sound effects (the sole word balloon being a “!?”), and it creates a powerful mood as the penultimate chapter. The fact that it comes directly after “Confession”—silence following silence, so to speak—might be coincidental, but it only adds to the feeling that “this is it, the end of Genshiken.”

That chapter is also an exercise in creativity for Kio, which is something I see in Volume 9 more generally. Earlier in the volume, when the characters are visiting a shrine in Narita for New Year’s, there’s an image of the group walking around, overlaying a bunch of other panels showing off the scenery. I have to wonder if these are the seeds that lead to the more dynamic (perhaps one could say shoujo-esque) paneling of Nidaime, and if that shrine visit is the start of Kio’s fondness for dumping tourist information into his series.

Before moving to the next topic, there’s an interesting panel in the silent chapter: an unfinished drawing of nighttime that leads into a Sasahara and Ogiue scene. It’s clearly not meant to be unfinished in that “roughness makes it look more interesting!” way, and it’s never been fixed or corrected. This isn’t a big deal, but it stands out all the more because of how detailed the scenery and environmental backgrounds typically are in Genshiken.

Sue, and the Story “Yet to Come”

Sue’s always been a fascinating character in the sense of her being a non-American’s (surprisingly accurate) interpretation of an American fangirl, but also in that she makes a strong impact from her mere presence. To this day, one of my favorite moments in Genshiken is Sue reenacting the “hiccup scene” from Azumanga Daioh—there’s something perfect about those “clones” of hers showing her gradually moving toward Sasahara, delivering every line in the process, before planting her fist in his solar plexus. In one of the between-chapter comics, Yabusaki runs from her (feeling awkward/shy around foreigners), only for Sue to unexpectedly start chasing her. If there’s any character in Genshiken who’s consistently hilarious, it’s Susanna Hopkins.

Given how little she appears, it’s amazing how much we see of Sue in Volume 9. We learn that she wants to study in Japan, we see her form a weird and affectionate bond with Ogiue, and we see her interact with Madarame more. If Genshiken had ended here as it originally did, we’d be left with just a general sense of Sue’s comfort around the two of them. With the context of Nidaime, these two relationships become much more significant. Even though Sue’s known Ohno for years, Ogiue might actually be her best friend. As for Madarame, that scene of him with Sue on his shoulders as he feels the warmth of her thighs takes on a whole new dimension.

Graduation as the Turning Point

Graduation is a special time in most school-themed works that run long enough, and it’s typically presented as all the things one might expect: a changing of the guard and the dawn of a new age. Genshiken ends up having two (three if you count Nidaime), and I think of its many strengths is how it handles these generational changes. They’re not necessarily abrupt, and it’s not like the old characters go away, but the refocus of the core cast is tricky to handle. While I know everyone has their own favorite “era” of Genshiken, I’m impressed by how well this manga handles that transition each time.

Anachronisms and Retcons

It amuses me that we still see flip phones in Volume 9. By the time Nidaime rolls around, Ogiue already has a smartphone. The sequel is supposed to take place not long after Volume 9, but the actual real-life time gap meant a lot of small things ended up changing. In the end, I think it’s for the best, instead of having to try and faithfully replicate 2005-2006 for the newer series. Besides, one of the points of Nidaime is to reflect how much otaku culture had changed over the past decade, and that wouldn’t quite fit if Kio just went straight back to the subculture of the mid-2000s.

In fact, one of the big changes in Nidaime is the much-higher female population, something that’s already sort of in motion in the first Genshiken. This brings up a big question: is the original Genshiken ending retconned? In it, we see a group of anonymous guys come up to the club room and greet an off-screen club president. In Nidaime, those guys are nowhere to be found. Is it supposed to be some undefined “future?” Should we pretend that scene never happened? It can’t be the past, because there’s a poster of Sänger Zonvolt and the little-girl version of Irui Ganeden from Super Robot Wars Alpha 3 (2005).

Kasukabe Saki, Moe, and a Translation Correction

I’m about to say something that might surprise Genshiken fans: The English translation of the final page has issues that alter the meaning significantly.

The final side story for Genshiken series 1 involves everyone having post-graduation drinks, when Madarame brings up a topic of discussion: “What would make Kasukabe be moe?” They go through different possibilities (sexy character, tsundere), only to realize that other girls closer fit those archetypes (Ohno and Ogiue, respectively). Madarame thinks the only way it’d work is if Kasukabe were a virgin, such that her insecurities became her vulnerability and thus her moe quality. Kasukabe asks Kohsaka what’s moe about her, and his answer is nothing. The other girls then wonder if Kasukabe really hasn’t noticed Madarame’s feelings, and the entire manga ends with her looking at them (and the viewer), oblivious.

This might not be how you remember it, and it wasn’t quite how I remembered it either. Back when I first read this, that I thought the final chapter was more about taking the piss out of Kasukabe and just ending with a good ol’ classic otaku discussion. Only now, having done this re-read, I realized both my error and the official English translation’s mistake. Japanese is very much a language of unspoken context and Genshiken is quite slangy when it comes to how the characters talk. By being even a little off in terms of understanding the meaning conveyed, it can completely derail the point of a scene.

Here’s the English translation:

Keiko: I wanna watch this whole thing explode.
Ohno: No, that wouldn’t be fair. Because you wouldn’t be the one exploding.
Ogiue: I’ve always felt this way, but I don’t think Kasukabe-senpai realizes how sensitive she is to conversations like this.
Girls: ……
Kasukabe: Huh?

And here’s what it’s saying in Japanese (I’ve made the translation a little stiff on purpose to give as much of the full context as possible).

Keiko: I sooo wanna step on that landmine.
Ohno: You can’t. Because you’re not the one who’d explode.
Ogiue: Um……I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but do you really think Kasukabe-senpai hasn’t noticed? I mean, she’s perceptive when it comes to this kind of talk, right……?
Girls: ……
Kasukabe: Huh?

The issue is that the English translation first has Keiko talking about wanting to watch it all explode, when the Japanese is using the term “step on a landmine” to basically mean “I want to bring up something I shouldn’t,” i.e. the fact that Madarame is in love with Kasukabe. That’s why Ohno responds with “You wouldn’t be the one exploding,” because it’d be Madarame catching the brunt of that. Then, when Ogiue chimes in, what she’s really talking about is how odd it is Kasukabe hasn’t noticed Madarame’s feelings when she’s normally so good at catching on to these kind of subtle social cues. The trouble is the term binkan, which can mean sensitive or susceptible, but also aware and alert.

So the real point of this whole thing is that Kasukabe’s potentially “moe” qualities are there, just not in the way that’s readily apparent. They mainly exist only relative to her interactions with other individuals, namely Kohsaka and Madarame. With her boyfriend, it’s her inability to handle Kohsaka’s cutting remarks. With Madarame, it’s the possibility that, somehow, the most socially perceptive person in the group hasn’t notice how hard this guy is crushing on her. As we later learn in Nidaime, Kasukabe’s suspected Madarame of liking her all along, but didn’t pick up on the actual hints, in a “stopped clock is right twice a day” sort of way.

Final (Random?) Thoughts: What is Genshiken‘s Greatest Strength?

As I finish this revisit of my absolute favorite manga series, I’m left to wonder why Genshiken grabs me so thoroughly. Luckily, a recent interview with Kio Shimoku revealed an important factoid: Kio never actually spent all that much time in the anime/manga/gaming club that became the inspiration for Genshiken. Instead, his characters are shaped by a seeming desire to make them feel as real as possible. And that’s who these characters are. They’re otaku, but they’re not limited by that label. They’re human beings, full of wants and desires, contradictions, the potential for growth, and so much more. That’s what drew me to the series, and that’s what inspired me enough to name this blog after Ogiue. The endless voids of her eyes and the anger inside of her filled me with inspiration and joy all those years ago, but it’s the way she evolved that made me a fan of her (and this great manga) forever.

Breakthrough: Return to Genshiken – Volume 8

We’ve reached the climax of Genshiken series 1, and the moment that all Ogiue fans cheered for. How does one of the most famous otaku confessions in manga history still hold up?

What is Return to Genshiken?

Genshiken is an influential manga about otaku, as well as my favorite manga ever and the inspiration for this blog, but it’s been many years since I’ve read the series. I intend to re-read Genshiken with the benefit of hindsight and see how much, if at all, my thoughts on the manga have changed.

Note that, unlike my chapter reviews for the second series, Genshiken Nidaime, I’m going to be looking at this volume by volume, using both English and Japanese versions! I’ll also be spoiling the entirety of Genshiken, both the first series and the sequel, so be warned.

Volume 8 Summary

The Genshiken members are on a trip to the resort town of Karuizawa, when a drunken girls’ night in causes Ogiue to reveal her past to the other girls. It turns out that Ogiue had a boyfriend named Makita in middle school, but after she  drew a BL doujinshi starring him and his best friend, and Makita transferred to another school presumably after seeing it. This is the source of Ogiue’s hatred of herself and her fujoshi side.

Sasahara is left to take care of Ogiue during her hangover, and ends up confessing to her, only to be rejected, because Ogiue “can’t date men.” At the prompting of Kasukabe and Ohno, Sasahara goes after her, where she reveals that she’s been drawing doujinshi of him and Madarame this whole time, and is suffering from immense guilt over being unable to stop herself. Sasahara, instead of recoiling in fear and horror, shows understanding and support, which convinces Ogiue to invite him over to her place after the vacation with the goal of putting everything on the line. After having him read the doujinshi starring himself and seeing him accept it, the two finally get together and consummate their relationship.

After a cute but awkward early stage, the two are fairly comfortable together. However, Ogiue runs into a couple of other hurdles. First, she’s rejected from Comic Festival, which tanks her confidence. Second, the Manga Society she unleashed havoc on back when she was much, much angrier. Visited by some old members, namely a Kansai girl named Yabusaki who also draws, it turns out that Yabusaki’s been garnering jealous eyes in the Manga Society herself, and that Yabusaki’s friends see a friendship with Ogiue as a way to benefit both parties. The two begin to get along…sort of?

Ogiue’s Past Revealed

As Ogiue gives her drunken rant (by way of flashback), one takeaway is just how serious her trauma is over her time with Makita—it’s enough to consistently give her nightmares. I once got the chance to submit a question to Kio Shimoku as to why her eyes changed over the course of the series, and he mentioned that her character originally necessitated those eyes. I wonder if it signifies her no longer being victim to her own bad dreams.

Nakajima is a fascinating character. It’s clear to me that she was jealous of either Ogiue or Makita, but the extent of her involvement in actually bullying Ogiue remains ambiguous. I think this shows more Ogiue’s mind in turmoil than any absolute truths, that she lost trust in Nakajima, but also faith in the assumption that Ogiue herself was a good person. Based on the character’s appearances in Nidaime, it’s obvious Nakajima wants to mend bridges with Ogiue, but her own personality gets in the way. Maybe both Ogiue and Nakajima are cursed with standoffish personalities.

As for Makita himself, I find it significant that he never really shows up, not even in Nidaime, even though Nakajima makes a couple of appearances. I think this is to show that there’s a part of Ogiue’s past she’ll never be able to directly confront, and that she’s ultimately okay with this. Then again, I figured that was the case with Madarame’s unrequited love for Saki and that eventually got resolved, so maybe if Genshiken had more volumes it would’ve happened eventually. Another point about Makita is how he contrasts with Sasahara. Makita was (assumedly) so bothered by the doujin that he transferred school. Sasahara took it head-on. Again, while he doesn’t seem like he should be a seme character, one can see how Ogiue would interpret him as such.

The Confession, Part 1

I consider Sasahara’s confession to Ogiue and the subsequent fallout to be the most magical part of Genshiken, and not simply because of the fact that it’s the big romantic climax. There’s just so much in terms of the characters’ personalities, histories, and quirks intertwining over an extended period. The confession essentially comes in parts, starting with a stock “I like you, and I want to protect you” line straight out of some dating sim. Sasahara’s willingness to back off at what he takes as a rejection is a flaw of his, but also one of the qualities Ogiue admires in him. Then, when Ogiue blurts out that she been drawing a hardcore comic of him with Sasahara, she’s trying to drive him away with all her might, afraid that getting closer would hurt them both.

I remember the degree to which Ogiue took Sasa x Mada was a pretty big surprise back when I first read it. Now, it’s been so long and been such a part of Ogiue’s character as to feel natural.

To Ogiue’s surprise, Sasahara sees the good in her, and this gradually opens Ogiue’s eyes to the idea that, just maybe, she should accept and embrace herself. Ogiue’s struggle this entire time has been based on the feeling that her desires and her conscience are in direct conflict, when they need not be. She’s afraid of hurting Sasahara, but what if her actions simply don’t bother him? It’s a compatibility issue, not a fatal flaw that denies her companionship.

The Confession, Part 2

When they decide to meet at her apartment, the tension is thick with both nervousness and sexual energy. It rightly feels like they’re on the verge of something big after so long. But I think the key to it all is in Sasahara’s line: “I can feel your overwhelming love for your characters,” in reference to the BL-ized versions of himself and Madarame. Those words free Ogiue. Her drawings come from a place of passion.

Seeing Sasahara grapple with the fujoshi mindset, and Ogiue having to explain it to him, is also pretty fascinating. After reading through her doujin, he asks her if she also has feelings for Madarame, which Ogiue denies. There’s something different about the way she uses each of them for inspiration. It feels as if she takes the qualities that make her like Sasahara and exaggerates them for fiction, but for Madarame it’s that his “uke” qualities make him excellent as a character first and foremost.

That’s if we’re talking Ogiue, at least. As the sequel shows, sometimes Madarame as imagination fodder and subject of affection can come as a package. Perhaps Hato is meant to tap into that aspect of Madarame, and to show that there are simply a lot of different people in the world.

Returning to the subject of Ogiue, she tries to prompt Sasahara into being more aggressive, which Sasahara tries to live up to with awkward (yet effective?) results. It’s funny to see Sasahara from this point forward actively put on that more aggressive personality when I’m romantic situations with Ogiue, because it clearly comes from a desire to thrill and excite her. It’s very fitting for their characters.

Once their feelings are known, the two immediately go into sex, which I think is actually kind of wild. Sure, they’re horny college students who also obsess over drawn pornography, but to go from that degree of pussyfooting to just (offscreen) pants-off carnal desire makes me think of a hose previously being held back suddenly letting loose (ifykwim). From this point on, Sasahara and Ogiue are not only boyfriend and girlfriend, but this can also be seen as a major stop along the way in their respective careers as editor and artist because Sasahara essentially gave a “review meeting” about Ogiue’s Sasa x Mada doujin. It’s shown to be a pretty constant source of tension between the two, but one that’s ultimately minor in the face of their love for each other.

The Manga Society

I’m very impressed looking back at how the Manga Society girls (Yabusaki, Asada, Katou) are able to make such a strong impression after such a brief appearance. You get a sense of how they relate to each other, what the club environment was like, and the girls themselves are just plain memorable.

One thing I find funny is that, at this point, Asada Naoko didn’t have an actual name. At most she’s referred to as “Nyaako” in the Volume 9 doujinshi extra by some of the artists. Asada actually comes from the Genshiken 2 anime credits, and Naoko is from Nidaime, which retconned Nyaako into being her nickname—a play off of “Naoko.”

They also drop that tidbit about Ohno and Katou knowing each other. One thing I find interesting is this idea that true bonds can be formed through shared kinks. I don’t think that notion has gone away, but I have to wonder if making that aspect of oneself more visible to the public (“horny on main” as they say it these days) makes it so that aspect of oneself is no longer as revealing or telling of one’s true self. Basically, maybe showing one’s kinks isn’t as much of a soul-bearing activity if it’s never made private in the first place.

Final Random Thoughts

There’s a very memorable scene I had ironically almost forgotten about: on the train home from the zoo, Ogiue basically tells Sasahara that “their date isn’t over yet,” which makes Sasahara shift his bag to hide his erection. While Genshiken often deals in literal fans of drawn pornography, these moments of sensual realness stand out all the more because of it.

That zoo, by the way, is based on Tama Zoo, which is a short train ride away from Chuo University (the school that visually inspired Genshiken‘s Shiiou University). I actually went there when I studied abroad in Japan!

Kio Shimoku and Genshiken Trivia, Courtesy of “Mou, Shimasen Kara”

Over the past year, the manga magazine Monthly Afternoon has featured interviews in comic form with its own serialized manga authors through the series Mou, Shimasen kara. Afternoon Gekiryuu-hen by Nishimoto Hideo. This past month’s issue puts the spotlight on Genshiken and now Hashikko Ensemble creator, Kio Shimoku, so I’ve taken the liberty of summarizing all of the Kio factoids in it.

-For the first time ever, Kio actually reveals his “face” (albeit in manga form). He’s known for being a private person, but he decided show himself through this manga. He reasons, “I’m over 40 now, so what does it matter if I show my face or not?”

-Kio used to work analog, but has been an all-digital artist ever since Jigopuri. He does everything, from thumbnails to color, all on his Wacom. He doesn’t customize his pen or brush settings much.

-He almost never uses assistants. Kio had one assistant on Genshiken Nidaime and none for Hashikko Ensemble, his new series. For those who don’t know, this is highly unusual.

-Kio got the inspiration for Hashikko Ensemble because his daughter joined a vocal ensemble, and he happened to listen to an all-male group.

-He was never a musician, but knew a local group, so he did do some singing for them about once a month, and even had a voice trainer. He’s a second tenor, which was the basis for Akira’s baritone in Hashikko Ensemble. Kio has a fairly deep voice himself, so he decided to exaggerate it for the manga.

-Once, in school, he saw two kids harmonizing on the way to class, providing further inspiration. “I want my manga to make readers want to sing.”

-Kio was in the softball club in elementary school, the judo club in junior high where he was the captain, and the art club in high school.

-He submitted his first manga in high school, for Shounen Sunday. It was about a high school student who works at a used bookstore and discovers an ancient text that he then tries to decipher.

He drew a lot when he was kid, and was an otaku in middle school, where he imitated Doraemon, Kinnikuman, and Captain Tsubasa.

-However, he stopped drawing between 4th grade of elementary and the start of middle school. This was because he was really into Miyazaki Hayao as a kid, and when he couldn’t copy Miyazaki successfully, he got depressed and stopped trying for those few years.

-In middle school, he helped a friend out by drawing backgrounds for his manga, only for Kio to realize he was also better at drawing the characters too. One day, when he tried to draw Miyazaki characters again, he noticed he had gotten way better.

-He wanted to be an animator, but Ghibli only wanted people 18 and up. Once, he created a manga based on the Laputa novel in a couple of notebooks.

-In college, he majored in Japanese art because he thought the pencil and brush skills would translate to manga.

-Kio’s dad worked at an insurance company, and while he wasn’t flat out against Kio’s aspirations, he would constantly ask him to consider the risk of being a manga creator. This made Kio want to quickly win a manga reward, to help his parents accept it.

-The school he went to had a club called the Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture, becoming the inspiration for Genshiken. Surprisingly, however, Kio was actually only a member for half a year. He didn’t quit because if anything in particular, he’s just not good with group activities.

-Despite what it might seem, the Genshiken characters are not based on any real life counterparts.

-In response to the realism of his characters, Kio says he tries to convey a sense of “presence” with them.

-Kio feels Genshiken came at the perfect time, matching the zeitgeist of the era. However, it makes him feel like a one-hit wonder. If Hashikko Ensemble fails, he’s going to feel enormous pressure.

-He didn’t attend a technical high school so he needs more research. One of he authors of Mou, Shimasen kara. did, and the other has a sister who attended one, so they try to help out.

Thoughts

Kio’s done a lot!! He sort of seems like a renaissance man.

That bit of surprise aside, it is fascinating finding out just how many aspects of his own personal life and career have made their way into his manga. The attending a Genshiken-like club is one thing, but it’s notable that he was in the judo club and then the art club—just like Hato. He also converted to using a tablet monitor for manga at some point—just like Ogiue. While his characters aren’t based on any real people in particular, he takes bits of himself and places them in his creations. While not stated outright, I think it’s pretty clear that Jigopuri (which is about raising a baby) is the product of firsthand experience.

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Love and Lust. Return to Genshiken: Volume 7

Volume 7 is the point where Genshiken starts focusing much more heavily on Ogiue’s story, for better or worse (guess which side I’m on!). As the only character at this point who has a powerfully emotional backstory (though I wouldn’t have minded learning about the others in their younger days), it makes sense, even if it pulls the manga away from its more laid-back origins.

What is Return to Genshiken?

Genshiken is an influential manga about otaku, as well as my favorite manga ever and the inspiration for this blog, but it’s been many years since I’ve read the series. I intend to re-read Genshiken with the benefit of hindsight and see how much, if at all, my thoughts on the manga have changed.

Note that, unlike my chapter reviews for the second series, Genshiken Nidaime, I’m going to be looking at this volume by volume, using both English and Japanese versions! I’ll also be spoiling the entirety of Genshiken, both the first series and the sequel, so be warned.

Volume 7 Summary

It’s the dawn of a new age for Genshiken, as Ohno now leads the club. However, an awkward scene with Kuchiki drives away all prospective members, aside from Sasahara’s sister Keiko (who doesn’t even attend the school). This means the balance of the club has shifted to actually have more women than men.

Ogiue’s troubles are only beginning, as she finds out she’s been accepted for Comic Festival. Given her outward hatred of fujoshi, the idea that she’ll be putting out a BL doujinshi frightens her. However, thanks to a pep talk by Ohno, she begins to move forward, though Ohno also uses this as an opportunity to get Ogiue into some mildly skimpy cosplay. Sasahara sees this, and later begins to fantasize about Ogiue, and the other girls in the club (including Keiko!) pick up on the small, yet smoldering sparks between the two.

Ohno and Kasukabe begin plotting to get the two closer, which ends up with her bringing her American friends, Angela Burton and Susanna “Sue” Hopkins, to ComiFes as a way to get Sasahara and Ogiue to be at the event together alone. The two actually begin to hit it off (to the point that it overwhelms Ogiue a little), but a chance encounter with two hometown women from Ogiue’s past—people she hesitantly calls “friends”—clearly induce emotional anguish in her. A confusing moment with Sue at first helps Ogiue calm down, only for her to flash the most hardcore page from Ogiue’s own doujinshi in front of Sasahara—the last person she wanted to show it to.

Sasahara, meanwhile, has his own non-romantic troubles, namely being unable to find work. He’s decided to pursue a career in manga editorial, but keeps getting rejected. Finally, he lands at a dedicated freelance editorial company and uses his experience with Kugayama and Ogiue to finally land a job.

The volume ends with Ohno and Kasukabe setting up a club trip to the resort town of Karuizawa, where they intend to finally get Sasahara and Ogiue together.

Is Kuchiki “Okay?”

Kuchiki’s character is being “that guy”: the one whom the other members barely tolerate because they don’t want to drive out because they either 1) don’t want to get too aggressive 2) have empathy for someone so socially awkward. It’s an understandable situation for anyone who’s had experience with a social circle full of dorks.

Given what’s happened with women and the rising tide against sexual harassment, however, Kuchiki’s character becomes increasingly hard to swallow. It’s not just that he’s got lascivious behavior, and it’s not just that he fails to respect personal space, but that he actively tries to creep on the girls, including attempting to peep on them bathing. Even Nidaime, with its female-centric cast, shows the ladies of Genshiken pretty much enduring Kuchiki’s existence and waiting for him to graduate.

I don’t fault Genshiken for this, simply because it does a good job of reflecting the reality of anime clubs in the 2000s and before. Not only is Kuchiki portrayed as being too spineless to actually threaten them, but it’s not like Genshiken rewards or praises the character. And yet, I have to wonder if a socially conscious series made in 2018 would even let him through the front door, so to speak.

Kuchiki’s not all bad, as he does try to defend Ohno’s cosplay from that one thief, but it’s arguably just an example of having a worse villain make a milder one look better. Sasahara sticking up for him and treating him like a human being does help Kuchiki grow a little bit, but is Sasahara’s kindness accidentally a form of complicity? It’s made more complex by the fact that it’s also one of Sasahara’s best qualities, and what helps him get his editor job. A later chapter in Nidaime has an in-love Ogiue praising this very quality of Sasahara, and even here in Volume 7 you can see her being somewhat smitten by that accepting demeanor. It’s perhaps the fate of the moderate force to sometimes not do enough.

Ogiue’s Right to Love

Volume 7 is where the layers of Ogiue begin to peel away, revealing not just a self-hating fujoshi, but one marred by trauma. The first time I read this volume, it wasn’t entirely clear where it would go, but re-reading while fully aware of Ogiue’s past actually makes it kind of heartbreaking. Her anxieties creep to the surface in many of her interactions, and as her feelings for Sasahara get stronger, it’s clear how much her experiences weigh on her mind.

One of the big moments comes when Ogiue is talking to Ohno about having to make a doujinshi for ComiFes. In it, she directly mentions that she’s drawn doujinshi before, and that she hates herself for being a fujoshi. Looking back, the idea that Ogiue has experience drawing more extreme material only makes sense, but I recall it being a bit of a revelation back when I first read it. This conversation is also the first true indication of Ogiue and Ohno having become friends. Before that, there was still a noticeable amount of animosity between them, and I believe here is where it begins to die down a bit.

Ogiue’s blushing profusely as Sasahara smiles at her is incredibly adorable but also complicated. You can feel the inner turmoil raging inside of her as she questions whether she should be happy. Also, I think her switch from a Haregan [i.e., not-Full Metal Alchemist] doujinshi to a Mugio x Chihiro Kujibiki Unbalance one is an early sign of her secret Sasahara x Madarame drawings.

The Society for the Study of Getting Turned On

There’s something very real and refreshing about the way Genshiken portrays sexual desire. The fact that it’s not limited to the male characters also means Genshiken goes a long way in showing women as beings with sexual desire. The approach isn’t like the hyper-eroticism of a fanservice series or a pornographic title and it doesn’t revel in the lasciviousness of its characters carnal wants, but it also doesn’t shy away from showing their libidos at work in public and private contexts.

Nothing shows this better than when Kasukabe drags Kohsaka off so that they can “do it ten times.” Immediately after, Keiko informs her brother that she’s not staying over that night, and Madarame decides it’s his cue to leave too. Keiko and Madarame, having the hots for Kohsaka and Kasukabe respectively, are clearly thinking similarly about how to “remedy” the situation in private. You can practically feel their hormones being barely contained.

Then the manga cuts to Sasahara playing an erogame while thinking about Ogiue in cosplay. It implies that he’s going the same route as his little sister and Madarame, but the fact that he’s thinking about Ogiue (and not Kasukabe) is significant. The Ogiue cosplay moment happens in the previous chapter, which means Sasahara had Ogiue on his mind the entire time. Let’s also not forget that the guys in the club were willing to use the other girls as masturbatory material, so this shows how much Ogiue’s been encroaching on Sasahara’s psyche. This obviously isn’t the first sign that Sasahara’s into Ogiue, but it certainly is one of the most vivid. Later, when they have a ComiFes planning meeting with Ohno, Sasahara’s brief glances at Ogiue show much his mind’s image of Ogiue still persists.

Angela and Sue

As we know from the end of Nidaime, Madarame eventually ends up with Sue. It’s kind of funny that he’s the first guy she meets in Genshiken, as if it was all a long play into the most classic of romance tropes.

I always found Angela and Sue to be fairly realistic, if exaggerated portrayals of American fangirls, but I think that it’s become even more the case as time has passed. Maybe it’s my greater exposure due to social media like Twitter, but Angela’s willingness to just announce her fetishes without hesitation seems not that unusual. Then again, Yoshitake from Nidaime is built from a similar cloth; the only difference is maybe level of sexual experience (Angela is clearly sexually active, while Yoshitake is very much not).

In Volume 7, Sue has a certain grumpiness about her, even as she becomes attached to Ogiue. However, Ogiue is pretty surly herself. I wonder if the softening up of Ogiue leads to Sue becoming less harsh as well.

It’s also funny to think about the fact that, at the time of Genshiken, Sue’s combination of Asuka reference (“Anta baka?”) and Ruri reference (“Baka bakka”) was like, anime nerd knowledge 101. Now, I think it wouldn’t be unusual for the typical fan, Japanese or otherwise, to not have it click immediately.

Final Random Thoughts

The between-chapter specials this volume include Sasahara and Madarame discussing preliminary Kujibiki Unbalance designs. Those drawings are clearly from a younger Kio Shimoku, as it’s the same style as the first chapter of Genshiken! Kio’s aesthetic changes are amusingly visible as a result.

As Sasahara is thinking dirty things about Ogiue, there’s a Gundam model kit box in the background. I think it’s a Sazabi.

In Sasahara’s job interview, he talks about how Kujibiki Unbalance has changed so much since the original cast graduated, to the point that it doesn’t even feel it’s the same series anymore. At the time, it feels like it might have been referencing the graduation of Madarame, Kugayama, and Tanaka, but now it seems to reflect Genshiken Nidaime even more—almost as if Kio doubled down on this idea for the sequel. We know he’s a guy who likes to get referential with his series, but I wonder if Nidaime is even more meta than any of us realized.

Spotted Flower and the Role of the “What-If”

The manga Spotted Flower is more than just a story about a male otaku and his non-otaku wife. To fans of the author, Kio Shimoku, the series is also a thinly veiled alternate universe version of his most famous work, Genshiken. With nearly all of the characters in Spotted Flower having direct analogues in Genshiken, the manga is constantly nudging and winking at the audience. Recently, one of those nudges turned into more of an elbow to the solar plexus, and many assumptions about the series have gone out the window. A story seemingly about marital bliss (despite some ups and downs) has become a tale of adultery, and Genshiken fans are left reeling.

The buildup to the big moment occurs shortly after the birth of the husband and wife’s first child, who is named, appropriately, “Saki.” Visited by her ex-boyfriend, the ease with which she and her former lover banter back and forth drives the meek husband to wallow in quiet envy. In a moment of weakness, he ends up sleeping with an old mutual friend—one who’s female up top, male down below, and who still identifies as male—and cheats on his wife. Only, instead of doing the deed, he winds up on the receiving end.

Jealousy and Betrayal

It’s clear which Spotted Flower characters map to which Genshiken identities. The husband is uber nerd Madarame Harunobu, while his wife is the no-nonsense Kasukabe Saki. The ex-boyfriend is Kohsaka Makoto (who is Kasukabe’s actual boyfriend). The one night stand (?) is with Hato Kenjirou, the male BL fan who ends up falling in love with Madarame. Seeing all of these characters act so terribly to each other can feel like a betrayal, especially to fans of the popular Madarame-Kasukabe pairing. But the situation begs the question: where do the Genshiken versions end and the Spotted Flower ones begin?

Spotted Flower resembles fanfiction in the sense that, while it’s possible to enjoy it standalone, the work encourages and even to some extent assumes a certain degree of familiarity with the source material. What use is a story about Mikasa from Attack on Titan turning into a robot, if the reader doesn’t know how Mikasa is supposed to act normally? To that extent, I suspect that the controversial decision to make the husband an adulterer is part of stressing Spotted Flower as the space where all the things not possible in Genshiken become real. The very premise of the series is built on that idea—Kasukabe ultimately rejects Madarame because she loves Kohsaka.

If the husband does all the things Madarame didn’t or couldn’t do, then his poor decisions make sense. At one point in the second manga series, Genshiken Nidaime, Madarame comes close to sleeping with his friend’s little sister, Sasahara Keiko. As it turns out, Keiko is actually trying to cheat on her current boyfriend with Madarame, and her casual admission to this fact sends Madarame running for the hills. Madarame is unwilling to be an accomplice in another’s unfaithfulness, but the husband in Spotted Flower is not. Later in Nidaime, Madarame ends up alone with Hato in an awkward spot. Hearts racing, the two come close to having something happen, only for happenstance to deflate the tension. Madarame ends up rejecting Hato later, out of concern that Hato should be with someone better. The evening that goes nowhere in Genshiken certainly ends up somewhere in Spotted Flower.

What’s more, where Genshiken deals in relatively tame kinks and features mostly faithfully monogamous relationships where available (Keiko notwithstanding), Spotted Flower thrives on the unconventional. The not-Hato (hereafter referred to by his artist pen name Asaka Midori) is already in a physical relationship with his manager who’s the Spotted Flower version of Genshiken character Yajima. But rather than being upset or surprised, the manager was already well aware of Asaka’s desire for the husband. She even goes as far as to ask how it was giving anal sex to him. At another point, it’s implied that another character (a manga editor who maps to original Genshiken protagonist Sasahara) could maybe potentially be having threesomes with his girlfriend and her very touchy-feely American girl friend, but doesn’t. “Open relationships” seems to be the name of the game, which further emphasizes the Bizarro Universe-esque aspects of sexual relations in Spotted Flower relative to Genshiken.

Does this mean that Spotted Flower is reliant on Genshiken, or that the sense of betrayal on the part of readers would only come from Genshiken fans? Perhaps not, but the feelings are likely most intense from that established fanbase. However, I find it fascinating that, unlike fanfiction, which typically exists on a very clear line of what is “canon” and not, the fact that Spotted Flower is this very obvious Genshiken what-if with only the barest degree of plausible deniability makes that canon/non-canon distinction much blurrier. At the same time, it is fact that the Spotted Flower characters are definitely not the Genshiken ones, and not just the same characters in an alternate universe or timeline. They simply have too many different physical features that can’t be explained by the passage of time on account of the Spotted Flower characters being older. “Ogino-sensei” (Ogiue in Genshiken) has a different face structure. The blond American otaku behaves like the petite Sue but has a body like the tall, buxom Angela. In some cases, it’s not even clear who’s supposed to be who based on character design alone. Spotted Flower might be a “possible future” as both it and Genshiken like to put it, but it’s practically CLAMP’s manga, Wish—a series based on a JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure doujinshi of theirs with the names and designs altered into “original” characters. Only, for Kio, he’s his own source of inspiration.

Ogiue’s Counterpart: Ogino-sensei

The question as to how much Spotted Flower should speak for Genshiken is a tricky one. The characters of the former mirror the latter. Are they the true desire of the author, or simply a chance to tell different stories? Is it precisely because the characters are alternate versions that this can happen, or does that thread of possibility mean the two are tied together? I don’t believe there to be a true answer to these questions, simply because it really depends on individual readers’ relationships with both series. But it’s also curious that some of the characters and relationships are not as different as others. Ogino-sensei is still seeing her manga editor boyfriend, and their bond seems to have remained strong. The wife’s ex-boyfriend (not-Kohsaka) looks almost the same, except his hair is black instead of blond, and his bright-eyed gaze has been replaced with some kind of seeming cynicism or darkness. Maybe there are characters who can find the same happiness on the alternative route, and those who cannot.

A new character: Endou

How much Spotted Flower will continue to be self-parody remains to be seen. Volume 3 introduces wholly original characters in Asaka Midori’s editor, Endou, as well as her publisher. I wonder if this is the signal that the manga is on the verge of becoming its own entity.