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.

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Gattai Girls 9: Darling in the Franxx and Zero Two

Introduction: “Gattai Girls” is a series of posts dedicated to looking at giant robot anime featuring prominent female characters due to their relative rarity within that genre.

Here, “prominent” is primarily defined by two traits. First, the female character has to be either a main character (as opposed to a sidekick or support character), or she has to be in a role which distinguishes her. Second, the female character has to actually pilot a giant robot, preferrably the main giant robot of the series she’s in.

For example, Aim for the Top! would qualify because of Noriko (main character, pilots the most important mecha of her show), while Vision of Escaflowne would not, because Hitomi does not engage in any combat despite being a main character, nor would Full Metal Panic! because the most prominent robot pilot, Melissa Mao, is not prominent enough.

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Darling in the Franxx is a mysteriously divisive anime, ripe for viewers of all stripes to interpret according to their personal values. Given a series whose messages appear to change depending on who you ask, it’s perhaps not so surprising that the main heroine of Darling in the Franxx, Zero Two, is just as much a whirlwind of contradictions.

Darling in the Franxx is a high-key sexually charged anime. If the doggy-style male-female combination cockpits weren’t enough, the series actively draws attention to the fact that the anime’s teen heroes live in a bizarre dystopia where their sexual energies are channeled into piloting giant mecha called Franxx. Covering subjects like love, sex, and marriage through both overt and relatively subtle metaphors, the anime is loved and hated in seemingly equal amounts on ways that contradict one another.

In Darling in the Franxx, Zero Two is the pilot of the robot Strelitzia. Far and away the most powerful weapon in humanity’s fight against the monstrous Klaxosaurs, Strelitzia would be their most reliable advantage if it didn’t come at a price: Any man who pilots with Zero Two inevitably ends up critically injured or dead. The protagonist, Hiro, ends up being the only guy who can survive Zero Two, and their combination becomes the key to turning the tide of battle. However, their connection ends up going back much further than either realize.

Is Zero Two an inspiring firebrand who lives by her own rules, or is she a fetishized sex object whose mere presence fulfills men’s fantasies? Is she an ideal girlfriend or a femme fatale? The answer is “yes.” She’s all these things and more, despite Zero Two being a difficult character to project one’s assumptions onto. She doesn’t have the appearance of an emotionless doll like an Ayanami Rei (Evangelion) or the “dishonest,” tsundere-esque feelings of a Souryuu/Shikinami Asuka Langley (Evangelion). She’s not an Asuna (Sword Art Online) either, who’s kindness and strength make her practically “good wife, wise mother” personified.

Zero Two is rebellious towards rules and authority, loyal to those she loves, and willing to do whatever it takes to achieve her goals. She can’t be pegged down or held back, and the only times she’s willing to show weakness are around people whom she truly trusts. She’s more than willing to take matters into her own hands, and has even rescued Hiro from being taken over by the enemy. Zero Two herself has never been damseled herself, and the only time Hiro had to reach out to bring her back was more in the metaphorical sense—diving deep into her mind and their shared past to keep Zero Two from going berserk.

Strelitzia itself is a fascinating piece of the puzzle that is Zero Two. The main mecha of Darling in the Franxx are feminine-looking, which goes against the tradition of primarily masculine designs. Those with a more feminine appearance tend to have attacks that draw attention to their “womanly” aesthetic as well, like how Aphrodite A in Mazinger Z shoots “Breast Missiles.” The Franxx are, aside from cute faces and a general feminine silhouette, not as overtly sexual on the outside. That being said, the workings of the cockpit mentioned above make it impossible to ignore sexual connotations, especially because the female pilots “become” their Franxx. Like the others, Zero Two’s facial expressions become Strelitzia’s, and when she talks to Hiro in fights, her display shows that robotic appearance instead of her own. Eventually, this integration of girl and machine gets taken further, driving home the theme of love in a way that both reinforces and defies the conventional cockpit setup.

Zero Two is strong and weak, cruel and compassionate, loving and spiteful. She’s a complete character in a certain sense, and a caricature in another. She is as much of what you want of her as you want, which means that on some level, she reflects the desires and/or anxieties of the viewer and their relationship with the world.

“You Just Kind of Talk-Singed”: Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 6

Chapter 6 is much more subdued than the previous one, but the things we get to learn are just as potent. This time, it’s an Akira-focused story!

Also I’m rethinking whether I should call their club the ensemble club or the chorus club. The latter is easier to understand, so I might just go with that.

Summary

Akira, Jin, and Shinji go over to Akira’s place to celebrate him finally joining the club on a technicality. As the three shoot the breeze, Akira talks about his vast collection of children’s books (and general love of books), his lack of TV and other forms of media, as well as the fact that his widowed mom being the reason he enrolled in Hashimoto Technical High School. For his part, Jin explains his motivations, namely his love of chorus groups and his desire to do everything in his power to make singing buddies (of which Akira is the first).

When Jin decides to try another song with Akira, he makes a discovery: Akira can sing much more clearly if he’s reading the lyrics, as if the comfort he feels from books transfers over. Soon after, however, a new face shows up at Akira’s door: a disheveled lady of unknown identity.

Technicality

The requirement for Akira to join the chorus club was that he had to sing. Jin decides that Akira qualifies after reciting part of a song, but Shinji objects: Akira didn’t really “sing”—he just talked! Jin, however, replies that plenty of pop songs have spoken portions. If it’s part of a song, it’s singing!

There’s something very appealing about this technicality, in that it reminds me of discussions I’ve heard and read over the years as to whether something like rap counts as “music.” There’s a always a certain type who will dismiss things that don’t fit their definition of “song,” and to see Jin gave a wider criteria gives me hope that Hashikko Ensemble won’t be unnecessarily critical of certain genres or styles.

Akira’s Spotlight

This chapter reveals a lot about this soft-spoken fellow, fleshing out his background in simple but profound ways. That flashback of him singing in previous chapters finally has context, as we learn that he was part of a class vs. class competition in middle school, and regrets not being able to sing better. We learn about his family circumstances—including his mom being a nurse—and even his hobby too. I’m actually surprised that I didn’t even notice that the manga hadn’t revealed anything about his interests until know, and chalk it up to the characters being inherently interesting and charismatic. It feels a lot like Akira’s potential lies in taking the internal peace he can create while reading, and bringing it out into the world.

Non-Nuclear Families

When Akira mentions his family circumstances, the other two also mention that they also have “non-standard” families. Shinji’s parents are divorced, and he lives with his mom. Jin lives with his dad. While his parents aren’t divorced, they do have separate homes, and he seems to have some issues with his mom.

The fact that the main trio of Hashikko Ensemble all have families different from the typical “mom, dad, two kids” setup feels special. It’s one thing if only one of the characters is in one of these situations, but the fact that all three are “different” makes it seem like anything but. Their families have some influence on them, like how Akira wants to start working to support his mom, but no one comes across as the odd one out.

Songs

“Kanade” by Sukima Switch makes another appearance! It’s the song Akira’s class sang in middle school.

“Believe,” written and composed by Sugimoto Ryuuichi. It was used as the theme song for the NHK nature show Ikimono Chikyuu Kikou.

Final Thoughts

During a flashback, Akira is shown lending his earphones to Orihara. However, because they’re not noise-canceling, Akira accidentally hears some of the music. He doesn’t know what it is, but he definitely recognizes it. What could this song be, when Akira barely listens to music as is?

And who’s the girl at Akira’s door? I assume it’s either his mother or his sister, but it’s hard to tell from her appearance. She looks a bit on the young side, but she might just be youthful for her age.

Darling in the Franxx: Thoughts on a Divisive Anime

WARNING: Spoilers for Darling in the Franxx, Gurren-Lagann, Evangelion, and Daitarn 3 (yes, you read that right)

When I first wrote about Darling in the Franxx and its sexual dystopia, the series had just presented some major revelations, among them how Hiro and Zero Two first met, and the true identity of the Klaxosaurs. Seven concluding episodes later, it turns out those “bombshells” were only the tip of the iceberg.

But this show has been full of surprises, and fan reactions to all of these twists and turns has been just as fascinating to follow as the show itself. Darling in the Franxx is, in a word, divisive—perhaps more than any other anime I’ve seen in a long time. I believe the reason for this boils down to one thing: the show attracted a wider range of fan types than most anything else, and the conflicting takes are a product of these differences. My own take is tha the series only got better as it went along, but I’m well aware that many do not share my view to the extent that it seems as if we were all watching different anime. When I give my opinion and analysis of Darling in the Franxx, it’s with this caveat in mind.

Eye of the Beholder

Let’s get into some of the major reveals in the last quarter of the series.

  • Magma energy is revealed to be the energy source that has allowed humanity to achieve immortality.
  • The Klaxosaurs don’t consider humans their true enemy, because the actual problem is a non-corporeal alien race of conquerors called the VIRM, who all but destroyed Klaxosaur civilization both directly and indirectly thousands of years ago.
  • “Papa” is actually one of the VIRM. They infiltrated the human race and purposely pointed them towards magma energy as a way to weaken the Klaxosaurs. This is because the planet’s magma is actually made up of Klaxosaurs who purposely sacrificed themselves to become an energy source for the monster-form Klaxosaurs to fight off the VIRM.
  • The VIRM basically takes the minds of all of the adults because their goal is to integrate all species in the universe within themselves. This leaves only the non-adults (namely the Franxx pilots!) left to fight. The remaining humans join forces with the Klaxosaurs and go into space to fight the VIRM.
  • Ultimately, through the power of love and friendship, Hiro and Zero Two manage to truly become one (more on that later) and defeat the VIRM. Humanity has to rebuild without the use of magma energy, fully aware of the price they paid for draining the planet of such an important resource, and out of respect for the Klaxosaurs.

That’s quite a lot for a series where the initial main debate was “which girl is better, Zero Two or Ichigo?”, and for every fan who fell in love with the show from episode 1 only to be disappointed by where it went by episode 24, there seems to be another fan who thinks the opposite. Moreover, unlike series such as Dragon Ball Z, where the things that fans love about it are the very same things the haters scoff at, no one can actually seem to agree what Darling in the Franxx is about or what it’s saying, let alone which parts are good or bad.

The anime appears to have drawn in a larger variety of anime fans to it than is typical, combining a multitude of genre signals (mecha, science fiction, romance, love triangle) with provocative, often sexual imagery. As a result, the disparate values (both in terms of personal values and ideas as to what makes a show good) of the viewers meant that people came to the show with wildly different expectations from one another. In this environment, I’m not certain I can change anyone’s minds, but I can at least put my thoughts out there.

Defying and Affirming Conventional Humanity Through Romance

Take the subject of my previous post: whether or not the anime reinforced heteronormative values, extending to the rule of man and woman as father and mother. While Darling in the Franxx indeed ends with multiple characters having children in heterosexual relationships, it’s still notable that the main couple of the story cannot have children together. The ultimate expression of their union and happiness instead involves Zero Two becoming a literal giant robot version of herself, in a cross between a wedding dress and Mechagodzilla, while Hiro pilots her from within, carrying connotations of both penis and womb but also referencing the series’s own world. Hiro, in a way, acts like the magma energy that powers the Klaxosaurs, moving away from “conventional humanity” in order to be with the one he loves.

On a less dramatic scale, Ikuno (the only lesbian in the series) ultimately does not have children, but instead devotes her life to science and medicine. Without having any offspring of her own, she makes for herself a position that can help ensure humanity’s future. Hiro, Zero Two, and Ikuno all found ways to help humanity without having to be directly involved in pregnancy. And while not entirely clear, it might just be the case that Ikuno found someone who reciprocated her feelings as well. So I can’t see Darling in the Franxx as being all gung-ho about baby-making at the expense of other people’s life choices, though those more sensitive to the topic might see the degree to which the core cast decides to have children to be the stronger message.

Through the Lens of a Long-Time Mecha Fan

Another criticism of this series is that it’s shallow, schlock entertainment more interested in M. Night Shyamalan-esque swerves than any actual substance. What exactly this has meant in the context of Darling in the Franxx has changed over the course of the series, but one of the big sticking points is the VIRM reveal. Online discussion revolved around whether this was an unnecessary twist that betrayed the feel and purpose of the series, or if the show had cleverly set it up all along, and that it made perfect sense for Darling in the Franxx. I personally lean towards the latter, but I think this comes partly from being a long-time fan of the mecha.

Long before Gurren-Lagann took “go big or go home” to the most lovingly ridiculous degrees, sudden shifts to space or to larger-scale stakes were part and parcel of an anime genre founded in kids’ entertainment. The series Daitarn 3 (1978) literally goes immediately from Earth to space for the first time (barring flashbacks) in the final episode. In time, more creative and ambitious shows tried to incorporate that dramatic build-up more effectively, and I see the heavy emphasis on personal relationships and sexual tension of early Darling in the Franxx as an effective low-key cornerstone that sets up the eventual ramp-up in the long-term. Even the rapid pace of the last few episodes bothered me little for similar reasons, but fans who did not come into anime on shows that preferred such abrupt shifts could very well see it as clunky, headless-chicken writing. I understand, yet I still feel the progression to be appropriate and maybe even nostalgic.

Final Thoughts on the VIRM, and the Ending

It’s not uncommon to see Darling in the Franxx compared to either Evangelion or Gurren-Lagann for aesthetic and thematic reasons, but there’s another factor all three shows share: the idea that they in some way or form betrayed their audiences. Evangelion is probably the most famous example of an unexpected ending, with its compete stylistic departure and its abstract, introspection-heavy final episodes. Famously, the staff of Evangelion actually received death threats for it. Gurren-Lagann pulled the brakes on its do-anything, push-the-envelope mentality for its conclusion, which stung fans who watched it precisely to revel in that feeling of “doing the impossible.” Darling in the Franxx is capable of “betraying” large swathes of its diverse viewership, but I do not think the series actually crumbles when looked at with greater scrutiny.

While the opinion that the VIRM twist comes “out of nowhere” isn’t shared by all—some even accurately predicted the show’s move into space—I think an essential difference between detractors and supporters of the final episodes is that the finale comes with a tonal shift from being an anime that was focused heavily, at least on the surface, on the personal, intimate, and erotic. If that’s what you came to the show for, then it might feel like the two pieces don’t connect.

As mentioned previously, however, I don’t mind this change one bit. The reason? Because Darling in the Franxx has emphasized that something is terribly wrong with its world all along, and not just in terms of the Klaxosaur attacks. Whether it’s meeting other Franxx pilots and realizing how emotionally stunted they are, to the adult/child divide, to the sheer sterility of their cities, something has felt amiss from the start. Perhaps the VIRM being “the real enemy” can feel contrived, but taking a wide view of the series means seeing the depiction of a false Utopia that humankind bought into and that the children had to eventually make up for. Not enough people questioned the gradual consolidation of power around Papa and his organization, APE, or the exact nature of magma energy. Theirs was a society of ignorance, and it led to children like Hiro being punished for trying to fight that ignorance.

Even though Hiro and Zero Two manage to deal a crippling blow to the VIRM, the real challenge is trying to survive as a species without any magic bullets like magma energy. The libidinous energy that was once literally redirected into warfare goes to expressing love, whether that’s through making children, helping children, or just creating happiness. While personal perspective plays a significant role in how one interprets the series’s message, is it strange to see the main cast, poised to change the world since the first episode, end up doing so?

R.I.P. Nerd? More like RIPPED Nerd: Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 5

I’ve liked Hashikko Ensemble well enough so far, but this is the first time I’ve found myself laughing over and over again while reading.

Summary

The rugby club has their eyes set on recruiting Orihara, but he doesn’t want anything to do with them. Jin wants Orihara for the ensemble club, but when the rugby boys claim that their sport is perfect for strapping young fellows, Jin reveals a secret: he’s actually incredibly ripped!

Jin and the rugby captain decide to settle it with a competition: who can do the most push-ups while reciting the school anthem? But while they seem even, Jin has a trick: harmonizing with the captain to throw him off! Jin’s ploy is successful, and he wins the right to Orihara, but the guy doesn’t care. An altercation with the rugby captain, who demands Orihara honor the bet, causes Orihara to take a swing, accidentally breaking his earphones in the process. An incensed Orihara leaves the classroom, only to run into Akira.

Singing is a Man’s Sport

Who would’ve thought that Kimura Jim was that built? He’s practically Muten Roshi from Dragon Ball or the Incredible Hulk! I simply did not expect this twist, and while I assume it’ll not alter the general story in any crazy way, it does highlight just how into music Jin really is. He got that body just so he could sing better!

Funny thing: as I started this chapter, I thought to myself how Hashikko Ensemble showcases Kio’s knack for depicting realistic characters, where the humor doesn’t feel overtly “manga-esque.”

Then the shirts started coming off. Between the reaction from Hasegawa (whose clear preference for macho bodies comedically contrasts with her friend’s interest in more handsome types) and the “singing push-up” competition, the chapter hit a certain level of absurd that both deviates from Kio’s norm and reinforces that strength in characterization. It’s ridiculous but still somehow down to earth, and not in that healing slice-of-life way.

Orihara’s Part-Time Job?

Orihara has a part-time job of some kind, and it appears to have major implications. Orihara himself states that it’s the reason he can’t join any clubs. Jin guesses—correctly, it seems—that the job has something to do with his voice. I have no idea what that could be, but perhaps he works the loudspeaker at a supermarket or something.

Also, according to Jin, it’s work that probably requires Orihara to be heard, and he theorizes that Orihara has developed a rich baritone where his facial movements allow him to transmit sound more clearly without having to be as loud. This is also some solid storytelling, as it connects one of the first scenes in the chapter, the face exercises Akira and Jin are doing on the title page, with this new information.

The Girls

It might seem unusual that I bring up the female characters in every review, but that’s mainly because their purposes in the story are nowhere near as obvious compared to Akira, Jin, and even Orihara fall into the general flow of the narrative. Gradually, chapter by chapter, they come more into view. In Chapter 5, we learn about Kurata’s antagonistic perspective on club activities, which in her eyes serve no purpose in a high school devoted to tech and engineering—especially not music. Is her path continued opposition of the Ensemble Club? If so, would it be more active or passive? Questions, questions.

I actually didn’t recognize Kurata at first, because she’s only shown up so far with her hair tied up and an intense look in her eye as she tries to master subtlety and control with her tools. The fact that she looks so serious and together in this chapter contrasts somewhat with her previous depictions. The only thing that makes it crystal clear it’s the same girl is the closeup on her eye. If there’s any way to describe her, it might be “serious business to the point of comedy.”

Hasegawa seems pretty nonchalant in general, so seeing her freak out over some hard bodies adds an extra wrinkle to her character. I find it noteworthy that she can talk to Orihara so naturally when he’s implied to be just as buff. Does she really only react to bare muscles, or is there something else? I also wonder if Hasegawa’s going to be into Jin, or if the fact that there’s plenty of muscles to go around means no direct romance.

The Science of Hearing

When Jin is talking to Orihara about the latter’s cryptic “I can’t hear it but I can” statement, he brings up two terms: “phoneme restoration” and “aural harmonic.”

Phoneme restoration, or the phoneme restoration effect, refers to when a listener somehow hears a sound during speech that wasn’t actually present. Under the right conditions, a word could be pronounced with noise replacing or overlapping certain consonants, and our brains fill them in as if they were there.

Aural harmonic is “an overtone that is heard by the normal ear when a pure tone of suitable frequency and intensity is sounded and that is presumably due to the nonlinear response of the ear mechanism.”

In other words, both refer to effects that alter listening and make you hear things that aren’t necessarily there. It’s unclear as to whether or not this applies to Orihara, though.

Songs

No special songs this month! Just the school song again, albeit done by buff guys doing push-ups.

Final Thoughts

I wonder if Orihara’s presumed ability to make his voice heard despite not speaking very loudly means he’s going to be a teacher of sorts for Akira. And as for Jin, I wonder if everyone in school will see him differently now.

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.

Thoughts on Shinkalion, the Robot Anime Designed to Promote Bullet Trains

Shinkansen Henkei Robo Shinkalion is the most blatant advertisement in cartoon form that I’ve seen in a long time. It’s so upfront with its true purpose—promoting Japan Railways’ shinkansen (aka bullet train) system—that it’s right in the title. But I actually don’t mind the extreme shilling of Shinkalion all that much, and it’s for one simple reason: the Japanese train system, including its shinkansen, is astoundingly good.

The hero of Shinkalion is a young boy named Hayasugi Hayato, a total train otaku. Hayato discovers that his dad, ostensible a Japan Railways (JR) employee, works for a secret division dedicated to fending off monsters attacking Earth. In an emergency, Hayato becomes the pilot of a Shinkalion, a super-advanced train that can transform into a giant robo, and helps his dad in their fight against the forces of evil. Naturally, all Shinkalions are based on actual, real-world shinkansen trains. Incidentally, one recurring gag among Japanese Shinkalion viewers is referring to the series as a reverse-Evangelion because it’s about a young pilot who can’t wait to support his dad on his mission to fight off monstrous invaders.

It’s not just the Shinkalions themselves that are selling Japanese trains to the audience, as nearly everything about the anime talks up the country’s rail service. Hayato’s family name, Hayasugi, is a homophone for “way too fast” in Japanese—a reference to the high speeds of the shinkansen. His catchphrase, “I’m Hayasugi Hayato, the guy who always makes it on time!”, is based on the fact that the Japan rail system is famously on-schedule. Whereas other train systems around the world might see a 10-minute delay as “reasonable,” a five-minute difference is considered “extreme” in Japan. This is part of why train otaku exist, as it’s not just the mechanical aspects of the trains themselves that hold appeal. The precision and complexity allows enthusiasts to imagine riding from one part of Japan to another while planning the most perfectly efficient route possible.

While Shinkalion is indeed mainly about high-speed trains, it also advertises for a few other things. There’s tourism, the natural extension for a show about trains, with the ending theme showing various famous landmarks across Japan. While I haven’t researched it, I’m confident that all locales presented are reachable by shinkansen. Then there’s the Google product placement. Not only is one of the characters a popular Youtuber, they even use the term Youtube and show it off. The strangest promotion is the fact that the Vocaloid, Hatsune Miku (or a convenient alternate version of her), is a pilot in the show—and she’s actually voiced by the Hatsune Miku software! In this instance, it might be JR that’s benefiting from the association instead of the other way around. The result is that Shinkalion is a kind of marketing black matter. The characters would have to be plastered with logos like NASCAR racers for it to go any further.

I’ve taken bullet trains, and they’re an amazingly comfortable experience. I’ve taken regular trains, and they’re so reliable it makes coming back to New York City’s subway system almost feel like culture shock. If this fairly generic giant robot cartoon wants to sell me on shinkansen, it can do that all day long. That said, I would be wary of Shinkalion becoming propaganda for JR as this perfect entity, because there’s evidence that it isn’t. Glancing at reviews on Glassdoor, there are multiple negative comments about the companies being extremely conservative businesses and thus stifling its own growth. Perhaps the efficiency of the system comes at a (human) price.

Still, I can enjoy Shinkalion for what it is. This 500-yen Shinkalion model kit I bought is a testament to that.