Mar 122014

Genshiken holds an interesting and somewhat timeless position in the world of anime and manga.  It follows the members of The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture (abbreviated as the Genshiken), a college club dedicated to geeking out over each and every aspect of otaku culture.  The original manga series began over ten years ago, and recently returned with a fresh “Second Generation” of characters.  While the series is mostly a self-deprecating celebration of geekiness, there are some important life lessons hidden away in its slow-paced plot.


Accept yourself for who you are.

I suppose there are really two parts to this one.  The first involves acknowledging the things you’re passionate about, even if you can’t explain why you like them.  It’s a character arc that’s repeated multiple times in Genshiken: Sasahara, Ogiue, and Hato all struggle with their “strange” interests.  The thing is, you can’t just stop yourself from liking something that most people think is weird.  As several characters observe over the course of the series, people don’t just wake up one day and decide to start or stop being otaku.  It’s just something they are.

At a deeper level, Genshiken also addresses the need to deal with aspects of your personality that you may prefer to ignore.  Try though he might, Madarame is never able to completely bury his feelings for Kasukabe.  By the same token, there’s no magic switch that Ogiue can flip to get over her past emotional dramas.  It takes a great deal of courage and support, but they both eventually acknowledge these parts of themselves and come to terms with them.


Not everyone likes the things you care about, and that’s okay.

Genshiken is never shy about challenging the things its characters are passionate about.  One of Kasukabe’s primary roles in the series is to act as the voice of the dreaded “mainstream” society.  She shines a light on all that is strange and creepy about anime and manga fandom, and refuses to let the other characters (or the audience) off the hook without a fight.  Her rants are Genshiken’s way of reminding us that there will always be people who don’t understand how anyone could possibly become obsessed with making Gundam models or cosplaying as video game characters.  In the end, though, Kasukabe shows why seeing eye to eye isn’t always a requirement, as she develops a grudging fondness for the Genshiken members.

Less obvious but far worse in his treatment of our otaku heroes is Haraguchi, the “phantom member” of every geeky club on campus.  He bosses the manga club around, and tries to force his way into taking charge of the Genshiken’s first doujinshi.  It’s clear that he’s just in it for the money, and we never once see him display any interest in the media that he seeks to profit from.  Not only does he look down on otaku, he thinks that he can use their passions to make a quick buck (or yen, I suppose).  Even the anti-geek Kasukabe hates his rotten guts.  You can’t let jerks like this get you down, however, because…


There are people like you out there, and you’ll meet them sooner or later.

Being a fan of manga and anime, especially outside of Japan, can be a lonely experience sometimes.  Even if most folks are happy to accept your hobbies, it can be tough to find people who share your particular brand of geekiness.  When new club members are introduced in Genshiken, we often get the sense that these newcomers have gone through a similar experience.  From Sasahara in volume one to the new freshmen of the Second Generation, just about everyone arrives in search of someone to talk to.


Just as everyone finds a home in the Genshiken clubroom, there’s a group of good friends out there waiting for every real-life otaku.  Don’t believe me?  Go to a big convention, or show up to a meeting of a college anime club.  Look around and try to count the mind-boggling number of people who share your passions.  It may not happen right away, and you may have to put in some effort, but it will always be possible to meet people who are just like you.


Things always change, especially when you’re not paying attention.

When I watched the simulcast of Genshiken Second Season in 2013, it had been a while since I’d interacted with the franchise.  I had fond, if fuzzy, memories of the original cast, and expected the new show to be a case of “second verse, same as the first.”  But, between the original upperclassmen graduating and new members joining the cast, everything was just different enough to require some getting used to.

It reminded me of my first post-graduation visit to my college earlier that year.  It had been just under two semesters since I left, but the world had continued to turn in my absence.  It was a strange experience, and it wasn’t until I went through the same thing with Genshiken that it really sunk in.  Things change when you’re not paying attention, but you can’t let the past stop you from enjoying the present.


Failure is free.  You have to earn success.

Now that I’ve been out in the real world for a while, the job-hunting woes of characters like Sasahara and Madarame hit home more than they did back in the day.  The same thing goes for the club’s struggles to make and sell their doujinshi.  Genshiken is happy to heap all kinds of trouble onto its characters, and shows them failing when they aren’t prepared to face reality head-on.  Finding success anywhere is tough, and taking on a creative project can be especially daunting.  If you’re looking to experience failure, try making a half-hearted attempt at doing something.  The world is more than happy to hand you a generous portion of defeat.

As the characters in Genshiken learn, the best (and perhaps only) solution is to do what you care about, as best as you can, with as much care and attention as you can muster.  You still might not get your dream editor job, or your manga might not be a big hit, but the only way to give yourself a chance is to go at it with everything you’ve got.


The Genshiken manga and anime are available from Right Stuf.

Kawaii Overthink is written by Paul Jensen. You can follow his ramblings about anime on Twitter.
Mar 112014

The snow is finally starting to melt, and you know what that means: we’re now at the start of Spring Break season. It’s that glorious time of year when most college students head for the beach to binge-drink and then make decisions they’ll probably regret once they sober up and notice every drunken action they forgot about is up on YouTube for all to see.


I get it; this is probably not the ideal Spring Break trip you had in mind. Those people getting wasted at Venice Beach probably think you’re just going to sit inside playing video games during your Spring Break week, right? Well guess what? Just because we like to play video games doesn’t mean we can’t have our own amazing Spring Break adventures! Here are a few ideas to get you started on your Gamer Spring Break of the Century:


Bar crawl? How about an ARCADE CRAWL??


There are still some amazing places to game across the country, technological wonderlands left over from the Golden Age of the Arcade. I’d first recommend Funspot, an arcade in Laconia, New Hampshire, right near where I grew up. Funspot boasts a world record-setting collection of retro arcade games. It really is the place to try out some of arcade gaming’s greatest.

If you’re looking for a bit of history along with your games, then you may want to check out the International Center for the History of Electronic Games in Rochester, NY. It’s a museum dedicated to gaming history, and also has a modest collection of playable games outside the many glass cases full of gaming artifacts.

Of course, if you want to combine the traditional Spring Break experience with some geekery, look around for gaming bars that feature full arcades right next to counters serving cocktails themed to various games. The Drunken Moogle has a whole list of gamer bars around the world; take a look to see if there are any near you!


Travel the world, gamer-style!


You’ve been to so many exotic locations in the virtual realm. Why not visit the real places that inspired those fantastic landscapes? For starters, spend a few days seeing some famous locations in Los Angeles; it’ll blow your mind seeing how Rockstar meticulously recreated many of those famous landmarks in Grand Theft Auto V. Then, if you’re like me and are as much a history nerd as you are a proud gamer, how about checking out some of the places around the world that can give you historical context to your favorite games? Assassin’s Creed fans will have a blast traversing around Rome, and if you like God of War how about visiting the ruins of ancient Greece?

Alternately, if you’re more interested in the technology aspect of gaming, Akihabara, Japan, is probably the place for you. It’s a technological wonderland in Japan that attracts tourists using its many shops specializing in niche electronics, from video games and consoles to fluorescent lighting.


Rent out a beach or park and have your own geeky outing!


Beat the typical partiers to it by booking early, and you can have yourself your own battlefield for a day or two. Beachside Nerf wars or larping in the woods is always a great way to get out and get some exercise with your fellow gamer friends. Heck, you can even take it one step further by lighting a campfire at night and busting out the stereo to have your own gaming-themed DANCE PARTY!! Remix websites across the Internet such as OverClocked ReMix will give you the means to blast dance remixes of your favorite video game tunes well into the wee hours of the morning.

And the best part about having an epic Spring Break trip like one of these? You won’t wake up to any embarrassing videos on YouTube of you dancing to Whitney Houston on a table wearing nothing but your underwear.


The Minus World is written by Steven Brasley. You can keep up with his thoughts on gaming via Twitter.
Mar 052014

With each new anime season comes a wide array of comedies vying for attention: the romantic comedies, the parodies, the harems and reverse harems, the slices of life, and so on.  Each mixes comedy with an additional element in order to create a (hopefully) stronger final product.  From time to time, though, a series comes along with the audacity to bet everything on its sense of humor.  Much like a poker player who goes all in, these shows tend to either succeed in incredible fashion or fail completely and slide into obscurity.

Two shows attempting to walk this less-traveled path in the current season are D-Fragments and Tonari no Seki-kun.  Both display common characteristics of their genre: rapid-fire jokes, characters with clearly defined comedic roles, and an eager willingness to ignore reality whenever necessary.  While they have all the visual trappings of a high school rom-com, their settings merely act as a stage for the comedy routines carried out by the characters.  Having chosen to live or die on the strength of their jokes, these shows must work harder than most to hold viewers’ interest.  In order to see whether or not they’re successful, it’s helpful to look at a recent example of what this genre looks like when it’s done right.


Tall images clash with the layout for these articles, but this was too adorable not to include.

The golden standard I’ll be holding our challengers up to is Nichijou, translated as My Ordinary Life for its English simulcast.  The show ran back in the spring and summer of 2011, and I have yet to see another series outdo it in terms of pure comedy.  A supremely talented animation team worked wonders with Nichijou’s visual gags, and the writing shifted smoothly back and forth between everyday observational humor and completely unchained lunacy.  What really made Nichijou work, however, was its complete dedication the art of comedy.

Much like the way in which Space Dandy acts as a delivery vehicle for self-contained sci-fi stories, Nichijou existed to experiment with a wide variety of jokes.  It had no problem whatsoever spending minutes establishing an entirely new setting and group of characters for the sole purpose of (literally) dropping a single sight gag onto its main cast.  The joke itself wasn’t especially funny, but it didn’t need to be.  The point was, I suspect, to secretly enlist the viewer as that segment’s “straight man” character.  By inevitably shouting, “You spent a quarter of the episode setting up THAT joke!?” at the screen, we unwittingly became part of the act.  Nichijou missed as often as it hit the mark, but it succeeded at having lasting appeal because it did legitimately original and interesting things with its humor.


Everyone who watched this show now has the theme song stuck in their heads. Bwa ha ha.

So, what of the two Winter 2014 contenders?  Neither is quite as bold in its execution as Nichijou, but both have their strengths.  Tonari no Seki-kun has a standard formula that it adheres to in each episode, but it executes it well and benefits from a short running time.  We know from the start that Seki will distract Rumi by doing something ridiculous during class, but it’s worth 8 minutes a week to see what happens.  Seki-kun is hardly an ambitious show, and I doubt it could hold up as a half-hour program.  Thankfully, it doesn’t need to, and it succeeds as a result.


How does Seki get all his stuff into school in the first place? The world may never know.

As a full TV series, D-Fragments has a much higher hurdle to clear.  It also scores very few points for originality, as many of its comedic elements have been used by other shows.  Good-hearted tough guy butting heads with a group of quirky girls?  Hello, School Rumble.  Ridiculous (and often harmless) juvenile delinquents?  Hey there, Cromartie High School.  Constant jokes at the expense of a busty female character?  Howdy, every harem series ever made.  What saves D-Fragments is the way it uses these old ingredients.  We can predict what sort of joke the show is building up to at any given moment, but the writers know this and use it to surprise us with a slightly different punchline than what we’re expecting.  It’s effective enough in the moment to provoke fairly regular laughter, although I doubt a second viewing would be as enjoyable.  In the end, D-Fragments is hoping you’ll come for the jokes and stay for the occasionally sweet moments between the characters.  It’s essentially a romantic comedy disguised as a high-energy joke barrage.  Certainly not an unqualified success as pure comedy, but an enjoyable show in its own right.

It’s hard to build up a loyal fanbase when all you do is tell jokes, and I doubt Seki-kun or D-Fragments will move as much merchandise as comedy-drama hybrid shows like Nisekoi.  Still, whether or not you enjoy them, single-minded comedies are good for the anime industry as a whole.  They’re able to serve as a kind of proving ground for original humor, and the successful material can be adopted by other shows.  Maybe someday they’ll help us move on from the sigh-inducing “hapless guy falls headfirst into girl’s bosom” routine.  Hey, a critic can hope.


Kawaii Overthink is written by Paul Jensen. You can follow his ramblings about anime on Twitter.
Mar 042014

Take all the time you need to absorb that question; I know it’s a pretty bold one to ask. When you consider most triple-A titles today contain more gunfire, bombs and destruction than the collected film history of Michael Bay, it can be hard to imagine that video games could also be a medium to resolve global conflicts rather than exacerbate and glorify them. But when executed properly, games can easily share a message of peace while still delivering immersive environments, likeable characters and good gameplay.

There are a couple of independent games that are already exploring this idea, with the best example on the market currently being last year’s hit Papers, Please. At the root of the game’s story is the very element that can help promote peace between warring nations: finding common human bonds. You are given a choice in Papers, Please: strictly follow the rules of being an immigration officer that were handed down to you by the government, or succumb to human emotion and bend those rules to help foreigners who desperately seek sanctity in Arstotzka. Often the rewards of defying the interests of the state in favor of helping a fellow human leads to greater rewards than your menial government salary. Moreover, through common human empathy the player feels a sense of satisfaction when helping these people, a newfound sense of understanding that transcends what higher authority says about people from neighboring nations. Players who experience this connection and sense of understanding can then easily translate it to the many global conflicts happening in the real world today, thus gaining a deeper understanding of such conflicts.


Another game that explores the suffering war brings to average humans is currently in development. 1979 Revolution is an upcoming iPad game being developed by former Grand Theft Auto developer and former Iran native Navid Khonsari. The game puts you in the role of a photojournalist involved in the violent Iranian Revolution of 1979. It is as much a history lesson as it is an exploration of human nature, boasting a “deep narrative experience.” This really is an interesting game to follow, as it has the chance to alter Western perspectives of Iran and thus give players a greater understanding of the Iranian people that is never seen in Western media.


The challenge is, how do we get the average gamer interested in these kinds of games? At this point, those who seek video games that promote peace will likely be the only people who buy them. The most popular franchises are first-person shooters that are built around the glorification of war.

It would all come down to marketing these shooters in just the right way. In an article I previously wrote for The Jace Hall Show, I explored a statement by the Red Cross that suggests first-person shooters should follow the laws of war. If implemented, the organization’s ideas could lead to some unique new gameplay and narratives that can liven up the first-person shooter genre. But to make a game like that successful would have to be marketed like any other first-person shooter. It would then have to take gamers by surprise with its deep story while still giving them the satisfying experience of firing virtual guns, a difficult line to toe.

Like most peacekeeping missions, getting gamers interested in games that promote peace will be an uphill battle. But it’s not impossible to push these types of games into the mainstream. If we can encourage fellow gamers, subtly or directly, to see the potential games have to share a message while still being entertaining, then perhaps we can develop the world’s next great peacemakers from the living room couch.


The Minus World is written by Steven Brasley. You can keep up with his thoughts on gaming via Twitter.