Graphic Lit: A pair of nerd manga
In Japan, the word for nerd is “otaku.”
Technically it refers to someone obsessed with a hobby, be it comics, video games or model trains. But in general terms, it refers to the social substrata of hard-core, antisocial manga and anime fans.
As in the U.S., nerd culture has been on the upswing lately over there, due mainly to the success of the “Train Man” saga, which chronicled the romance between a hopeless otaku and a beautiful young woman.
Recently two manga titles devoted to otaku culture have made their way to our shores. What’s interesting about them is the different way they skewer the lifestyle. One, “Genshiken,” is relatively benign. The other, “Welcome to the N.H.K.,” is ... decidedly less so.
“Genshiken” by Kio Shimoku is an amusing, ultimately heartwarming look at a handful of college students who belong to the extracurricular club known as “The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture.”
That’s a fancy title, but the group is basically an excuse/escape for its members to watch anime, play video games and leaf through comic book porn.
Most of the early volumes are seen through the eyes of two characters: Kanji, an underclassman who’s eager to be with his own nerdy kind, and Saki, a “normal” young woman who can’t believe the guy she loves would rather watch cartoons than make out with her.
Despite the characters’ various quirks and perversions — one of the girl members is a huge yaoi (male gay porn) freak — they’re all ultimately redeemable and likable characters. The humor is never forced nor plot-driven, but grows out of the individual characters’ personalities.
Eventually the members are able to shake off their lethargy and combine their talents to create and sell their own fanzine comic (an X-rated one, natch). Kanji learns to embrace his true inner nerd, and Saki discovers the geeks her boyfriend hangs out with aren’t so bad after all.
If there’s a theme to “Genshiken,” it’s that while our hobbies and obsessions might mark us initially as different or socially backward, deep down we’re fully capable of becoming mature, productive members of society.
If “Genshiken” is a benevolent reflection of how most geeks would like to view themselves, “Welcome to the N.H.K.” is what they fear the truth to be. It’s a gleefully nasty critique of the otaku culture.
The plot centers on twentysomething Satou, an unemployed “hikikomori” or shut-in who rarely leaves his apartment. (Ten years ago you’d have called him a slacker).
A wee bit unhinged and utterly pathetic, Satou is convinced the N.H.K (Japan’s version of PBS) is responsible for making him a recluse, hence the series’ title.
That’s until he meets a mysterious girl who claims she can cure him of his fanboy ways. Satou, of course, doesn’t know how to react to her, his knowledge of women pathetically limited to the kind found in most video games and anime. It doesn’t help matters that his next-door neighbor has roped him into working on “the ultimate pornographic computer game.”
When not portraying its cast in the worst light possible, “Welcome to the N.H.K.” take great joy in disparaging certain otaku conventions such as “moe,” the disturbing tendency to portray young women as weak, naive creatures in desperate need of male protection.
Takimoto and Oiwa rightly see through the inherent sexism in such trends and play it up to its most absurd, insulting end. Whether or not Satou is ultimately able to drag himself out of the depths of despair is clearly not as important to the authors as the opportunity to make fun of otaku.
Despite the endless Japanese references, both books bear enough resemblance to certain Western types to make American-born geeks more than a little uncomfortable.
Of the two books, I like “Genshiken” a little more. It’s a little slicker, and it’s characters are a little deeper, more three-dimensional. With “N.H.K.,” the endless slapstick can be a grating at times, though it’s hard not to enjoy the joyful savaging on display.
“Genshiken” is a human comedy of errors. Despite the social awkwardness of its cast, the manga’s general message is a positive one: “It’s OK. You’re just like everyone else.”
“N.H.K.’s” message is bit more cynical: “Dream on buddy. You’re nothing but a pathetic loser.”
“And kind of creepy too.”
Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007