Nerds and Music

Del Rey adds two new manga

In its first year, Del Rey has taken a cautious approach with its manga launches. Since its 2004 debut, they’ve released only six titles. Some manga publishers seem to unleash that many books in a month.

The restrained schedule (and canny selection of titles for translation) seems to have worked well for Del Rey. Their books hover near the top of the BookScan graphic novel list, and they’ve enjoyed a fairly high hit ratio.

Now, they’re starting their second wave of titles, kicking things off with last week’s release of Genshiken and Nodame Cantabile. Neither makes the instant, aggressive impression of the books in Del Rey’s current roster, but both have quieter charms on their side.

The low-key approach is a pleasant surprise in the case of Genshiken. Kio Shimoku’s manga tells the story of a college otaku club, a collection of equal-opportunity fanboys who share an abiding love of manga, anime, and video games.

I usually avoid geek comedies, finding them either too insular or too lazily cruel, taking cheap shots at obvious stereotypes. Genshiken stands out from the pack with a slice-of-life flavor and a gentle, character-based style of comedy. The dedicated nerds of Genshiken have their fair share of stereotypical qualities, but they have enough layers to keep them sympathetic.

The story picks up with the start of a new term. College freshman Kanji Sasahara is working up the courage (or letting go of sufficient shame) to join “Genshiken, the Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture.” He’s drawn to the otaku world of obsessive, creative fandom, but he’s not sure if he’s ready to admit he’s that much of a geek. At the same time, handsome, seemingly normal Makoto Kousaka is happily casting his lot with Genshiken, much to the distress of Saki Kasukabe, his stylish, nerd-averse would-be girlfriend.

Even after joining the club, Sasahara is unsure of whether or not he fits in and if he really wants to. While the anime club hosts film festivals, and the manga club publishes a fan-zine, Genshiken doesn’t seem to actually do anything. They shop for pornographic fan-zines and map out strategy for maximizing their time at a huge otaku convention. But they’re a likeable group, despite their quirks. Sasahara feels protective of them, particularly overweight, stuttering Mitsunori Kugayama. Still, there’s the nagging question of whether he wants to be a part of any club that would have him as a member.

Sasahara’s uncertainty is punctuated by the presence of Kousaka, who’s blessed with a complete lack of self-consciousness. Attractive and easygoing, Kousaka is completely comfortable with otaku culture. He seems to have no idea that he stands out, and he probably wouldn’t care if he did realize it. His oblivious air baffles Sasahara even as it irks Kasukabe. She can’t understand why such a catch has to be such a nerd, and she hovers on Genshiken’s fringes, trying to catch Kousaka’s eye.

She could be horrible, and she tries to be, but Genshiken’s members are hardly new at the nerd game. They’ve developed immunity to her taunts, partly because it’s precisely the reaction they’ve come to expect from a pretty, popular girl. They even try and fold her presence into the otaku worldview, trying to figure out what her function would be in anime character terms. And instead of being envious, they encourage her pursuit of Kousaka. One of them might as well have a girlfriend.

There really isn’t much in the way of plot, though some developments start to take shape towards the end of the volume. That’s fine, as Shimoku seems more interested in establishing the characters, their dynamics, and the subculture they occupy. Shimoku skips the shrill, obvious approach to nerd comedy, choosing a subtler tone. Genshiken is funny, but it isn’t outrageous, and it doesn’t sneer at its own subject matter. There’s a nice balance between the weirdness of the club’s obsessions and the sincerity of their interest.

Shimoku’s art is impressive. For a manga about manga fans, it doesn’t fall back on traditional visual shorthand. Character design is distinct but not extreme, and emotions are conveyed in effective, artful ways. The visuals serve the character-driven nature of the story. And the work on settings is fabulously detailed. Shimoku takes full advantage of the pack-rat nature of the characters, filling their clubhouse and rooms with shelves of digests, DVDs, and computer games.

In Tomoko Ninomiya’s Nodame Cantabile, the characters share a different kind of obsession. They’re student musicians at a prestigious academy. The protagonist, Shinichi Chiaki, is a young man with a dream.

Of course he is. You can’t throw a rock in a manga-filled room without clobbering at least one such aspirant, whether his ambitions run towards piracy, head busting, Chinese cuisine, soccer, or what have you. But in Chiaki’s case, the dream is entirely credible. A gifted musician, he wants to be a conductor. He’s frustrated, though, as his travel phobia keeps him in Japan and away from what he considers worthier instruction.

As a result, he’s kind of a crab. He alienates his instructors and his classmates with his haughty attitude and short temper. His frustration keeps him from taking any pleasure in making music, despite his impressive technical proficiency at the piano. He’s on something of a downward spiral as the volume begins, having broken up with his soprano girlfriend. In short order, he’s dumped by his highly regarded piano tutor and re-assigned to the academy’s “drop-out specialist.”

He also crosses paths with flaky, immature Megumi “Nodame” Noda, a younger pianist whose playing is as intuitive as Chiaki’s is precise. They’re also next-door neighbors, and Chiaki is repulsed by the squalor of Nodame’s apartment. He can’t fathom how a serious student can live like this, and he’s frustrated by her improvisational playing style. But he’s also strangely moved by her careless passion for music.

Their differences come to a head when Hajime, the drop-out specialist, assigns a piano duet for Chiaki and Nodame. It doesn’t take a genius to spot Hajime’s (or Ninomiya’s) intentions. As the pair struggles to master the piece, Chiaki’s rigidity gives way a bit, and Nodame takes a more serious approach to interpretation. Chiaki also inches closer to a conductor mentality as he helps Nodame balance her individuality with the demands of the music.

The mechanics are obvious but effective. There’s genuine pleasure in seeing Chiaki overcome some of his frustration and move towards his goal. You can see his potential as a conductor and his less obvious reserves of sensitivity and leadership. Ninomiya has a real handle on the creative process and portrays it in ways that are specific and resonant. There’s the contrast and balance between precision and inspiration, but there’s also a nice variety to the motivations that drive the rest of cast. In addition to Chiaki and Nodame, Ninomiya introduces Chiaki’s ex, budding opera diva Saiko. She seems more driven by success and status than artistic expression. Violinist Ryutaro is all about individual expression, and he bristles at the technical demands of musicianship. It’s a nice palette of individual approaches.

The romantic undertones are less successful. Nodame develops a crush on Chiaki, and he softens towards her, but Nodame is problematic as a love interest. She’s so childlike that it’s difficult, even uncomfortable, to picture her in a romantic context. Her attempts at flirtation are almost grotesque because they’re so out of step with her personality. She’s sweet and funny in a scatterbrained way, but she’s hopelessly immature. The girl can’t even seem to feed herself. If Ninomiya’s intention is to foster a Chiaki-Nodame love match, it will be tricky to achieve.

But the musical milieu goes a long way towards carrying the title. I found I could ignore the shortcomings of the interpersonal aspects, focus on the characters’ artistic development, and still enjoy Nodame Cantabile a great deal. Hopefully, the romantic subplots will match up with the skilled portrayal of creative ambition in future installments.

One aspect that both titles share with almost all of Del Rey’s titles is the excellent translation notes at the end of each volume. Del Rey’s team of translators and editors pack these sections with useful information, cultural notes, and interesting insights into the translation process. (The only exception I can think of is xxxHOLiC, where the notes read more like a CLAMP buyer’s guide than anything particularly useful.)

Looking at Genshiken and Nodame Cantabile, Del Rey seems to be dabbling with material that’s a bit less outrageous or fanciful than their titles thus far. It’s nice to see, and it indicates an interest in embracing a range of styles and subjects. They’re interesting additions to Del Rey’s manga line, and I think they’ll do well finding an audience.