Kio Shimoku is the manga-ka of the beloved Japanese geek-culture series Genshiken: The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture. The nine-volume series, which completed publication this month by Del Rey Manga, revolves around a college visual media club where a small group of otaku (a term for fanatical anime and manga fans) gather to obsess about their favorite anime, manga, videogames and related activities. In Japan, Genshiken has developed into two anime series and a spinoff manga series Kujibiki Unbalance (which will also be released in the U.S. by Del Rey Manga). In an e-mail interview, self-proclaimed otaku Shimoku guided PW Comics Week through an otaku journey, answering questions about doujinshi (self-published manga), otaku culture and Comic Market, or Comiket, Japan’s enormous twice-a-year comics festival and market in Tokyo. Kodansha kindly translated the interview for both parties.
PW Comics Week: Although the Japanese term otaku has been exported and adopted by international fans of manga and anime, in Japan itself the term is not so benign. Unlike in the U.S., where otaku is treated with more affection and used the way geek is, in Japan, to be called an otaku by a non-otaku is like being called a pervert or freak. The negative connotations are relatively heavy, and it was only when otaku culture started being exported that the connotations have been toned down a bit from what it was roughly a year ago. What inspired Shimoku-san to create a manga around a cast of otaku characters?
Kio Shimoku: I am an otaku myself, so it was natural for me to do so. My aim was to describe otaku as normal human beings. As I’ve said before, otaku were being treated as a sort of strange species. I wanted to do a manga with otaku characters that was comprehensible to the general non-otaku reader.
PWCW: How significant is otaku culture, or modern visual culture (gendai shikaku bunka) today?
KS: You’re asking me a difficult question from the start. This is actually a topic I’d rather not think about. For me, otaku culture, as I think you can re-phrase “modern visual culture,” is a purely personal pleasure. This isn't something that you can really share with anyone; the experience belongs only to yourself. Unlike sex, you don't even need to think of the other person or communicate, and I actually feel that one should be ashamed to actively push a set of titles that in a way offer the viewer a facile kind of gratification.
PWCW: Has otaku culture changed since Genshiken debuted?
KS: It is true that otaku culture has grown in its presence in general society and culture. In Japan, “moe” [roughly an enthusiastic attachment to a series or character] has become a general term. So I suffer from seeing this otaku culture that I like, a culture that seems to represent myself, widely exposed to the general world. That’s why I don't like to think about the question you asked me.
PWCW: Why has it been embraced globally?
KS: I’ve heard that this culture has been embraced globally, but that's difficult to see. I doubt the statement, and I'd like to ask you in turn if it's really, truly, the case.
PWCW: I assume that in Japan there is still shame, like what your protagonist, Ogiue [a young self-loathing female doujinshi artist], feels in being an otaku today, right?
KS: I don’t know about others, but I feel the shame. The reason, I’ve already told you. But I think what influenced public opinion in Japan toward otaku culture was a well-known serial murder case in the ’80s, where the mass media reports claimed and stressed that the offender was an otaku. This image has been slow to wear off, and the media still treat otaku as a strange animal with perverted tastes. Since the Train Man phenomenon [a wildly popular novel/manga/TV/movie franchise about an otaku who gives himself a makeover so that he can date a girl), the image has softened somewhat. The possibility of regarding an otaku guy as being kind of sweet has come up, but it still doesn't change the fact that they are regarded as being laughable and weird. I think it’s hard not to feel any shame about being an otaku in such an environment.
PWCW: At the same time, your characters Sue and Angela [two visiting American otaku] are very proud of their otaku attitudes, right?
KS: Sue and Angela aren’t really aware of this situation in Japan. This is why they can be proud of being otaku, though I don’t have any American friends, and so this is my imagination.
PWCW: One of the more memorable moments from the early volumes of Genshiken is a character’s first trip to the Comic Market [Japan's equivalent to Comic-Con but dominated by amateur creators selling their spinoffs of popular manga]. I have gone to Comiket a number of times and the way you handle the event, from riding the first morning train to the line that wraps around Ariake felt almost too real. Can you share your Comiket experiences with PW?
KS: Comiket is the melting pot of all otaku desires. All of otaku culture is there, and you can say that what isn't at Comiket is not otaku culture. The first time that I actually attended was after I was given the green light for the serialization of Genshiken, when I went as a reader/consumer. I just did not want to go until then. In other words, I knew exactly what would happen if I went; I would queue up and buy loads of stuff. When I went, I did just that and felt quite defeated. The scene in volume six, when an angry Ogiue finds herself shopping till she drops, is more or less exactly my own behavior.
PWCW: Is the character, Ogiue, based upon Shimoku-san or his experiences?
KS: I think you've guessed by now: yes, a lot of it is based on me and my experiences. I’m not as eccentric, though. I’ve never hurt anyone like she did by writing about someone. I’m prepared for the consequences when I write stories and publish them, but I've never targeted anyone in particular. I want to believe I haven’t, at least.
PWCW: Speaking of Comiket, what role does doujinshi (self-made comics) have in manga now?
KS: There are many aspects of doujinshi, and it’s impossible to describe them as one kind. So I’m only going to talk about one specific style in doujinshi, the parody of an already existing, popular work. This type of doujinshi is basically fan fiction, and the existence of many parody and fan doujin work is like proof of the popularity of the original that is being parodied. It also usually means that the parody of a popular manga will more likely be popular itself.
But people who create this type of parody work do not do it for the purpose of making a commercial publishing debut. It’s simply their love for the original work that drives them to do it. They have no intention of publishing it in a magazine owned by a publisher, and anyway, it’s legally not possible. The attraction of a self-published doujinshi is that the creator can do pretty much what he/she wants to do without any restrictions. This is at odds with trade publishing. When trying to make a debut in trade publishing, the artist would either create a body of work to show to publishers or submit a work for competition. However, from the publishers’ point of view, any kind of work can be used as a measure of the creators' potential, so it may happen that a doujin artist gets commissioned to do a different type of work.
PWCW: When your character Ogiue starts off drawing her own doujinshi, she then becomes an artist for Afternoon (a manga magazine published by Kodansha). Is that sort of transition from indie/fan artist to professional happening more now in Japan?
KS:The [doujinshi-indie] creators themselves, though, are often not even trying to become manga artists. They may simply be happy to create at their leisure and self-publish, or, if they are trying to become professional, their goal might be to become artists for game design or illustrating for light novels. And being involved in doujin activity and working as a professional artist are not mutually exclusive things for the creator. I think it's becoming harder to distinguish professional artists from doujin artists. Most professional creators popular with otaku are involved in some kind of doujin activity or other.
The reason Ogiue got involved in doujinshi is that she wanted to make sure she was prepared to face the consequences of expressing herself. Does she have the guts to show the world what drives her? If she feels compelled to do so, can she really live that life? As a doujin creator, you are sure that the work will be printed and that some people at least will see it. Ogiue has something to say, there is a platform to express it, so it’s only natural for her to get involved. And in her case, it’s not just parody she wanted to do, she has original stories she wants to tell. For her, becoming a professional artist is not a better way, only different from doujin. Even after she makes her debut, if there are things she wants to do as a doujin, she will do that.
PWCW: Who decided on the comics for Project G (a doujinshi supplement to the manga)? Did this doujin supplement help elevate Genshiken’s popularity with otaku?
KS: It was Murakami-san, my editor. He did everything, from planning, choosing the artists, asking them and getting the manuscripts. I really could not have had the nerve to do such a thing. And, yes, it was immensely popular, sold well, and people talked about it. I’m asking Murakami-san to comment on this.
Murakami: It’s becoming increasingly common to add value to books and come up with new packages, and when I thought about what to do with Genshiken, I knew this had to be it. It’s not a title that lends itself to merchandising based on characters, so I wanted to attach a minibook, and a [kind of official] doujinshi was the most suitable. Readers reacted to this positively. We called it doujinshi, not anthology, to be representative of the world of Genshiken.
PWCW: In Genshiken, Shimoku-sensei’s characters are [full of] tenderness and unflinching honesty. What kinds of response do you get from your fans?
KS: I’ve no intention of affirming and indulging otakuness. I believe otaku should be a minority, but one that stands up to the pressures of the world, and I try to be like that, too. I try not to look at responses from readers. I’m a very timid person. If someone were to make a comment on my work, I’d think about it too much and let it get in the way of what I really want to say. I try to keep my distance. I do hear some responses, but I always tell myself it’s not a representative opinion.
But one thing that does make me happy is when I hear of people who have set up clubs similar to Genshiken at their colleges. I do want people to have a place to communicate. Not on the Web, but in real life and relationships. I really do envy that.