Well, vol. 7 really left me feeling that this series had gone off the rails with its focus on Madarame’s Harem. Like all good(?) harem stories, it had several of the series’ female characters positioned as romantic interests for the man but precious little explanation as to why they felt that way. This is even more problematic for a series like “Genshiken” which at least tries to be grounded in realistic human emotions and situations. Yet even when I was about to resign myself to following through with this series because I had bought the previous seven volumes, vol. 8 comes along and offers me hope that it might stick the landing in the end after all. This may seem like the ramblings of a junkie who’s trying to chase one last high, but I swear there’s actually some decent stuff in the latter half of this volume!
It does mean that you’re going to have to wade through the Valentine’s Day nonsense in the first half, though. Which includes Hato and Sue competing in their own way for Madarame’s affections. If you’ve been enjoying that stuff up until now, then this will be catnip for you. As for me, the only part I really appreciated was Madarame’s terrified internal monologue about how difficult it was to maintain a “harem” situation. His realization that while having multiple “girls” chase after the main character in an anime or manga may be ripe for ge-nu-ine hi-larity is actually horrifying in real life is actually quite satisfying. That’s about it for entertainment in these parts, including Kuchiki’s return after being (thankfully) M.I.A. for the past several volumes.
Things don’t start getting good until Kugayama (of all people) shows up for a boozing dinner session with Madarame to discuss the otaku’s problems. Kuga-pii, as he’s also known, was probably the least fleshed-out of the original “Genshiken” cast. Even though it was established that he was the one member of their crew with some artistic talent, you always got the feeling that the only reason he was included was because they needed a token “fat guy” for their group. Since then, he has actually managed to hold a steady job and can actually serve as an experienced “senpai” to Madarame. Kugayama calls out his former clubmate for not having the balls to make an actual decision regarding the members of his harem before using his work experience allows him to suggest that they head out to a hostess club to address the confused otaku’s woes. I never thought I’d see Kugayama in a commanding or even persuasive role, and it actually works quite well on him here.
Naturally the hostess club they wind up going to is the only one Madarame has a connection to: The one that Keiko, Sasahara’s “gal” younger sister, works at. It may seem like a recipe for agonizing comedic awkwardness between the two as a result. Except, that’s not what happens. Madarame and Keiko actually strike up a surprising amount of chemistry between their dissection of the former’s romantic ordeals. It’s been said before in this series that Keiko was the only member of the harem that Madarame could act like himself around, but I never really believed it until I saw their interaction here. So when Keiko invites Madarame over to her place at the end of the night, it felt like a natural and exciting development based on what had come before.
The chapter that takes place at Keiko’s apartment is easily one of the most tense and drama-filled of the entire series to date. Contrary to what the previous volumes have tried to establish, “Genshiken” isn’t a shitty harem comedy. Even as some of the characterizations have succumbed to contrivance they’re still grounded in relatable human interactions. So when Keiko invites Madarame over to her place, there’s the very real chance that they’ll actually have sex. Which means that the former will actually have to grow as a character to accommodate this development into his character and worldview.
It actually comes off really well at first. Keiko leads him on in a way that leaves nothing to the imagination. We’re even offered up a reason as to how Madarame’s Harem developed through her conversation. I think it’s kind of a terrible one, but at least mangaka Shimoku Kio is trying to explain things away here. It’s all going great until it isn’t. Without giving too much away, there’s an interruption that impresses upon Madarame the fact that “WOMEN ARE TERRIFYING!” and ends the main narrative of the volume right there. It would also appear to rule out Keiko from his harem, but stranger things have happened yet.
The thing about these last couple chapters is that they give me hope, while re-establishing Kio’s excellent characterization skills. After the previous volume, I was left with the feeling that Keiko was essentially a negligible member of Madarame’s Harem. Yet through most of her tenure in vol. 8 I was actually rooting for her to become “The One” in this situation. I kind of still am, though, it’s going to take some more work to address the surprise twist she offers up towards the end here.
What I’m getting at is that after this volume I’m at least willing to entertain the idea that the other members of Madarame’s Harem can actually become worthy romantic partners in this situation. Except Sue -- short of breaking the foundation of her character, that’s just not going to work. So maybe the crazy train that “Genshiken” has become in the last few volumes will be able to get back on track and deliver a satisfying conclusion as it nears its end. Or maybe not and it even winds up failing to deliver the insane fireworks that result from the ninjas escaping from the train that explode and turn into Terminators that made “Future Diary” at least an entertaining read (in my honest opinion). I’ll be sticking around to find out. Everyone else may want to hang back a bit until the fallout has had some time to settle.