The manga of Kujibiki Unbalance may well be one of the strangest in-jokes ever perpetrated on any fandom. It didn’t exist as an actual product for a long time — in fact, a part of me wishes it didn’t exist, period. But here it is all the same: a manga spun off from an anime derived in turn from an anime that only existed as a show-within-a-show. If your head’s hurting at that, think about how I feel.
The source of the in-joke behind all this should be automatically familiar to anyone who’s read or watched Genshiken (either the manga or the TV series; the joke’s the same in either one). Kujian, as it’s called for short, is the show-within-the-show that the characters were fans of. Part of the joke was that Kujian didn’t actually exist — the glimpses we were given of it made it look like an amalgam of every anime/manga cliché imaginable, plus a few we forgot about along the way. It worked wonderfully in the context of the show, because you didn’t need to see the whole show to know how it worked. Anyone who’d done any decent amount of time in otaku-dom could fill in the blanks on their own.
Evidently that wasn’t enough. The fans got restless, the folks at Kodansha started smelling money, and sure enough, they went and made Kujian into its own show. And now they’ve gone and created a comic spinoff as well — both under the supervision ofGenshiken creator Kio Shimoku himself, but that hardly seems the point. The joke was funnier when it was simply hinted at and not actually told in detail. When you take away the context that Genshiken gave to Kujian and just go with Kujian itself, you’re not laughing with people who take such clichés seriously; you’re just left with the clichés.
That might explain why, under it all, Kujian is arguably no worse than any other manga I’ve seen in my time. It was put together by talented people who understand, from the inside out, the material they’re lampooning. And it’s played totally straight, barring a little jab in the ribs at the end for Genshiken fans. I suspect playing it straight part of the joke, too, but again, doesn’t this whole thing seem like diminishing returns after a while?
Let’s talk about the book itself, even if its history might ultimately be more interesting than its contents. Kujian takes place on the campus of the colossal and prestigious Rikkyoin High School, where all events of consequence are decided by random lotteries (the “kujibiki” of the title). The main character, Chihiro, somehow got himself admitted to Rikkyoin through a wholly atypical streak of good luck — his first words are “Dear Mom and Dad in Heaven”, so no prizes for guessing he probably also blames himself and his bad luck for Mom ‘n Dad not being around. And in what’s yet another twist of either supremely good or bad luck, he finds himself pulling the winning kuji for the position of class president.
In no time at all Chihiro’s surrounded by a bevy of other “lucky” students — all conveniently female, all more than a bit whacked out in their own ways, and all ripped straight from the same playbooks used to compose every harem story ever written. There’s Tokino, the Perky Optimist and Longtime Childhood Friend Who Might Just Become A Love Interest; Renko, the Crazy Genius and Combative Tsundere; Koyuki, the Weepy Milquetoast with a Secret Special Ability (she can teleport, but only when stressed out), and the Stern And Distant Tsundere (#2) council president, Ritsuko Kettenkrad. There are other folks in the mix, but you get the idea: there isn’t anyone here that hasn’t been pieced together from spare parts.
The same goes for the storyline — it’s shreds and shards of other anime bolted together at the hips and lips. Chihiro and his friends (for lack of a better term) defuse a bomb intended for Ritsuko, get stuck on a desert island when Koyuki accidentally teleports them there; and rescue Koyuki when an ancient evil sword possesses a local thief. And again, apart from a bonus comic at the end where the Genshiken cast pop in briefly to comment on the book’s existence, the whole thing is played completely without irony.
Is it fun? Well, yeah: it’s all done with plenty of energy and a bubbly graphic style. But the end product isn’t parody or commentary, or even homage. It’s just a clone of a dozen other things, and the fact that it has roots in Genshiken doesn’t excuse that. It will appeal to Genshiken fans, I suppose, but if you’re not a fan yet, just go readGenshiken first instead. Then you can decide if you’re missing anything or not.
Art: I mentioned the art style was “bubbly”, and that’s a pretty good word to sum it up — it has the perkiness of a moe title (which was part of what they were aiming for, ostensibly), and a good level of detail in just about every frame. Endless cute touches abound — like Koyuki’s hairband, which sports a smiley face that changes expression to match.
Translation: Another big thumbs-up here for Del Rey, who manage to do most everything right with most every title they put out (I’m frankly dying to see what they do with Sayonara Zetsubo-Sensei once they localize it). Honorifics have been preserved, a glossary of terms in the back explains it all for you, and there’s even an untranslated sneak preview of the next volume.
The Bottom Line: A hard yes-or-no for a title like this is probably impossible. If you know what you’re getting into and why, then you’re probably already putting this on your shopping list. If not — well, now you know. I’d argue that there are a dozen better titles coming out this month, most of which are from Del Rey too … but hey, don’t let me stop you.