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A Look at Some Light Novels

Posted by: Erin F. on April 16, 2007 at 6:17 pm

When “light novels” started hitting American shelves last year I wasn’t really excited about it. However, my trip to Japan in January really opened my eyes. “Gamers”, the famous anime/manga/videgame store in Akihabara (the store with Digi Charat as their mascot) has an entire floor devoted to light novels. About one fourth of Comiket was devoted to novels written by fans (in my estimation), and there was a plethora of doujinshi based on light novel series. The most popular anime in Japan last year, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya was based on a light novel.

So what is a light novel, exactly? For American fans it’s difficult to distinguish light novels from young adult fiction. The books are relatively short and come in series. Many of the books are sci-fi, fantasy, or romance. The books contain a few illustrations in anime or manga “style.” This differs from American young adult series where the illustrations, if there are any, are not in any one particular artistic vain. The audience is also different. YA novels are aimed at young adults, but light novels are generally aimed at the otaku market – hardcore nerds between 15 and 35. The equivalent series in the U.S. might be novels based on “Star Wars,” or fiction based on the Dungeons and Dragons games.

I get the distinct impression that light novels in Japan are not renowned for their literary merit. The “real books” are shelved elsewhere. Light novels are not the type the win the Japanese equivalent of Caldicott Awards. They are the literary equivalent of Cheetos. They are junk food targeted strictly at the otaku market.

I’m not sure why U.S. publishers would want to pick up light novels, but I am excited about reading novels which spawned some of my favorite anime series. To clarify, I am not enthusiastic about reading novels based on my favorite anime series. For example, if “Star Wars” were based on a novel, I would read that novel, but I am totally uninterested in reading novels that “expand the Star Wars universe”, regardless of how good Gabe from penny-arcade.com thinks they are. I am more like Tycho in this regard.

Boogiepop and Others

by Kouhei Kadono
Publisher: Seven Seas


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I watched the Boogiepop anime series first, and was interested in reading the best selling novel that inspired the series. The anime is very mysterious and I was under the mistaken impression that this novel might lend clarify the plot a little.

Let’s just say I’m bad with names. Like, really bad with names. If your name is Mike, Chris, Dan, or John you can go ahead and roll a twenty-sided die, and if you rolled under a three I’ll remember your name. When I read Shakespeare I continually refer back to the dramatis persona until the end of Act I. This problem is magnified when it comes to Japanese names – it’s all Yamato, Yamada, and Miyazawa with the added stumbling block that high school students refer to each other by their gender-neutral last names and 48% of the population of manga characters have the first name Sakura.

Boogiepop and Others has a dramatis persona of sorts in the front. There is an illustration of each major character, with a quote from each one. This did not help in my reading of the book. Besides the Boogiepop, I couldn’t tell any of the characters apart. Even by the end of the book I was kind of foggy as to who was doing what to whom. It doesn’t help that the Boogiepop is a genderless entity who switches bodies half-way through the story.

As for the plot – basically, an ensemble cast of teenage protagonists are coming to terms with the fact that kids at their school are disappearing. The adults in the community claim that the kids are “running away,” but it’s obvious that these kids are going to the creepy Twin Peaks high school and the runaways are probably being horribly murdered. Even though there are sci-fi elements at the end of the book, the story is more about an atmosphere of secret anxieties.

The Boogiepop is a mysterious hero-split-personality thing who possesses a girl for the first half of the story. The Boogiepop is by far the most interesting part of the book. Thematically, the Boogiepop poses the question, “Sure, Batman is a hero, but isn’t he also a crazy rich dude?” – with the emphasis on the crazy. This is an interesting question, and the whole book could come off as a non-traditional superhero story in the way that the anime series does not.

However, it is not interested enough to make me tackle any more of this purposefully obfuscating ensemble-cast series. The anime series is better. I have not seen the live-action movie of the same title yet.

The wikipedia page about this title contains a very useful, although spoiler-iffic list of the cast of characters. If you decide to read this book, I recommend not peeking at the wikipedia page until you’ve finished. Instead, keep your own notes on the different characters as you read it.

Twelve Kingdoms

Volume 1
by Ono Fuyumi
Translation by Alexander O. Smith and Elye J. Alexander
Published by Tokyopop


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I’ve seen almost all of the anime series Twelve Kingdoms, so I was very excited to read this book. There are a few major differences between this book and the anime series – the anime gives us two additional characters in order to split the action, and this book only covers two DVD volumes of the series. It is worthwhile to both watch the anime and read the book(s), as you can get a little something different from each source. It also doesn’t matter which media you consume first.

At the outset Twelve Kingdoms gives you the same-old fantasy anime premise: High school girl gets magically transported to a fantasy kingdom that she’s destined to save. I promise if you push past that, there is more to the story. Just ignore Yoko’s whining about wanting to go home to Japan. Ignore it for the first DVD, and ignore it through the first half of the book, because let’s face it, she’s not going home. What separates Twelve Kingdoms from something like InuYasha or Fushigi Yugi is that Yoko will not have a home to go back to. She is shown visions of her parents mourning her loss back home, and her classmates say terrible things about her in the police interviews that follow her disappearance from reality. We the readers know that Yoko can never go back to her old life – it’s just going to take a little longer for Yoko to reach the same conclusion.

Parts of Twelve Kingdoms can be a little like a videogame. Yoko is given a magic sword and a healing jewel. A demon-like entity possess her body so that she can fight the monsters roaming the countryside. Fortunately these elements of the story are balanced out with more originality and realistic elements. Unlike in a videogame, Yoko does not “level up”. Lost alone in the woods fighting monsters for a month leaves Yoko starving to death. If her life is a fantasy videogame, she’s really bad at it.

Monster fighting is also not the focus of the story. The author paints a very interesting world, a world complete with a complicated government system that includes a mythic origin as well as a series of checks and balances. There is a systematic way in which people become Kings, and it is not the will of the people but rather the will of heaven that dictates who takes the throne. Reproduction, land ownership, natural disasters, geography and economics are all covered in great detail, mostly explained in the last half of the book. You could probably write a few different papers for school based on volume one alone.

Ono Fuyumi paints a complicated fantasy world complete with themes and symbolism and social commentary that’s worth checking out. This is thoroughly a book for teenagers, but it gives teens a lot of credit. For a “light novel” this is not particularly “light”. I would say that it’s an easy pick for librarians, but there is a lot of blood-spray in all of the monster fighting scenes before you get to the really great discussion of immigration policy.

Yoko is a very real teenage character, and I wish I could’ve read this when I was a teenager. Much of the book takes place inside her head as she transforms from someone without a spine into a stronger person. Sure, it takes being covered in demon-blood to get there, but she gets there eventually. Yoko is considerably less whiny in the book than the anime.

I can only give this book an A- because it succeeds despite its flaws, and its similarity to existing fantasy. You’re just going to have to trust me and believe me when I say that Yoko totally goes on the Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell style.

(This review is based on complimentary copies supplied by the publisher, sent to the MangaCast.)

The Man Who Doesn’t Take Off His Clothes

Volume 1
by Narise Konohara
Translation by Matthew Johnson (?)
Published by DMP


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This is the first yaoi light novel I read, and it did not disappoint. Kaitani works for a cosmetics company, hired on by a relative into his first post-college job. Kaitani is your Everyman, an average 20-something who doesn’t care about his job and is late to work every day. He’s a little bit of a slob and a sports fan. Fujiwara is Kaitani’s manager, a total hotty OCD neat-freak who’s always on-time and carries only the finest designer hankerchiefs.

There is no way these two men would sleep together in reality. Kaitani becomes obsessed with Fujiwara when he vetoes an old college friend’s hand lotion bottle design. Suddenly slovenly Kaitani turns into a career-man overnight, researching the project and pushing for his friend’s design. He’s a hothead and takes everything far too personally.

Finally we step off into bizarre-fantasy-land wherein Kaitani is taking naked blackmail photos of Fujiwara. He finds out why the man won’t take off his clothes, but it’s too good of a secret too spoil here.

There is only one sex scene in this book, and it’s near the end. Fortunately, it’s a really short book. Fast readers could probably breeze through it in a few hours. It is the first installment in a series, so nothing really resolves at the end of volume one. The sex scene is pretty sexy, but it is so ridiculously unlikely that it’s hard to suspend one’s disbelief while reading it. It’s also pretty immoral – in that way that roofies are really not OK, no matter what your gender or sexual orientation happens to be. Suspend your disbelief – suspend!

Like with most yaoi I’ve read, it’s hard to get past the way that the characters never come to terms with their sexuality. No one ever really comes out of the closet as we know it here in the States. Usually when there is an openly gay character in these stories, they have come out of the closet well before the story begins. There is never a moment where an otherwise straight character comes to terms with his suddenly turning gay during the course of this novel or other yaoi stories I have read. It’s hard to get over this cultural gap as an American reader.

Nevertheless, I had a fun time reading this book. I think the translator did a decent job. This isn’t a bad place to start if you’re interested in reading yaoi light novels. It’s light, fun, unrealistic, sexy, and a fast read.

(This review is based on complimentary copies supplied by the publisher.)

Don’t Worry Mama

by Narise Konohara
Illustrations by Yuki Shimizu
Translation by Matthew Johnson
Publisher: DMP


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I noticed that The Man Who Doesn’t Take Off His Clothes was part of the Don’t Worry Mama series, so I read this book next. It’s about a minor character from the other book who works at the same cosmetics company as Kaitani in The Man Who Doesn’t Take Off His Clothes.

Look closely at the cover of this book. Really closely. Notice how there’s a second character hugging the protagonist, but he’s totally obscured and his face is hidden on the cover? OK, now flip it over to the back cover, and notice the bold, italicized, prominent headline:

“I’m not a chubby chaser!”

I can only hope no one riding the subway with me was reading that quote on the back cover and judging me, harshly and silently.

The front and back covers are sending you hints, subtle hints that I missed, that this story is about a gay man falling for a very fat, very horrible straight man. As a member of Weight Watchers, I found the grotesque descriptions of Imakura’s obesity mildly offensive. It’s not enough that he has a bad personality – his horrible physical features are written to match. Fortunately, the horrific descriptions of back-fat stop after the first 50 pages.

Yuichi, the gay man, and Imakura, the fat man, are stranded on an uninhabited island off the coast of Japan on a work trip to research new plants for their company. A series of unlikely circumstances leave them stranded on the island for weeks; the old fisherman who dropped them off dies, the cosmetics company goes bankrupt, friends and family follow a receipt detailing last year’s business trip. None of it seems viable, and the reader must simply set their disbelief over there, on a shelf, for much of the rest of the book.

Unlike The Man Who Doesn’t Take Off His Clothes, there are a lot of sex scenes in this one starting from much earlier on in the book. However, it is not nearly as sexy as TMWDTOHC. I had to look up the word “phimosis”. Let’s leave it at that.

Don’t Worry Mama is based on a short story, and it shows in the flawed structure of the book. The first two thirds cover the desert island plot from Yuichi’s point of view. The last third is a “bonus story” from Imakura’s point of view. The bonus story lacks conflict – it’s just a cheerful story about the couple’s anniversary. Remember that episode of Gravitation where Shuichi wears a junior high uniform? Yeah.

Imakura’s transformation from the world’s worst and perhaps Japan’s fattest manager into a hot 30-year-old wine steward by the end of the book is totally unbelievable. Just because someone drops about 100 pounds and stops being a a mama’s boy that doesn’t mean that they’ll turn into a completely different person. I mean, I lost 50 pounds and I’m still a jerk.

What this book lacks in character development it makes up for perversity. Unfortunately it’s not sexy, it’s just kind of gross. Maybe if you are a chubby chaser, you’ll be into it.

(This review is based on complimentary copies supplied by the publisher.)

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4 Responses to "A Look at Some Light Novels"

1 | Katherine Dacey-Tsuei

April 16th, 2007 at 7:57 pm

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…there is a lot of blood-spray in all of the monster fighting scenes before you get to the really great discussion of immigration policy.

Gee, sounds like a typical Bush press conference to me. Or maybe a Senate committee hearing.

2 | Erin F.

April 17th, 2007 at 1:00 am

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It’s very relevant for our times. Also Yoko absolutely has no political ambitions, which I find refreshing in a candidate.

And her campaign financing is all like “One magic sword, one magic jewel, one magic unicorn-like creature…”

3 | Estara

April 17th, 2007 at 2:01 pm

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“Like with most yaoi I’ve read, it’s hard to get past the way that the characters never come to terms with their sexuality. No one ever really comes out of the closet as we know it here in the States. Usually when there is an openly gay character in these stories, they have come out of the closet well before the story begins. There is never a moment where an otherwise straight character comes to terms with his suddenly turning gay during the course of this novel or other yaoi stories I have read. ”

May I direct you to the scanlation of Yatteraneeze! by Koh Akizuki and Mieko Koide (doki doki scanlations) which has exactly that theme as the major plot point? Of course there’s lots of unbelievable and cliche boy’s love stuff there, too.

I still think it’s one of the more believable coming-of-age as a gay person manga I’ve read. Come to think of it I can’t remember another one.

4 | Erin F.

April 18th, 2007 at 6:17 pm

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Come to think of it I can’t remember another one.

Well, it’s good to know there’s one!



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