The Lightness of Light Novels and the Magnified Hate of Light Novel Anime

Today’s anime industry is filled with light novel adaptations, many of which revolve around tropes that are loved by some and hated by others. Common ones include ridiculously long and descriptive titles, an average passive guy who discovers a special power, and the throngs of girls (some of whom may or may not be his little sister) who fall for him as he saves the world. For those who aren’t fans, the term “light novel anime” has come to be filled with a certain level of apprehension. “Oh, it’s a light novel anime, but don’t hold that against it.” However, while the contents of these stories contribute a large part in why they draw ire from some anime fans, what I think is an equally important factor is the implication that a good deal of money is required to adapt a light novel into an anime.

Generally speaking, the “light” in light novel refers to the fact that they’re supposed to be light reads. Sure, they might be full of esoteric jargon (hello Index) and long and complicated word play (Monogatari), but for the most part light novels are meant to be easy to pick up, finish, and put down. It doesn’t cost much to write a light novel, relatively speaking: it’s usually one person writing, and one person doing a handful of illustrations. Overall, while the industry itself isn’t necessarily cheap, the act of writing requires only a pen and paper (or keyboard and computer).

Imagine you’re presented with a book that’s full of the same tired elements, and even reeks of some author’s self-insert revenge fantasy. Its prose seems stiff and workman-like, without any creative flair. You read it, make a face, and then put it away. No harm, no foul, and even though you might later find out it’s popular and don’t personally understand why, this simple “light” book is no skin off your back.

However, then you find out that the book is being made into a Hollywood movie. They’re pouring millions of dollars into it. It feels weird, almost as if it weren’t meant to stand on this grand of a stage.

This, I think, is akin to what happens sometimes when a light novel gets adapted into an anime. Of course, there is much, much less money in the anime industry compare to big budget films, but there’s still a transition from a light novel, a piece of fiction similar in function to old American pulp magazines, to something that requires funds, hiring of talent in great numbers, and just a great deal of combined energy. As Shirobako has shown, anime production is a grueling process, and the idea that the anime industry is putting all of that energy into making some bad light novel look good can seem to detractors like a waste of finite resources.

The industry standard for the “look” of anime involves a certain higher level of polish and presentation. Most shows on a very basic level pass the test of “does this look like it was drawn and created by professionals?” What this means, then, is that whether an anime is based on some award-winning novel or something else entirely, they have similar levels of professionalism. The amateurish qualities of a light novel, which might have been forgivable for more people if they remained in that realm, vanish, and this causes fans to look at these stories from a different perspective.

In other words, if all light novel anime looked like gdgd Fairies or Ai Mai Mii, I don’t think they would get quite as much hate. Actually, that’s something I would love to see.

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Shimoneta, Censorship, and Education

Censorship is a difficult subject to explore because the battle over it is rife with conflicting and contradictory values. On the one hand, it usually derives from good intentions, specifically the desire to avoid exposing people to that which is deemed morally inappropriate. On the other hand, it can be a tool for control, especially when the standard for what is morally right is itself flawed through biases such as racism and misogyny. To create a work of fiction around the idea of censorship is to potentially step into a minefield.

Shimoneta: A Boring World Where the Concept of Dirty Jokes Doesn’t Exist is an anime adapted from a light novel. Its premise is that Japan has outlawed dirty words, dirty thoughts, and of course dirty pictures in order to improve public moral health. High schooler Okuma Tanukichi is the son of an infamous “dirty-joke terrorist” who resents his father and seeks to reunite with his childhood love, Nishikonimya Anna, a symbol of purity and righteousness. However, he ends up getting roped into joining a dirty-joke terrorist organization known as SOX (substitute the O), led by a girl clad in only a cape and a pair of underwear on her head who goes by the name “Blue Snow.”

Though a comedy, I don’t find the series to be that funny. Then again, it would have been foolish of me to expect extremely clever jokes from a series premised around trying to restore people’s ability to shout, “PENIS!” Rather, what ended up interesting me was how it tackles censorship, and how I can’t find myself in total agreement with its ideas on the matter.

The world of Shimoneta, or more specifically the elite school in which most of its story takes place, is an environment where people are so sheltered from profanity, pornography, and obscenity that they cannot even recognize it when it is literally thrown in their face. Aside from a few eccentrics who are either extremely good at hiding their feelings or have their interests tied up in other things (one character’s interest in sex is mostly from a scientific point of view), they are mentally unable to process their own sexual desires. From here, I believe it is easy to see why a series like Shimoneta can be simultaneously uncomfortable yet thought-provoking even if one potentially disagrees with it. The idea that the removal of dirty jokes from a country has rendered its men and women psychologically immature could be utilized as both an argument against “political correctness” and an argument against oppression of people’s rights to be sexually active. After all, women are attacked both for having sex and not having sex.

Where Shimoneta stands on the subject feels somewhat unclear even after finishing the series, and this has a lot to do with the fact that the series is rife with anime and light novel tropes. Anna, for example, turns out to be a stereotypical yandere character whose burning desire for Tanukichi (she can literally smell his scent from hundreds of meters away) swings his view of her from aspiration to monster, while her large rack and hourglass figure clearly make her a sexually attractive character. At the same time, Anna is the very symbol of how a lack of sex education can negatively affect a person. Because she has been taught that righteousness is the polar opposite of profanity, she believes that anything she does in the name of righteousness is by definition pure, even if it involves pinning Tanukichi to the ground and trying to take his virginity against his will in highly sexually charged scenes.

What is Anna? Is her behavior more representative of a warning towards keeping people ignorant about sex, or is she a nymphomaniac designed to thrill the audience? For that matter, what is the ethical standing of a little girl character clearly designed for a lolicon audience, whose hair is shaped like a penis? Is it an innocent joke, or has it gone too far? And in this way, is Shimoneta directly commenting on actual society (assuming Japan but perhaps it can apply elsewhere)?

I feel that the ambiguity of that last question is what makes Shimoneta worth watching, at least for a few episodes. It opens up a potentially interesting conversation about how we view media, and even in disagreement I believe it can be a fruitful discussion.

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The Tears of Sound! Euphonium

Anime is no stranger to characters crying. Whether it’s Kenshiro in Fist of the North Star or the entire cast of Alien Nine, tears are fairly ubiquitous. Over the past 10 years, however, there’s been one studio that’s stood at the top of the salt mine, and that’s Kyoto Animation. When they animate characters bawling, the tears are so physical, so three-dimensional that they practically become characters unto themselves.

Kyoani’s new show, Sound! Euphonium is no exception to this trend. Particularly in the penultimate Episode 12, the main character Oumae Kumiko has a scene where she just cries her eyes out. However, while on a technical level this is what we’ve come to expect, within the contest of the narrative itself the tears in Euphonium they take on a new meaning compared to their old works.

[Spoiler warning]

What makes Kumiko’s tears different and indeed special within the greater works of Kyoto Animation is what they represent. In prior shows, tears generally came from some kind of deep trauma or suffering, as if the characters were so overwhelmed by their particular circumstances or the horrible truths of their existences that crying often meant a kind of cathartic, primal action. Reason gives way to sheer passion, so to speak, and the result is a very Key game-esque scenario, not surprising given how many Key games they’ve adapted.

Screen Shot 2015-06-27 at 11.01.04 PM

However, in Sound! Euphonium, Kumiko’s tears are specifically tied to her reason and logic. They’re not caused by her simply being overwhelmed by emotion, but are also tied to the fact that she knows exactly what’s causing them. At that point believing that, despite all of the time and effort she poured into improving, that she would be denied the opportunity to play as part of the ensemble in one of the most important points for a Euphonium in their competitive recital, Kumiko’s tears are frustration towards inadequacy. In doing so, those same Kyoani blobs of liquid gushing out the character’s eyes transform from this generally moe trait to actually conveying the sheer weight of failure, or at least the self-perception of failure.

In a way, in older series from Kyoto Animation, the tears were about being not in control of one’s own life. In Sound! Euphonium, there’s still that sense of lack of control, but it’s paired with a character’s earnest attempt to master her own destiny, and to fall short in the process. Sorrow through action, rather than inaction, is what defines that moment in a series that already places more active motivation in its characters than many other similar series.

The Fujoshi Files 129: Ebina Hina

Name: Ebina, Hina (海老名姫菜)
Alias: N/A
Relationship Status: Single
Origin: My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU

Information:
Ebina Hina is student at Sobu High School, and is often seen with her classmates, the soccer ace Hayama Hayato and fashionable gal Miura Yumiko. She is extremely open about being a fujoshi, and constantly wonders aloud both what pairings here classmates can be in and what they might do to each other.

Hina also has a creative talent, working as a director and script writer for her class’s play for a school festival, though she unsurprisingly loads it with BL innuendo.

Fujoshi Level:
Though very much a fujoshi, she intentionally uses her image to keep guys from asking her out.

A Tale of Two Harems: Kore Wa Zombie Desuka? vs. Infinite Stratos

WARNING: Spoilers.

When the Winter 2011 season of anime began I saw two harem anime on the schedule. One was Kore wa Zombie Desuka?, which apparently being zombie-themed I wrote off as something to skip. The other was Infinite Stratos, which, while likely not to set my world on fire, had mecha and SF elements that I wanted to check out.  But thanks to a tip from Sub, I decided to check out Zombie after all, and now that I’ve finished these dual harem series, I find that my relative opinion has flipped. Kore wa Zombie Desuka? is a pleasant surprise, while Infinite Stratos‘s faults far outweigh its strengths.

First, let’s actually list the highlights of Infinite Stratos.

  • Good character designs, better than Zombie
  • Charlotte Dunois
  • The fact that it did not turn into a tournament fighting series

In contrast, I feel that the strengths of Kore wa Zombie Desuka? are substantial enough that they shouldn’t be listed in bullet form, but to sum them up, Zombie does a good job of playing with the conventions of the harem genre and bolstering many of the areas where harem shows tend to be weak. The main character in a harem series tends to take a lot of physical damage, so the series incorporates that into the basics of the setup. The hero Aikawa Ayumu is made undead, so that he can take abuse far beyond what is normal and regenerate. Whereas most harem protagonists tend to waffle and lack motivation, we see that from the very start of the series he has an initial goal to spur him on: to find the person who killed him. He’s still your Average Japanese Guy with Extraordinary Circumstances, but just by having drive and personality, you can see why more than one girl might take an interest in him.

Harem anime are really all about the girls. It is something I gladly accept when watching harem shows, but I prefer to see that the girls have fallen in love with the main character for something resembling a good reason. It helps that Ayumu has something called a personality, as well as traits that are actually admirable instead of vague “nice guy” characteristics, but Kore wa Zombie Desuka? also shows the girls actually developing feelings for him. Seeing the female necromancer Eucliwood’s first meeting with Ayumu, we can see how he charms her with a goofy and well-meaning attitude. Haruna, a chainsaw-wielding magical girl, is witness to Ayumu’s continuous noble actions and sense of self-worth. We can even see where feelings don’t develop with Mael Strom, who does not have feelings for Ayumu but actually works to go from indifference to affection-after-the-fact in some kind of twisted parody of an arranged marriage.

The girls of Zombie are not particularly well-developed in terms of personality, but they have a manic edge to them where their simple traits are pushed to the extreme without having them become tiresomely one-dimensional. This is probably most evident with Seraphim, a deadly vampire ninja not unlike a couple of Axe Cop characters, whose hobby, talent, and favorite word are all the same thing: Tsubamegaeshi, a sword technique, and whose catch phrase, calling Ayumu a “piece of shit,” feels delivered with sincere malice instead of being there to compensate for any sort of weak, fragile interior.

Infinite Stratos fails to convince me that most of the girls have legitimate reasons to be interested in the main character, Orimura Ichika. Looking at four out of the five girls in IS, two of them are childhood friends and two of them fall in love with him after a single fight. With neither situation are these explanations given time to develop. They just are, as if their purpose is to get Ichika in the harem situation as quickly and efficiently as possible. Instead of further flattening the characters as Zombie did, IS sees fit to give them contrived flashbacks where a girl will literally narrate to the viewer as to why her life is tragic. Ichika does this as well, and it doesn’t happen until half-way through, so when we first see him, he’s just a bland fellow who draws all the ladies for Some Reason.

This is actually why I emphasized Charlotte Dunois as one of the highlights of Infinite Stratos, because she is the only girl among the five whose eventual attraction towards Ichika was given room to develop. Charlotte Dunois starts off disguised as a boy, and as the only other guy in the school, Ichika finds a comrade in “Charles.” Their friendship grows through this “male” bonding, and with Ichika talking to her closely and comfortably, it makes sense that she would develop intimate feelings. If more of the girls in Infinite Stratos had this sort of portrayal, instead of having their affections develop out of un-reasons, then my opinion might have very well been more even between the two shows.

The essential strength and flaw respectively of each show is that Kore wa Zombie Desuka? creatively manipulates the harem genre conventions while Infinite Stratos feels beholden to them. This is evident even in each show’s approach to the dramatic. While neither series excels in this regard, in Kore wa Zombie Desuka? the dramatic elements are continuously built upon and reach a fairly satisfying conclusion, while with Infinite Stratos, much like the flimsy bases for affection, the drama just seems to appear instantly and recede just as quickly.

Overall, while I would say that the girls in Infinite Stratos are more attractive, it does not feel as complete a product as Kore wa Zombie Desuka?, which is able to show that a lot can be done with the harem genre without completely subverting it School Days-style. In doing so, Zombie winds up being the better anime.

I Should Read More Light Novels

With the increasing number of anime and manga coming out over the past few years that are based on light novels, I feel like my lack of knowledge regarding them is hampering my understanding of anime and manga. Most of the time they aren’t even that difficult and I can get by more or less fine with the Japanese ability I have already, but something tends to draw me more towards the anime and manga sections at Bookoff.

Speaking of, Bookoff has a rack of 50 cent light novels, and I’m occasionally tempted to pick a few up, but then I worry about getting through the entire novel, looking up words I might not know, getting to the end, and then realizing the book wasn’t that good. It’s happened before, and I dislike being in that awkward position of trying to justify my enjoyment of something just because I put so much effort into it. And as for English-translated light novels, I need to find something that’s actually well-translated, as many of the ones I’ve read have been awkward in their localization.

It’s an odd predicament which doesn’t occur as much for me with anime and manga, as I’m eager to take in the bad with the good, and it’s maybe because I can sense my lack of  a firm foundation in the area of light novels and it makes me hesitant. On the other hand, it might be fun to just kind of jump in uninhibited and free, grabbing whatever I can and devouring it, like when I first became an anime fan.

I also spotted some of those Naruto books for kids the other day, which are just prose describing more or less what happens in the manga. I read a few pages and came to a single conclusion: I enjoyed the writing more than I did Twilight.