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.

When Kirito Met Marcus Fenix

When looking at the generic male protagonist found in light novels, one finds that he usually has some combination of the following traits. First, he’s a guy. Second, he’s Japanese. Third, he has short hair. Fourth, he has a fairly slender figure. Fifth, he has either minor or major otaku vibes. Sixth, he has some trait that speaks towards passiveness, whether it’s an aspect of his personality or some sort of special ability that emphasizes defense or neutralization. Titles that fall along this criteria include Sword Art Online, Ore Imo, A Certain Magical Index, Baka Test, Re:Zero, Rise of the Shield HeroBakemonogatari, and so on. In effect, the Light Novel Protagonist plays a similar role to the “gruff brown-haired white guy,” an archetype that has populated mainstream video games over the past ten years.

The Light Novel Protagonist’s appearance renders him the “everyman,” but taken to a kind of extreme mediocrity. His appearance is roughly that of a teenager or early 20s adult who could probably pass for a salaryman if not for his clothing and lack of a stable job. Even though he’s often a “failure” in the eyes of society, he’s ready to show himself as capable if given the right (often nerdy) circumstances. In this way, the Light Novel Protagonist resembles the Video Game Hero in that both reinforce a rough image of masculinity. Where they differ is that the Light Novel Protagonist is often a kind of “bare minimum” of manhood, while the thick-necked rugged white guys of video games are the apex of masculinity in that arena.

This difference is evident when looking at how generic light novels and generic mainstream video games approach the topic of homosexuality. Putting aside a few exceptions from both sides, the protagonists of light novels are more willing than their angry, shooting counterparts in games to dance the line when it comes to gender. Kirito’s video game avatar gets long hair in later parts of Sword Art Online. Hachiman in My Youth Romantic Comedy and Akihisa in Baka Test find themselves attracted to extremely effeminate male characters. However, not only is the possibility of a homosexual ending unlikely, but the sheer femininity of those ambiguous characters’ appearances renders them essentially girls in all but name. As a result, masculinity and heterosexuality are preserved.

Nevertheless, that difference between portraying a masculine world versus a hyper-masculine world seems to be what allows light novels to attract a female audience a little more easily. This is actually something girls have learned to do for a long time, navigate the “boys’ world of entertainment” and carve out their own spaces, but games like Gears of War seem to actively reject any notion of appealing to people beyond their assumed young, male, heterosexual audience. In contrast, light novels pull from the many tropes of anime, manga, and Japanese games, which exist in a complex relationship of pulling aspects of girl-oriented titles toward male audiences and vice versa (e.g. shounen sports being made for girls, magical girls being made for guys).

The irony might be that, while both the Very Japanese Light Novel Protagonist and the Gruff White Video Game Hero are all about protecting their audiences’ masculinity, the two archetypes probably would not get along if they had to interact with each other. The video game hero is an embracing of old ideals of manliness, while the light novel protagonist tends to be a partial rejection of the former. The Light Novel Protagonist is often a “loser,” while the Video Game Hero is more frequently a “winner,” and the active acknowledgement of both might just be two different approaches to dealing with male insecurity.

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[Apartment 507] Teen Girl Sherlock Holmes Novel “A Study in Charlotte” Gets Manga-style Cover: US vs. Japan Marketing in Action

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So A Study in Charlotte, an American novel about a young female descendant of Sherlock Holmes, is getting a Japanese release, and it has a cover from a manga artist. I’ve written some thoughts about this method of marketing, which you can read here. Namely, can a cover like this influence people’s perception of the contents inside?

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.

Through the Looking Glass (Translator’s Note: Looking Glass Means Mirror)

Here in the English-speaking anime and gaming internet communities, analyses of translations are never uncommon. Whether it’s to praise a localization or to condemn for whatever reasons such as inaccuracies or censorship, it’s something that comes packaged with media coming from other countries.

One thing we do not see as often though is how Japan reacts to localizations of our cartoons and video games. As such, I’ve compiled a list of some interesting posts, blogs, etc. which look at the world of Japanese-English adaptations from various angles.

Adventures in Localization, MW2 Edition

The most recent thing to come up, apparently the Japanese release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is marred by poor translations overall, which are leading some Japanese games swearing that they will buy the Asian English-language version of the game before this. Sound familiar?

Sakae Moon Street

See this Japanese fan discuss those wild and crazy cartoons from America such as Ben 10, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Code Lyoko! He mostly posts plot summaries and information on voice actors and such, but also posts fanart sometimes, and has a gallery full of his older works. He also speaks some English and has even translated a few posts, such as in his review of the Avatar episode, “The Blind Bandit.”

I think that “Colosseum”, “Macho” and “Sumo wrestler” are loved particularly in the American cartoon. The picture of this film is wonderful. And there are a lot of highlights as for the action scene. I think this action scene is rivaled to “Matrix” or “Ghost in the shell”.

Toph’s character is like a princess more than I had thought. She is keeping the weakness secret on the other side of strength of vender power. I like it. However, of course, she is tough too. And I am surprised because Katara grew up tougher. The director of Avatar wants to show that Katara looks senior compared with Toph, isn’t it?

Dekadenbiyori

In the blogger’s own words, “I don’t know why, but translated Japanese things attract me.” Dekadenbiyori is quite unusual though in that it reviews the English translations of Japanese works FOR Japanese readers, something which I imagine doesn’t have the largest audience but is still a fascinating subject. See here as he tears apart the poor localization of the Shakugan no Shana light novel and its inability to not make the main character sound “special.” You don’t need to know Japanese in order to understand his disdain for this translation.

Burning Becky Review

Japanese Super Blogger and Mitsudomoe fan Tamagomago writes a review of a most unusual manga called Burning Becky. The comic’s style is heavily based on American super hero comics, right down to the cover with a logo in the upper left corner as well as English sound effects and the very fact that it’s a manga about a super hero. Tamagomago himself wrote the post as if he were an American speaking Japanese. This one isn’t so easy to read so I’ll provide a little sample. I had planned on translating the entire article here for English-speaking readers to enjoy, but that hasn’t happened. At least not yet.

アメコミのいいところの一つは、ダイナミックで豪快な、まるでイラストレーションのような描写力があるかな?少ないページ数にたくさんのキャラクターが出てくるために洗練された方法かもしれないね。もちろん、それは作家さん次第なので、全部ではないよ。

One of the good points about American Comics is that they’re so dynamic and exciting, one might say that they’re practically illustrations in their descriptive power. This is likely the result of  refining techniques for the sake of including so many characters on so few pages. Of course that’s dependent on the individual artist and so it’s not universal.