Light novel awareness for the indifferent anime fan.

"When we're talking about a manga, you check both out, saying how the original work has its own goodness..."

“When we’re talking about a manga, you check both out, saying how the original work has its own goodness…”

Something I find interesting about many anime fans is their apparent lack of knowledge and interest in Japanese light novels. Typically, anime are not the first form of media released for a franchise due to the large production costs involved, so most animated series draw from existing source material that has already run the gauntlet of scrutiny by a particularly judgmental fanbase. There are some exceptions, of course, like Cowboy Bebop, Madoka Magica, and series based on video games, but more often than not you’re going to find source material in manga, visual novels, and light novels. While manga definitely has a thriving fanbase and community in the west, it’s much harder to find fans of light novels. It’s a shame, if you ask me.

Comedy series are still best as anime!

Comedy series are still best as anime!

[Japanese] Light novels usually begin as serialized stories in certain magazines, with several being released in a compiled book format if they generate enough interest. While something like this isn’t common in North America, manga fans probably recognize the similarities in their weekly manga chapter releases. The same principle applies, and it’s a very popular form of media in Japan. At the heart of the light novel is its use of literary minimalism and extensive focus on dialogue as a way to drive the narrative. Naturally, this works out very well when translating a light novel to an animated series, since spoken dialogue gives characters personality and eats up a lot of airing time.

Unfortunately, the trend these days is to shy away from the written word in favor of more visual forms of entertainment. Though I have no numbers to back me up, I’m pretty certain in my assumption that anime is more popular than manga, which in turn is more popular than light novels, at least in North America. A lot of this has to do with availability and market penetration; it’s easier for a person to randomly stumble across an anime series airing on television than manga panels or quotes from the latest light novel. And that’s just talking about legal forms of acquisition. On the legally-hazy side of things, the success and popularity of both anime and manga is both driven by, and results in, eager groups of fansubbers and scanslation groups that can easily make series available over the internet, often sooner than official releases.

Anime and manga translation does need a lot of work; I used to be part of the fansubbing process in decades past and I can verify that it involved a lot of effort to put a release out on time. Manga scanslation can also be a bit of work. But neither of these can compare to the proper translation of a novel. In anime or manga, the translation work done only accounts for part of the entertainment; some people can still watch a series raw without subtitles and enjoy it to a degree, and similar things can be done with manga. Novels, however, are useless if not translated; it entrusts 100% of the novel’s integrity to the translator. And this presents a problem; not only is it time-consuming, it inevitably skews the work toward the translator(s)’ personal writing style. Basically, this means that to get the most out of a novel, it’s best to seek professional releases that go through an extensive editing process, which is something that fan groups can’t often dedicate time to. Plus, considering how easy it is to grab the latest releases for anime and manga off the internet, there might be little incentive to go after the [necessary] professional novel releases that will actually cost money. Or for those who just can’t get enough free stuff, there’s very little chance that someone would transcribe the entirety of a novel for an illegal online distribution.

And grabbing that manga in print still feels awesome.

And grabbing that manga in print still feels awesome.

Still, there are official light novel releases in the west. Book Girl, Haruhi, and Spice and Wolf are probably the most prominent on-going light novel releases, and I find them all very readable and entertaining. I’ve already gone on about some differences between the written word and its animated counterpart, but honestly, it’ll take some personal experience to gauge whether it’s a worthy investment for individual interests. Alternatively, there are fan translations available on Baka-Tsuki for series that have not yet been licensed, and they’re often series that would normally catch an anime lover’s attention; Zero no Tsukaima, To Aru Majutsu no Index, and so forth. Heck, I’ve still yet to see the Toradora anime, but I was extremely satisfied with the light novel translation available on site; I’d pick official novels up in a heartbeat. More often than not, though, the translations are adequate at best, and probably don’t do the original versions much justice.

But why bother with novels? I’m aware that today’s western youth is becoming more and more alienated with written fiction, but it’s not as if it’s something that’s been completely abandoned; popular series like Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and Twilight still managed to pull a significant readership with the youth, and serialized Japanese novels hardly read any different. The light novels may not benefit from a significant amount of literary detail, but many are still worth the time to read, and have wonderful character designs and illustrations. For those that place emphasis on anime’s foreign and exotic flavor, fear not; a series like Haruhi still feels profoundly Japanese, even to the point of rewarding a bit of extra humor or history to a reader that is familiar with Japanese culture.

Also, many series get bottlenecked as far as anime releases ago. Again, this mostly has to do with production costs, but even if an animated series tanks, it’s still likely that a light novel is still going strong. For those of you who just can’t wait to find out what happens to your favorite characters after a compelling anime season cliffhanger, most series’ novels are far ahead of the animation.

But even Yagami Light recognizes the power of the written word. Uh, yeah.

But even Yagami Light recognizes the power of the written word. Uh, yeah.

There’s also the luxury in reading where it actually takes time. I once took a load of books with me on my travels, among them was the entire collection of the Fruits Basket manga (much to my local library’s dismay, I might add). Starting from book one, it took me less than a day to clear through the 20-some books of manga. The light novels I brought took a much longer amount of time to finish.

This post may seem more like book awareness and not light novel awareness, but there’s a certain charm to the dialogue-heavy light novels that sets them apart from other contemporary literature. At times, they feel more like comic panels which, like manga, is an attribute that lends itself well to animated adaptations. There are few on-going releases here in the west, as mentioned above (Haruhi, Book Girl, Spice and Wolf, Vampire Hunter D), as well as some discontinued series that I’ve found rather enjoyable (Ballad of a Shinigami, Shakugan no Shana), and I urge everyone to give them a go. There are many differences between anime, manga and light novels, but sometimes it’s nice to go to the original source material to see just what the author wants to emphasize for the plot and characters. Give it a shot; you can easily clear through a volume of manga in under a half hour, but it’ll probably take a bit longer to finish a novel. There’s some bang for your buck!

If you’re interested in identifying a few series with official releases, feel free to check my Manga List, where light novels are identified with (LN). Happy reading!

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8 thoughts on “Light novel awareness for the indifferent anime fan.

  1. This is an interesting take on light novels, so thanks for writing it. I’m curious why you mentioned that light novels are “dialogue heavy”?

    Other smarter people have mentioned this already, but I think the reason why not a lot of US anime fans have really gone behind light novels is because they don’t actually enjoy reading. It’s a sad but true reality. Even something like Haruhi, which was really popular as an anime, doesn’t do as well as a light novel since most people would rather watch and hear the action. Also, it’s tough to sell the light novels to somebody who’s not into anime; even a sci-fi fan probably wouldn’t pick up Haruhi (which has some sci-fi-ish elements) since it’s not hardcore enough.

    • Thanks for the comment! Light novels might not be “dialogue heavy” per se, but since most works are serialized with a limited amount of space in a magazine to work with, prose is a lot more sparse in this style, relying more on the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps. Dialogue ends up becoming more important as well, since it provides a very natural way to move the story forward.

      And yeah, a lot of people don’t enjoy reading anymore. It’s ultimately personal preference, since this is supposed to be a leisure activity, but I do feel that it’s important to exercise the imagination every so often. There’s already tons of literature on the “importance of reading,” but my main point was to just raise awareness in general since I don’t really want to lecture anyone on how they spend their leisure time. I’m not that preachy :B

  2. While I’m mostly an anime fan and don’t even read much manga, I am dedicated to the Haruhi light novel series since it’s my favorite series overall ;) I even did some work on the fan translation of the most recent novel. I’ve been collecting the English releases of the series too.

    I actually think that manga is just as popular as anime here in the West – after all, manga volumes are a lot cheaper than anime box sets, and flipping through a manga scanlation chapter takes just a few minutes while watching an anime episodes takes a bit more time and dedication (since you have to listen as well as look). In Japan however, I think manga is a bigger industry than anime since there are a ton more genres that go beyond the relatively young crowd that anime caters too. I remember when I was in Japan, I saw manga for businessmen and housewives too XD But yeah, light novels are probably the least popular of the three mediums.

  3. I fear reading too much because it might make me one of those oppressive intellectuals. I didn’t even get past the first paragraph of this blog entry.

  4. True… It is sad thing that less people enjoy reading… Also, LN are pretty much interesting as animes and mangas…

  5. The only reason light novels aren’t popular is because they simply do not come over at an accessible rate. Fan-translations are horrendously sluggish and official releases are few and far in-between.

    I was ecstatic to hear Accel World was getting an official release in English. But then I remember Yen Press’ track record and I’ve become cynical ever since. The fact that its been months and we still have no starting date doesn’t help. And I can easily see them only bringing over a couple novels and stopping due to low sales or any number of factors. There’s no stability in the North American LN industry, and even calling it an “industry” is being pretty damn generous.

    At this point I’m literally begging for more seasons of the anime adaptation to be made because at least those will actually be accessible to me in one form or another. Now maybe I’m skeptical for nothing and Accel World will start publication next year and be reasonably successful and manage to continue releasing volumes consistently, but I’m not holding my breath.

    • It’s a vicious circle, really. They aren’t popular here because they aren’t accessible. They aren’t accessible because there isn’t much commercial demand. Loops. :(

      • This wouldn’t be such an issue if anime based on light novels didn’t have the bad habit of stopping off at a point and never getting renewed for further seasons.

        It honestly sometimes feels like anime adaptations of light novels are nothing more than multi-million dollar commercials for said light novels.

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