Light novel awareness for the indifferent anime fan.
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.
[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.
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.
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!