“Paintings that use red are the most beautiful”

Mimizuku to Yoru no Ou Cover

Mimizuku and the King of Night” by Kougyoku Izuki

Musings on the Efficacy of Light Novels as a Medium of Literature

★ ★ ★

Before we plunge into the nitty-gritty of Mimizuku and the King of Night (2006 Grand Prize winner of the 13th Dengeki Novel Contest), let’s examine a very contentious yet popular statement widely believed to be true:

Light novels aren’t real literature.

Now, before y’all start rolling your eyes at me for being technical about the definition of literature (I mean, basically every light novel anime adaptation you’ve known is as chuuni as Jurai Andou’s “Dark and Darker,” right?), please allow me a moment to step out and borrow Zero-kun‘s bat so I can smack you all on the head.

We’re all brainwashed by the Conspiracy, I tell you!

First of all, if you take Sword Art Online and Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei to be representative of all Japanese light novels, that’s basically the same as taking Taylor Swift to be representative of all modern Western music.

Isn’t it interesting that a bulk majority of all English-translated novels on the Internet are either harems, RomComs, or chuuni power fantasies? Where are the light novels for girls, for instance? On Baka-Tsuki, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have literotica panty shots, moe, scantily clad girls, accidental kisses, groping, or some combination of the above.

Don’t tell me you actually thought all light novels were like this?

My hypothesis: Because we’re all teenage perverts[1] who spend all our time thinking about sex sex sex sex (and boobs), the only light novels we’ve translated into English are essentially the trashy ones.

We’re missing the gems of the light novel industry.

Take any reputable light novel writing competition (i.e.: The Dengeki Novel Prize)—virtually all of the top ranking novels are not translated into English.

This says something about the current state of LN translations, hmm?

★ ★ ★

I actually have great faith in the light novel medium.

If you ask me, manga > light novels > anime.

Part of my reasoning for this is that there are more manga in print than light novels (I think); light novels in turn overwhelmingly outnumber anime. The shear size of each medium roughly correlates with the capacity for each to hold hidden gems.

Oyasumi Punpun and Sangatsu no Lion—both are very niche manga series, yet I would without question include them among the ranks of great literature.

On the other hand, we hardly have a clue about what kinds of treasures are hidden in that sea of thousands of light novels. I fear we’ll never really know, simply because it’s so difficult to fan translate light novels and our English publishers will probably continue licensing series that’s best at making us horny.

As someone who used to be an extremely avid writer, the structural concept of light novels appeals to me immensely, because it’s extremely well suited to creating powerful literature.

Why?

Well, once upon a time in a galaxy far far away, (elitist) writers waged massive interstellar wars over whether poetry or prose was better.

The debates were extremely heated and impassioned. People flipped tables and such. I’ll tell you straight off that it was roughly analogous to our contemporary otaku-relevant feuds about whether large boobs or small boobs are better. ;P

Light novels are extremely well suited to being the middle ground.

They’re very well suited to abusing poetic one-liners that pack punches interspersed with longer paragraphs that are filled with pretty language, sarcasm, irony, metaphor, or whatever have you.

Also fun gimmicks like bolding, sex sex sex sex sex sex sex sex sex
sex sex sex sex sex sex sex sex sex sex sex sex sex sex sex
sex sex sex sex sex sex sex sex sex sex sex sex sex
sex sex sex sex sex sex sex sex sex sex sex
sex sex sex sex sex sex sex sex sex
sex sex sex sex sex sex sex
sex sex sex sex sex
sex sex sex
sex

rhyming, puns, and other cool stuff.

A light novel done well can make you cry.

A light novel done well can make you hate the world.

A light novel done well can hit you like a brick.

So what are we waiting for?

Let’s get into Mimizuku and the King of Night.

★ ★ ★
★ ★ ★

Mimizuku and the King of Night is a 267-page standalone light novel published without any illustrations.[2] It was Kougyoku Izuki’s first work, and she submitted the story to the Dengeki Novel Contest as a first-year university student. It later went on to win the Grand Prize.

It was completely translated by Amazing Buffalo on Baka-Tsuki in 2011, but I neglected it for several years because the cover was horrendously ugly and I thought it was a horror novel or something.

To be accurate, it’s actually a fairy tale with dark themes.

Mimizuku, a small girl with chains on her wrists and ankles and the numbers “332” branded onto her forehead, wanders into the Forest of Night seeking to be eaten by a monster. However, when the ruler of the monsters, the mysterious and beautiful “King of Night,” refuses to eat her, she tries to formulate a way to convince him otherwise.

The novel is fairly well endowed with symbolism and theme. There’s a tasteful amount of color iconography, a character named “Dante,” a blood red flower that is pulled out of a place called “Purgatory…”

This light novel deserves its share of literary analysis, friends! ;D

Not to mention a very fascinating protagonist and an extremely smexy “King of Night.”

Mimizuku and the King of Night is weaker in the second half of the novel, largely because the story wanders a little bit and later transforms into a somewhat predictable love story.

Despite this, I highly recommend this light novel because it’s one of the few english-translated novels that might actually appeal to a female audience, and I’m pretty sure you male fans are surely tired of reading all those harems, magic fantasies, and RomCom’s by now? ;D

Amazing Buffalo’s translation is pretty good by the standards of most fan translations. However, my sources tell me that quite a bit of Kougyoku Izuki is lost through translation:

The way Kougyoku uses commas and periods to shape the flow of words works incredibly well to convey the notion that the main character is quite mad, further enhanced by drawing out the final syllable in each of her spoken lines. It creates an eerie mood, which is utterly bewitching and otherworldly. I do wonder how it could be reproduced in a language like English, though. It’s hard to imagine reading an extended “you” without being irritated rather than charmed.

tldr;

Don’t look down on light novels, because there are plenty hidden gems out there. They have a lot more potential than many of us weebs might think.

If you haven’t found a light novel you like yet, it’s most probably because your would-be-favorite-novel hasn’t been translated into English yet (orz). The light novel industry is nearly as diverse as the manga industry, and there’s almost something out there for everyone.

This really goes out to emphasize Frog-kun’s point in his recent post about the future of light novel fan translations—we translators should really try seeking out those niche projects and hidden gems.[3]

For me, one thing’s for sure:

By no means would I condemn all light novels as inferior literature.


Notes:

  1. By perverts, I’m including girls as well. ;D ‘Cause most of the english-translated light novels targeted to a female audience are either really smutty or flat-out yaoi (proudly hosted on tumblr).
  2. Due to the unfortunate lack of illustrations, I’ve placed fanart all around to try and perk people’s interests.
  3. Trivia: I myself started translating Romeo Tanaka’s Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita a while back, but it’s definitely also worthwhile to explore the wider spectrum of light novel genres with pieces such as Hikaru ga Chikyuu ni Itakoro or Biblia Koshodou no Jiken Techou.
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13 thoughts on ““Paintings that use red are the most beautiful”

  1. Great post! Now I have to read Mimizuku to Yoru no Ou.

    You know, light novels really are a lot like YA fiction in the West. Marketing fiction at young people doesn’t mean the writing style is inherently bad, but there’s a lot of mediocrity to swim through, and the really popular titles don’t reflect the best of the genre at all.

    With light novels, finding the good ones is even harder because of the failings of fan translators (the bias towards LNs with anime adaptations, imperfect translations, etc.) Even my favourite light novels aren’t written with great prose, so they’re hard to recommend to people with discerning tastes in literature.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that we translators have to work harder to bring out the best in light novels to all the readers out there!

    Like

    • You’re absolutely right! The first prerequisite to becoming a good light novel translator is being a good reader!

      You know, as an aside, I’ve always struggled a little bit with the definition of a “light novel,” and I know that even in Japan the boundaries can be unclear.

      For instance, some people say that light novels must have anime-esque illustrations in them.

      Some people say that light novels must have relatively short paragraphs and can’t be dense.

      Some people say that light novels are only for kids (young adults).

      The problem is, categorical divisions like these can be hard to completely abide by. There’s quite a significant subset of light novels that sit on this ambiguous fringe, and I’ll be honest—I am most interested the light novels that aren’t like most popular light novels.

      (Similar to how I’m most interested in manga that aren’t like most conventional battle manga).

      Biblia Koshodou no Jiken Techou, for instance, is occasionally excluded from the ranking lists of many top selling light novels in Japan (Kono Light Novel ga Sugoi, most notably) because people continue to debate whether it is a “light novel” or not. It’s so dry that some people consider it more of a “novel” than a light novel.

      Despite this, Biblia consistently tops Japan’s Yearly Light Novel sales, pretty much ever since 2010. I imagine this primarily due to the fact that Biblia holds a sizable fanbase among more middle-aged men and women.

      This is the final light novel sales rankings for 2014.

      1 498,718 biblia koshodou no jiken techou 5
      2 350,706 kagerou days 5
      3 345,886 sword art online 15
      4 330,244 sword art online 14
      5 237,754 sword art online progressive 3
      6 197,463 mahouka koukou no rettousei 14
      7 179,903 kuroko no basket replace 5

      If we run by the other definitions of light novels, we’ll quickly notice some problematic things.

      The Eccentric Family (I’ve tried reading it), is a very dense novel with large thick paragraphs of text. It has a foot in the anime world, but I’m not even sure if it’s considered a light novel.

      “Mimizuku and the King of Night,” which I’ve just reviewed, doesn’t contain any illustrations.

      I’ve heard Teh Ping talk pretty extensively about this before, and he takes a very interesting and unusual stance on what connotes a “light novel” for him—a paperback novel that is small and portable—essentially pulp fiction or something printed bunkoban.

      It’s interesting, for sure.

      I suppose the goal of my post was to open people’s eyes about what people are missing from the light novel industry, given the biases of our present demographic of english fan translators.

      (I mean look, kuroko no basket ranked #7 in best sellers ;D)

      Like

  2. Nice article, and I agree that there’s a lot more variety to light novels than is generally acknowledged. There’s lots of reasons for that of course, but with the internet I think it’s easier nowadays to spread the word for any works we might consider “overlooked gems.”

    As for Mimizuku, I actually remember seeing this book at some point and was curious about it. But now I know there’s been a translation all this time! I will certainly add it to my to-read list, since it sounds quite interesting.

    Also, you’re the one working on a Humanity Has Declined translation? I’m definitely looking forward to that! I have my Japanese copy, but I’m just not at the stage in my Japanese studies where I can read it. >_>

    Like

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment, Cho-san!

      To be honest, I’m actually been a fan of yours for quite a while and I’ve been too shy to say anything to you even though I follow you on twitter……. orz I honestly think your site is the best resource for english light novels on the Internet. xDD

      Yes–I am the one who’s translating Jinrui. I’ve stalled a little bit into this semester because it’s so long. >______100 pages) are like running a marathon and it seems like the end is never in sight… q____q

      Sometimes I also get self-conscious about my abilities as a fan translator as well, but what can we do when there’s so few of us and the talent pool is so small?

      Like

      • Thanks for the kind words! I’m hoping to keep improving the entries for the site. I should work on that more this month…

        Translating has to be very difficult work, I imagine! It’s something I’d like to attempt at some point, once I feel a little more confident with my Japanese. If you need help with editing or want some feedback on Jinrui though, feel free to send me an email! I did minor in editing, and have written some novels over the years.

        Like

        • Sorry for taking such a long time to respond to you Cho-desu! I kind of… forgot about this comment. q______q

          I’d be happy if you’d edit for me! Though to be honest I’m a little self-conscious because you’d probably be a better editor than I am a translator. OTL. I am translating from Chinese after all……..

          I’ll definitely hit you up if I end up updating Jinrui again! I’ve been a little busy with school semester so I don’t know exactly when I’ll get back to it, but I hope to stay in touch!

          Like

          • Sounds good; feel free to email me whenever you’d like to try coordinating an effort to edit any material you have. (englishlightnovels… gmail) Jinrui is a story I’d love to see in English, so I have that to motivate me. =P

            I do own the Japanese copy of the first volume BTW, so I’d potentially be able to check on things there if any questions arise in the Chinese edition. I’m only a beginner with Japanese but I have been working at it a couple years.

            Like

  3. I definitely agree with you too that there are a lot more hidden gems out there then what is more commonly shown. Though it doesn’t help that most anime adapted from light novels seem to like following a specific template, and it’s mostly through anime where the series is being garnered more interest. So far, the only “non-tropey” light novels I read are All You Need is Kill and maybe HakoMari… Yea, I’m going to have to check out Mimizuku soon.

    Like

    • Thanks for responding! You’re definitely right that a lot of light novels adapted into anime nowadays are very trope-y. This is very true–any light novel series with long titles should be a red flag. ;)

      At the same time, I should point out that Monogatari, Durarara, Spice and Wolf, Humanity Has Declined, etc… There are many light novel series that have been adapted into anime that are significantly less trope-y than the stereotype. And this is only scratching the surface.

      Another interesting case study I’ll point out is the light novel source material of Free! The original novel (“High Speed”) is written by a male author about elementary school swimmers and their coming of age story–essentially a “sports” genre comparable to ginga e kickoff. Obviously the bromance is nonexistent. When KyoAni took the novel, they well… Commodized it and Yaoi-fied it. The original story and themes got dropped.

      What I’m suggesting here is that anime has a tendency to magnify tropes and drop the subtleties. Anime adaptions have a tendency to strip everything down to plot. Yes, many light novels contain tropes, but there is also a certain bias for tropes when anime adaptations are produced.

      Like

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