Sakae Esuno‘s Future Diary (or Mirai Nikki as it is known in Japan and still know by most fans) is a psychological thriller that might be one of the best entry points into modern Japenese young adult fiction around. The first volume, which has recently been published in the US by Tokyopop, moves at an insane, whiplash-inducing pace that burns through plot elements, action scenes, character interaction, and emotional development so fast you might not even realize at first that any of it happened. However, whether you have just finished your first blast-through or are turning the pages again for a closer look, there’s no doubt that you’ll find something enticing in the pages of the Future Diary.
Describing the plot of Future Diary is difficult without using a lot of words or potentially summarizing the whole first volume. It’s like trying to get someone into Death Note; if you tell them it’s about a book that kills whoever’s name is written in it, they won’t likely be as interested as they would were you to shove the first volume in their hands.
Tokyopop seems to have struggled with this problem themselves, as their blurb is not particularly interesting nor descriptive of many of the more interesting elements of the story. Their praise blurb isn’t helping much either, because ‘chilling shounen masterpiece’ is a pretty terrible way to advertise. Future Diary is one of those series whose fans try to pretend it’s actually a seinen manga. [This seems to be the case for a lot of things published in Shounen Ace, such as the ultra-violent Deadman Wonderland, Ga-rei, Goth (which was rated 18+ when it hit the US) and other bloody shit that makes you question the sanity of the Japanese youth.] This description of ‘shounen’ is further bemused by the ’16+’ label on the cover. Perhaps worst of all, the genre sticker attached is ‘mystery’, which has nothing to do with Future Diary.
To give you the basic gist of the story, Yukiteru, the main character, is a middle school student who is fine with being a loner. He considers himself merely a spectator to the world and takes logs of everything he sees around him in a diary on his cell phone. He enjoys talking with his imaginary friend, Deus ex Machina (pictured above) who is essentially god, and visits him in his room alongside his loli servant Muru Muru. Deus randomly decides one day that he wants to create a fun game in which he will collect 12 people who like to keep cell phone diaries and change those diaries into ‘future diaries’. Each of the future diary holders must seek out and kill the others by destroying their phones, thereby destroying them, and the last person standing will take Deus’ throne as god.
Each person’s future diary is a revised version of their normal diary, only it predicts the future up to 90 days in advance. For instance, one of the diary holders is a police officer who kept case notes in his phone, so he is now able to predict future criminal activity. Yukiteru has an advantage in that besides things about himself, he kept logs of anything in his surroundings, so he gets predictions about all of those things. He also finds out that one of his classmates, the beautiful and intelligent Yuno Gasai, is also a diary holder and, as it turns out, his stalker. Because she had always been taking notes on him, her diary now predicts HIS future in 10 minute increments. There are a lot of other complications to the game, but that can be saved for your reading.
As I mentioned before, Future Diary is pretty much the epitome of modern Japanese young adult fiction. Readers of such authors as Ryukishi07 (the Higurashi franchise), NISIOISIN (Zaregoto, Bakemonogatari, Death Note Another Note), Kouhei Kadono (Boogiepop), or Kinoku Nasu (Fate/Stay Night, Tsukihime, Kara no Kyoukai) will be sure to love Future Diary, though it’s more likely that Future Diary will be your gateway drug into reading those kinds of authors. What I refer to as ‘modern Japanese young adult fiction’ can be somewhat defined by a few major characteristics.
- Psychological plot elements (i.e. one or several characters are crazy, possess personality disorders, or are a part of modern psychological trends like hikkikomori.)
- Character development is the backdrop for fast-paced storytelling – in Future Diary’s case, the development of characters’ personalities or interactions interacts directly with the situation at hand. For instance, progress in Yukiteru and Yuno’s relationship may be directly relative to their surviving a hostile situation.
- Use of popular modern technology. In Future Diary, the plot is almost entirely founded on the use of cell phone logs, which as you may know are a huge deal among Japan’s youth (and increasingly among America’s with site’s like Textnovel making the cross-continental transition.)
- Brevity. Most of the authors listed are known for their work on Light Novels or short stories as part of compilation magazines like Faust. While the manga is approaching 9 volumes in length and has been in publication for 3 years, it reads incredibly fast and has it’s focus on pulse-pounding, high-thrills action. I usually take around 35-40 minutes to read a single manga volume (I know, I read slowly) but I burned through this volume in under 20.
- Highly powerful entities. Much like the shinigami in Death Note or the Towa Organization in Boogiepop, Future Diary has Deus ex Machina, a veritable god. The inclusion of these entities is usually meant to make it so that anything can happen in the story at random and be totally justified (Deus ex Machina is truly a fitting title!)
- Massive amounts of death. Any of these stories, (and in fact every single one I’ve listed above,) features massive amounts of death from bystanders, usually without any key characters breaking a sweat. It adds to the chilling, psychological nature of the stories and creates the sort of atmosphere where nothing feels safe and anything can happen to anyone (sort of Pulp in that regard.)
In addition to the major plot elements, the artwork is chock full of modern stylings. This is actually a tough claim to make, considering that a lot of young adult fiction features extravagant or unique artwork, but the goal is usually to combine uniqueness, simplicity, cuteness, and sensibility all into one, and Future Diary catches that in a number of ways. As you would see in most light novels and visual novels, Future Diary has stylings of moe, especially in the character Yuno. She is designed to be utterly cute, but also psychologically threatening and/or threatened. She is so attached to Yukiteru that it could be considered obsession, and she is very much the ‘sudden girlfriend appearance’ type character, however she is also completely insane and delightfully violent.
This is a common trend in this type of story – we take the kind of character familiar to us from moe anime, and put a twist on them so that they remain a deep and interesting character thanks to their psychological state, which is often used to justify their role as a wish fulfillment character.
However, while Yuno is drawn as a very cute, would-be-girlfriend with a crazy edge type of look, she also doesn’t look out of place with reality besides, perhaps, her pink hair. The characters in Future Diary are drawn with some sense of realism to keep the story feeling close to reality and intensifying the experience without sacrificing the anime style. (This is a technique that I feel Takashi Takeuchi of TYPE-MOON has mastered.) Part of the way this is accomplished is by focusing less on the body or clothing appearance of the characters as you would see in a lot of shounen manga, and more on the facial expressions.
Each character has their own set of defining facial features that are more recognizable than anything else. Yuno especially has been known to the fanbase for her spectacular facial expressions. She always has an innocent look, but with a creepy touch to it that makes you unsure of whether you should be attracted or frightened. Regardless of the character’s personality type, all of them display a wide range of emotions on their face, which ends up providing more character development than anything else in the story – which is perfect when the breakneck pace leaves no room for such things.
Take Minene Uryu, pictured above. She shows up out of nowhere and immediately is in the thick of action, plotting to destroy Yukiteru by placing bombs all over his school. All of her dialog is central to the progression of the scene, but her facial expressions develop her personality for us as we see her go through joy, confidence, confusion, surprise, rage, determination, and utter insanity. And all, I might add, while looking seriously badass and awesome. This all goes back to support my second bulletin above.
Beyond the character designs, the artwork also features a very nice display of action sensibility. One of the biggest things I look out for in manga is whether or not I can easily tell what is going on and how the artist can create dramatic imagery without sacrificing sensibility. In this case, the artist certainly knows what they are doing. A couple of great examples I found were a pair of scenes where the accelerating action is kept tense by scenes that use tricks to convey movement that is ordinarily difficult to depict in manga. One (below) is a moment in an elevator, where we are kept aware of the elevator’s movement (as people often can’t tell if an elevator is stopped or not) by a view of it from inside of the shaft traveling upward. The other (which I showed above) uses a line to trace the character’s movement as he dodges mines that are placed underground. These may seem like minor details, but when you are reading a highly intense scene, they help immensely in keeping you focused on the action without having to study the image to figure out what’s going on.
One particular scene that I enjoyed (below, minor spoiler for chapter one) is when Yukiteru leaps out and throws a dart at his opponent’s phone. The way that the dart appears to be leaving his hand gives the impression of watching it in slow motion like you would see in an action movie, and then watching it travel through the air. I really enjoyed imagining this effect.
Okay, so I’ve brought up that the art is great, the plot is insane and moves very fast, the characters are developed along with the plot movement, and the whole thing is covered in modern stylings. So what are some of the problems? The first, as I’ve found to be the case for a number of light novels (though by no means all) is the manga’s greatest strength itself – the extremely fast pace. Future Diary volume one shoots by so fast that it’s hard to even really be sure what just happened, much less decide if you like it. While the characters and plot develop quickly, that quickness is taking up a lot of pages, and it isn’t likely that you’ll really know how you feel about the series after just one volume. It may be enough to catch your interest and keep you going with the series, but it’s hardly enough to have you proclaiming your love for it or getting really engrossed.
I actually had read the first volume of Future Diary nearly 2 years ago, and my first impression was that it was amazing thanks to the trippiness and modern stylings that I adore, but I didn’t end up remembering the series all that well and never got around to volume 2. I’d say that volume one should be considered just a taste-taster, especially at the speed you’ll burn through it.
Which brings me to the all-important question – is it worth buying? The first volume doesn’t come with very much extra content at all. There is a fun little 2-page omake where the author uses Deus’ loli assistant to explain some things you may have missed in the volume, and a one-page guide to the diaries seen in the volume (which is totally useless) and that’s it – no artist bio, no nothing (unless you like 10 pages of ads). In addition, whatever material the cover is made of sucks a fat one. It’s flimsy as all hell and instantly refuses to stay down. It honestly feels like they just laminated a piece of construction paper. Not to mention you’ll have to break out the change, since they are charging $10.99 for this bad boy for whatever ungodly reason.
Now, that sounds like a whole fuckload of signs pointing towards ‘no’, but I actually think the volume is probably worth buying for the translation. The translating and localizing job is excellent and flows beautifully, whereas what I’ve seen of the fan-translation is just horrible, from their choice of text down to their phrasing of certain lines. The Tokyopop version is highly preferable, though since you are probably going to want a worthwhile investment, it would probably be best to read a volume or two of the fan translations online before you buy *coughmangafoxdotcomcaugh*. Tokyopop actually has some previews on their site, but for some completely stupid reason, they have an incomplete chapter from two different volumes.
Overall, Future Diary is a very fun, very fast-paced and well-illustrated thriller that will either get you into the modern Japanese young adult novel scene, or fulfill your growing need for more of it. It’s worth owning if you already know you’re interested, but otherwise, pre-reading is highly suggested.
Volume One Score – 8.6/10
1. Zaregoto Book 1 The Kubikiri Cycle – My impressions after reading NISIOISIN’s Zaregoto
2. Gosick – My impressions of the Gosick light novel
3. Musical References in Boogiepop and Others – An analysis of the music in my favorite modern Japanese young adult light novel
4. Goth Impressions – Another similar type of series
5. Eastern Standard – Site and blog of Andrew Cunningham, translator of many light novels including the Boogiepop franchise and several NISIOISIN works.