Text version and links:
In the mid-1990s, twenty-something year-old author Kouhei Kadono was struggling to make his debut. Publishers repeatedly turned him away, stating that his work was too bizarre and out-there to be released. Kadono developed a deep admiration for and jealousy of pop media, and decided to pursue a better pop sensibility in his work. What resulted was a middle ground which he referred to as “a sort of boogie pop.”
Boogiepop and Others was published in 1998 and took the grand prize in the Dengeki G’s Novel Contest, along with meeting widespread success in Japan. It wasn’t the first published book to be considered a “light novel,” nor was it the first to become hugely popular and later get adapted into animation, as the 90s had also seen adaptations of popular sci-fi and fantasy series, such as The Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Record of Lodoss War, Crest of the Stars, Irresponsible Captain Tylor, and Slayers. However, Boogiepop and Others was the book which set the tone for what light novels were going to become over the next two decades.
Set in a typical Japanese high school, and with illustrations which, while distinct from the style that was popular at the time, were nonetheless very anime, Boogiepop was built on the backbone of resembling a typical anime or manga series. However, the story itself was far from ordinary, combining elements of supernatural horror and mystery, a distinctly Lovecraftian mythological undercurrent, and themes about the nature of society and teen psychology. Boogiepop was a lot deeper and darker than much of its ilk. Its structure was unique as well, with the story being told anachronically by five different narrators who weren’t aware of how their part of the story tied in with everyone else’s.
In spite of its anime art and supernatural slant, for all intents and purposes, Boogiepop could’ve been a normal book. It makes fewer references to video games or anime than it does to obscure American eighties bands and old Japanese movies; and were it not for the artwork that it’s packaged with, the characters could easily be imagined as real people. As a matter of fact, following a manga adaptation by the novel’s illustrator in 1999, Boogiepop was adapted into the live-action film Boogiepop Doesn’t Laugh in the year 2000.
Alongside this film adaptation came the anime series Boogiepop Phantom, which takes place sort of in-between the first and second light novels and features some of their characters; but mostly consists of original content; presented in a sort of anthology formula, wherein each episode is a self-contained story that ties together into a bigger narrative. It’s likely that this structure came as the result of the difficulties which would come from trying to adapt the largely narration-driven Boogiepop novels; which, individually, wouldn’t be long enough to fill up a whole show, and would be awkward to adapt with their anachronic storylines.
While Boogiepop didn’t exactly cause a sudden boom in light novels nor light novel adaptations, it did set the tone for what kind of stories were going to be made over the next five years. The Kara no Kyoukai series by Type-Moon, which began its doujinshi publication in 1998, was similar in its dark urban setting, anachronic storytelling, and themes of supernatural horror and psychology. While not similar in setting, Kino’s Journey began publishing in 2000 and had a similarly contemplative and thematically deep storyline with hints of underlying darkness, and was adapted into animation in 2003. That year also gave us Baccano, which married the anachronic order, dark urban setting and supernatural mysteries with a cast of over-the-top characters, and set it in 1920s New York. Ballad of a Shinigami and Hanbun no Tsuki also started in 2003, with a tone and presentation more similar to Kino’s Journey in their quiet contemplation and anthology style, and both were adapted into six-episode OVAs in 2006. 2003 also gave us Gosick, which was much more of a straightforward mystery series, but with similar tonal elements to the others.
While Kouhei Kadono would gradually take his success with the Boogiepop franchise as license to grow increasingly more boogie with each new installation, 2002 saw the rise of a young author who would truly take the boogie and pop combination to its furthest extremes. Nisioisin made his popular debut with the Zaregoto series–a mystery crime drama which focused mostly on unbelievably long and impenetrably convoluted conversations rife with wordplay, pop culture references, and plot twists so out of left field that it’s questionable if anything makes sense at all. These elements would become Nisioisin’s trademarks, though the author would truly leave his mark on the light novel industry years later.
Whereas the light novels that I’ve talked about so far mostly began as complete stories, the history of light novels is also closely tied to that of certain anthology magazines. While I don’t feel that all of them are relevant to the trajectory of light novel adaptations that I’m trying to paint with this post, the emergence of the light novel and manga anthology Faust in 2003 marked a genesis moment for the modern style of light novel. Featuring short stories by the aforementioned Kouhei Kadono, Type-Moon, and Nisioisin, along with other rising stars like Otsuichi, Tatsuhiko Takimoto, and Ryukishi07, Faust had a strong focus on the type of dark, urban, and hyper-modern mystery stories which all of these authors were popularizing.
Between the works of these authors, light novels started to take on a unique identity. These stories were often a little bit twisted, bizarre, and out there, yet unmistakable tied in some way to the culture and personality of the modern otaku. Tatsuhiko Takimoto’s 2002 novel Welcome to the NHK was the semi-autobiographical tale of his years spent in self-isolation binging deep on anime culture. Type-Moon and Ryukishi07 would grow in popularity as visual novel producers with series like Higurashi, Tsukihime, and Fate/Stay Night–all of which were also adapted into anime in the mid-2000s.
As light novels grew in popularity, more of them were slowly brought to animation. Much of what got animated in the early 2000s was popular sci-fi and fantasy novels more in the vein of Slayers from the late 90s, such as Full Metal Panic, Scrapped Princess, Starship Operators, The Twelve Kingdoms, and Kyo Kara Maou. Also, unrelated to the trends which I’ve talked about or will continue to talk about, there emerged a steady stream of romance stories, often focused on lesbian romance, with series such as Maria-sama ga Miteru and Strawberry Panic, both of which were adapted into anime in the mid-2000s. There also emerged a number of series which were more like manga stories that just happened to be written as novels, such as Shakugan no Shana, which started in 2002 and was adapted into several seasons of anime starting in 2005, Zero no Tsukaima, which started in 2004 and was adapted into several seasons of anime starting in 2006, and To Aru Majutsu no Index, which started in 2004 and was adapted into several seasons of anime starting in 2008.
However, the moment when light novel trends began to shift and truly mold into what we see today started in the mid-2000s, as light novel adaptations became more and more frequent. It all begins with yet another light novel series that began in 2003, but which became much more significant when it was adapted into animation in 2006. I’m talking, of course, about the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya.
Haruhi took a lot of the supernatural edge and narrator-driven approach which other stories had made popular, but ditched the horror element in favor of characters that didn’t take themselves very seriously, and a storyline which was a deliberate meta-commentary on the kinds of stories which could be found in most anime and manga. The idea was to poke fun at the ridiculousness of high-school anime wherein every character is some kind of super-powered creature, while also being that kind of story itself. To get around the issue of how the first novel had the most straightforward dramatic narrative while the others were more standalone stories, the adaptation used an anachronic episode order so that the biggest dramatic payoff would come at the end of the series. It was clever for its time; and, more importantly, it was explosively popular.
After the success of Haruhi, light novel adaptations became far more frequent. Baccano was adapted in 2007 and, similar to Haruhi, used an anachronic episode order to time the climaxes of three books all to occur at the end of the show. Spice and Wolf received a more straightforward adaptation in 2008, being as it was a fantasy story, but with the unique twist of being focused on economics. Kure-nai received an anime adaptation in 2008 which largely changed the nature of the story, whereas the straightforward romance series Toradora was given a straightforward adaptation that year as well, along with Toshokan Sensou and Kyouran Kazoku Nikki.
However, while the effect that Haruhi had on light novel anime adaptations was simply to make more of them happen, it was the effect of the series on light novels themselves which would become far more significant. From 2006 onwards, there would be a massive emergent trend of light novels which go out of their way to bend and play with anime tropes, or to have elements of meta-commentary on otaku culture. You can see the early effects of this in meta-centric stories like 2008’s Seitokai no Ichizon, which was adapted in 2009, and Nogizaka Haruka no Himitsu, which started around the same time as Haruhi but was adapted in 2008. Haruhi can hardly take the full blame for starting this trend though, as another light novel series which began in 2005 may have contributed to it even more.
Bakemonogatari was a series of anthology shorts which Nisioisin wrote for Mephisto magazine. These shorts were compiled and added onto in a pair of collected volumes which became hugely popular. Not unlike Haruhi, Bakemonogatari featured a lot of meta elements, with characters frequently using otaku terminology and commenting on the nature of their story as being exactly that; although Nisioisin’s writing brought a far more twisted slant to the dialog. Bakemonogatari still feels very much like a Faust-style light novel, but its increased use of meta humor made it popular among otaku, and would hit like a second wave on the style of light novels with its adaptation in 2009.
Put another way, if the Haruhi adaptation started a trend in light novels to be more meta, while starting a trend in anime to adapt more light novels, then the Bakemonogatari adaptation started a trend in light novels to become even more meta, while starting a trend in anime to adapt the plethora of meta-centric light novels which Haruhi had already inspired.
While it’s true that Haruhi had already been hugely profitable, the success of Bakemonogatari would take things to a whole new level which no one could have predicted. In spite of being a trippy, bizarre, and relatively low-budget adaptation by a studio used to modest success, the Bakemonogatari anime set new records for blu-ray sales in Japan, and is still among the top five highest-selling anime of all time by a longshot. The success of this series opened the floodgates on light novel adaptations; and it wasn’t long before the iron was struck once more by a series which would come to define the trajectory of light novel adaptations from here on out.
Remember that up until this point, light novel adaptations have been pretty varied–with some being more fantasy and sci-fi oriented, and others following a trend of quietly contemplative stories, or otherwise bringing a heavy element of dark, urban, and supernatural fantasy to the mix. Even stuff like Haruhi and Bakemonogatari, which played around with the meta of anime storytelling, still had heavy elements of supernatural mystery and an off-kilter presentation, which set them apart from the average anime and manga series. However, it would be the runaway success of the 2010 anime adaptation of the 2008 light novel Ore no Imouto ga Konna ni Kawaii Wake ga Nai–or, My Little Sister Can’t Possibly Be This Cute–which inevitably set the tone for what was to come.
Ore no Imouto was once again an otaku-centric story with a meta-driven narrative, being about a cute little sister who’s obsessed with cute little sisters, and all of her otaku friends. Narratively, it was more of a conventional romantic comedy/slice of life story, but the ever-popular meta element made it a smash hit among otaku audiences, and ignited a trend wherein the little sister character would become nearly ubiquitous in light novels for years to come. It wasn’t long before approximately five million adaptations of light novels with obnoxiously long titles and heavily meta-driven storylines began pouring out of the woodwork, with varying degrees of imagination.
Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai, Denpa Onna to Seishun Otoko, Haiyore! Nyaruko-san, Inou-Battle wa Nichijou-kei no Naka de, Jinsei, Kanojo ga Flag o Oraretara, Kore wa Zombie Desu ka?, No Game No Life, No-rin, Ore no Nounai Sentakushin ga Gakuen Rabu-Kame o Zenryoku de Jama Shiteru, Onii-chan Dakedo Ai Sae Areba Kanke Nai yo Ne, Ore no Kanojo to Osananajimi ga Shuraba Sugiru, Ore Twintail ni Narimasu, Outbreak Company, Papa no Iukoto o Kikinasai, R-15, Rokujyoma no Shinryakusha, Shinmai Maou no Testament, Hentai Ouji to Warawanai Neko, Yahari Ore no Seishun Rabu Kome wa Machigatteiru, Yuusha ni Narenakatta Ore wa Shibushibu Shuushoku o Ketsui Shimashita, and Saenai Heroine no Sodatekata, are all light novel series with heavy meta elements which have been adapted into animation in the time since OreImo–and those are just the ones I know about. While some of them are more interesting than others, the majority of them are pretty much exactly the same.
This isn’t to say, however, that there are not still light novel adaptations being made which don’t fall into these trends. Durarara!! comes from the same author as Baccano and fits in with the old Faust style, as does Fate/Zero; while series like Log Horizon, Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita, and Kyoukaisen-jou no Horizon keep the sci-fi and fantasy styles alive. Golden Time and Sakurasou Pet na Kanojo keep the romantic flames going, while series like Hataraku Maou-sama, Amagi Brilliant Park, and Hitsugi no Chaika fall in more with the manga-like style that I mentioned before. There’s also plenty of dumb-ass generic shit like Sword Art Online, Machine-Doll wa Kizutsukenai, Absolute Duo, and Seiken Tsukai no World Break, which don’t necessarily follow light novel trends so much as general anime and manga cliches.
The point of this post is not so much to pigeon hole light novel adaptations into one archetype, nor to be a comprehensive guide to their history, but rather to paint the picture of how certain trends came to be. You can see how a genre which started out revolving around dark, urban, supernatural mysteries with light sprinklings of anime tropes, slowly morphed into an ever more indulgent series of meta-centric stories. It’s interesting to think of the two trends I’ve presented here as concentric circles, with Haruhi and Bakemonogatari falling in the middle, while Boogiepop sits on the far left, and Ore no Imouto on the far right.
By now, the only remnants of the old Faust-style light novels being brought to animation are in the form of the still-running Monogatari franchise, the reinstated Durarara anime, and, potentially, the forthcoming new Haruhi series. This is pretty sad for me, as someone who was a really big fan of that style, and who finds myself increasingly frustrated with the proliferation of lazy, up their own ass meta shows. The first episode of Saekano this season was a sort of breaking point for me, where I finally watched a light novel adaptation get so deep into its own asshole in so little time that I honestly wanted these types of adaptations to stop happening. Still, trends will be trends, and it’s probably only a matter of time before another wildly popular light novel adaptation inspires a whole new one. Here’s hoping that time comes soon.