The Benefits and Pleasure of Reading Light Novels

Normally this is the time of week I’d have a light novel or manga review and I certainly have more than a few books stacked on my desk and ready for their reviews to be written or finalised. However, recently I was asked what I enjoyed about reading light novels and it made me start thinking about the changes in my reading habits over the past two years since I started reading my very first light novel series, Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash.

My whole life I’ve been obsessed with books. I fill shelves with them, spend hours rummaging through dusty boxes and shelves in second hand book stores, and spend more than a fair bit of time online shopping for books. However, growing up my focus was decided split with fantasy, science fiction and horror books on the one side and the standard classic literature list on the other. At university I expanded more into a range of authors who pioneered or represented movements or were renowned in some form or another, though I definitely kept enjoying my genre fiction.

It was pretty standard for me to be carrying two to three novels on me at any one time and cycle through them based on my mood or how much time I had to sit and read.

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Then adulting happened.

I know, becoming an adult is kind of that thing we all have to do. But it had a definite impact on my reading because after spending a day reading for work meant by the time I came home I wanted entertainment that was less immersive and demanding of me and so movies and games filled the recreation time, as did my growing obsession with anime. I still read books, but they became something I stacked away and stored for long weekends or holidays where I would devour two or three in quick succession. Young adult novels became more standard in my collection because they were quicker to read and I was sure to complete it before I got distracted by work again.

As my anime obsession grew, so did my curiosity with the source material of many anime and while I wasn’t overly keen on reading manga, I decided it was time to plunge into light novels.

Fortunately for me I picked wisely.

At first I ordered one volume of one series when it was on sale and thought the worst that could happen was it would end up donated to a charity where it would end up sold on to someone else. However, I kind of became hooked.

For all that the first volume of Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash is not a perfect book by any means, the story rolls over you easily and carried you along to the end. There’s enough description to sketch in the world and character dialogue to give them shape, but it doesn’t get bogged down in details or tedious conversations that serve no purpose.

In a nutshell, it is easy and undemanding to read. Plus, easily devoured in a single sitting or over a couple of evenings so even with work demands it was something I could sink my teeth into and enjoy.

However, as my collection of light novels and manga (because one opened the door to the other) grew I ran into a few problems as well as a few really good points.

My main problem was storage space. Because of the quick read time and number of volumes in some sets it became quickly apparent I was going to need to a new shelf to store them on. But the other issue is that each series seems to be its own specific shape. Some are wider or taller than others and so stacking books has become quite the game of jenga and I’m not entirely convinced I’m the best person for the job. Particularly when I decide to read an older volume and pull it out from under a precarious stack, or the latest volume of a series I just read needs to be placed under another series requiring some careful handling.

This is a dream come true, a room totally surrounded by books.

Admittedly, a lot of people are probably just better at dealing with stacks that don’t perfectly align but for me everytime I look at the light novel collection I just want to try to make all the spines line up neatly and I’ve yet to succeed because they just don’t.

The other problem is naturally cost. While each book doesn’t cost all that much, particularly taking into account the frequency of online sales, the speed at which the books are read and again, the number of volumes each set will end up with, means that the cost of books rapidly adds up. It isn’t insurmountable but in order to stop myself binge spending on any other given day I plan lists and schedules for my next book order to keep it all under control and under budget.

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Yet both of these are petty complaints.

The books I’ve bought and read so far have been fun and entertaining. They’ve given me a raft of colourful characters and settings and plots that are incredibly. In the case of Grimgar and DanMachi the books have filled the void left by anime that next concluded the story and in the case of the Natsume manga I’ve found a new and amazing way to experience a story I loved in anime form. Arifureta gave me something different in a genre I’m familiar with from anime, and so on and so forth.

I love the artwork that is included in these books, whether it is the fold out work at the beginning of the volumes or the images scattered throughout, it just adds something to the reading experience. And certainly I appreciate any book that is easily slotted into a handbag or travel bag. That and a book that doesn’t hurt when it falls on my face because I fell asleep while reading.

Certainly I’ve ordered the first volume of some series and it just hasn’t worked for me and I’ve not continued on, but that is true of all types of books. Growing up there was a huge second hand book sale that took place every six months and the last day of the sale always had a fill-a-bag option and so I would plunder the fantasy section of any and everything I hadn’t read. I worked on the standard idea that only one in every ten books I started would actually be amazing and only three in ten would be good enough to end up on my book shelf. The rest would be read and then returned to the charity to end up at the next book sale. The only tragedy being that one particular book got purchased on three separate occasions.

Yeah, No Game No Life looked like it should be perfect for me, but just didn’t work out.

From that point of view, I’ve had far more hits than misses when it comes to reading light novels, though given a lot that I’ve chosen I’ve watched the anime of, I’m not going in blind to very many.

While a few people I know feel I’ve gone backwards a bit in my reading, all I can say is that I’m having as much fun as every consuming stories. While the pictures on the covers of the books I’m reading these days may be brighter, what hasn’t changed is my general love of words and nicely flowing plot with characters I can get behind and want to see succeed.

Next week I’ll get back to actually reviewing something from the stack before it takes over my desk entirely but before then, if you read light novels I’d love to know what you find appealing about them?

Thanks for reading
Karandi James
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Friday’s Feature: Baiting the Hook

There’s been a lot already said about the proliferation of anime, seasonal watchers, and the general idea that there’s just too much content so I’m really not going to get into that. However, in that sea of content, creators know they have to get the attention of their very fickle audience and then they have to catch us and reel us in. Mostly because seasonal watchers tend to demonstrate a number of common traits: a short attention span and limited tolerance for ‘filler’.

While previously shows have had episodes to build a world and characters, now many viewers make snap judgements with some cutting episodes before the first scene is done. Where the three episode rule used to hold true, and current narratives seem to be well aware of such a rule with more and more shows either moving a mini-climax to episode two or making episode 3 a two-parter to draw their episode back (How Not To Summon A Demon Lord), less viewers seem to actually hold to this rule these days. To be honest, they just don’t want to sink an hour of their lives into something they are ultimately going to drop.

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As such we are getting more and more first episodes and more and more characters with quite distinct traits designed to draw the audience in with the hope that then the rest of the story will hook the in for the season. While sometimes this works beautifully as the audience is dragged along on a wondrous adventure before being cut loose to go and bite some other line, other times it leaves the audience feeling like they got reeled in and left high and dry.

This isn’t exactly new. Entertainment has always been competitive and most shows have always realised they needed something to distinguish themselves from other titles. Yet in the age of streaming and simulcasts this has become more important than ever and it is starting to show in the way first arcs are feeling more and more compacted and rushed and mid-seasons are feeling a little bit empty before we escalate toward a climax.

Now, there are some obvious baiting moves. If we look at Darling in the Franxx, well we already know how they baited their hook, the glorious Zero-Two. She was such an energetic enigma of a character in the first episode. Throw in some nudity, a bit of danger, and a sense of her rebellious nature, and you have the perfect bait for a community to go crazy on social media. And so they did. I also really loved Zero-Two’s initial characterisation particularly the way they built up the idea of her being a partner killer. However, this was definitely a case of bait and switch as little came of the partner killer idea beyond the first arc and Zero-Two became a progressively less interesting character as the season continued.

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Clearly the writers knew how to grab the audience’s attention but then they didn’t know what to do with it. They’d created this perfectly researched, tantalising character, but had no message, point, or even solid arc for her to travel on. By the time she literally became a hollow shell before turning to stone while staring at the sky a lot of the love for Zero-Two had worn down and many viewers realised that they’d been hooked onto a show that ultimately didn’t suit them and what they wanted from an anime.

Other obvious baiting moves include the flash forward or flash back to some kind of massive conflict that may or may not become relevant later. The issue with this is it has been done to death and when done poorly, it mostly just eats up screen time with characters no one knows running around or shouting and there’s little reason to care what is going on (Lord of Vermilion – looking at you right now). However, this can be highly effective bait.

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Look at the opening sequence to season one of Attack on Titan. The birds slowly flying over the city to the wall where we suddenly see the titan emerging. The close ups on the character’s eyes as they widen in fear and horror. This sequence is brief enough that it doesn’t feel like wasted time and yet sensational enough to have an impact. The audience wants to know. When is this going to happen? What happens next? And fortunately, Attack on Titan knew what to do after baiting the hook. It delivered the titan by the end of the episode. No waiting an entire season just to get back to the original bait. For all that Attack on Titan might be criticised for some of its narrative choices, it knew exactly how to capture an audience and that really explains why its popularity exploded the way it did, even if the longevity of that massive fan-base wasn’t so set in stone.

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However, bait isn’t limited to first episodes. Supporting characters introduced later in their series need bait as well otherwise they get crowded out or forgotten. There are many shows where viewers would struggle to name any of the support characters even a month after the show finished its run. Yet a memorable support cast can really elevate a viewing experience.

That word memorable might be a bit of a double edge sword though with some shows simply giving characters insane designs or making them needlessly crazy but forgetting to actually characterise them in any meaningful way. The Musicians from Caligula would fit this bill. They were definitely visually distinct and yet their characters rang very hollow and ultimately I couldn’t tell you anything about any of them, except one of the guys had some complex about another guy being prettier than him. That isn’t exactly leaving an impression.

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My Hero Academia excels at building its support cast and baiting their individual story-lines so that when the main narrative turns its attention to one of these characters it doesn’t feel like filler but rather like a much anticipated story thread. Who didn’t want to know the story behind Todoroki’s scarred face? Who isn’t curious about Tokoyami’s dark shadow? And let’s be honest, if Twitter is anything to go by, Tsuyu is a character who has captured all the fan’s attention and the filler episode of season 2 was entirely a show about everyone’s beloved Froppy. These characters each have something about them that makes the audience want to know more and feel satisfied when they finally get it. They are talked about almost as much as the protagonist’s, and they are an intrinsic part of what makes the show feel like more than what the basic narrative of Midoriya becoming a hero really should warrant.

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When a show does baiting right the audience feels satisfied and happy with the experience. When the baiting is just that and there’s no substance to back it up, then the audience feels cheated. When the baiting is poorly done the audience looks at the hook and then turns away looking for something better.

Of course, that does leave us all with the question of whether or not this is going to have a positive impact on how stories are told? While grabbing a reader’s attention has always been an important goal for a story, usually there was more time to do this. As we get increasingly more gimmicky, more violent, more zany and more over the top premises clamouring for our attention (and longer and longer titles on light novels) you have to wonder where it is all going and whether we’ve already gone too far. Has narrative integrity been abandoned for a series of point in time sensational moments that will be shared on social media?

The more cynical would say yes, but that is ignoring some fairly fantastic stories that have come out in recent times. However, there is definitely a shift occurring in the way stories are presented and as always it is the audience driving this shift, whether we’re doing it intentionally or not.

Over to the readers then: What is the worst bait an anime has used to hook its audience?


Thanks for reading.

Karandi James

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Friday’s Feature: There Are Many Ways To Appreciate Anime

Anime is…

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I’m certain most of you were finishing that sentence for yourself and I’m absolutely certain that for every reader the answer is going to end up being a little bit different (even if the same word comes to mind). Why? Because even at the individual level, I watch anime for a wide variety of reasons and each anime that I enjoy is enjoyed or appreciated for a slightly different reason. I don’t want every show to feel the same or to look the same and I’m not looking for the same feeling as I move from one show to another.

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Earlier this year I wrote a fairly positive review of Chain Chronicle: The Light of Haecceitas. If I were to compare that particular show on a more objective level to something like March Comes in Like a Lion or, more sensibly given technically they are at least both fantasy based, The Ancient Magus’ Bride, it becomes quite clear Chain Chronicle isn’t that good of an anime. Visually it is quite rough, the narrative has some issues, and most of the cast remain largely undeveloped. Yet, my review emphasises that despite these flaws the show was really fun to watch if you were a fantasy fan. It was entertaining, it hit the right tropes for the genre, and managed to do it without feeling too derivative in the process. I appreciated seeing an unapologetic, non-parody/comedy fantasy world for a change.

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Whereas, the word fun isn’t one I apply very often to March Comes in Like a Lion. I don’t sit down to watch the next episode of that assuming I’m going to have fun and I’m not even looking for ‘fun’. What I’m looking for is emotional resonance and occasionally a cathartic experience. I know that by the end of most episodes I’m going to be a little shattered and have to take a moment to pause and reflect. The smiles I get in the episodes are ones of seeing characters overcome tough situations or find ways to grow despite the hurdles before them. What I also know I’ll get going into an episode is a visual feast for the eyes and beautifully executed visualizations of emotions and inner turmoil. So despite the absence of a ‘fun’ label on this anime, there’s still much to appreciate that appeals to me as a viewer.

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Then, for some reason, there was Days in 2016. An anime about a weedy looking kid with few friends who decided to try out for a soccer team after being invited to play futsal once by a classmate. I hadn’t watched pretty much any sports anime at that point and time and had no real reason to think I was going to like Days. Then I found the optimism of the main character charming and even though the animation quality was questionable (okay, it was mostly bad), the story pretty standard for a sports story really, and a lot of the cast overlooked until it was their turn for an episode, I really enjoyed watching Tsukamoto each week. It was emotionally uplifting and I didn’t have to think too hard about it so it was just a relaxing way to kill twenty minutes each week with enough of a draw to make me look forward to the next episode.

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But sometimes, that isn’t what I want. I really loved ACCA earlier this year (and the first half of KADO) for the simple reason that I didn’t feel like I was being spoonfed a plot I’d seen a million times before. Both seemed to take a slightly different approach to what might have been a fairly generic set-up and both kind of liked keeping the audience in the dark but not in the maddeningly frustrating way that Dies Irae has managed just to baffle with its narrative choices. Basically, they were kind of clever in giving enough information that you could sense they knew where they were going and that eventually an answer would be revealed, but didn’t tip their hands too early. These were both pretty delightful to follow along with and speculate with others as to where the story would end up. They were also the kind of shows that were better to watch when you could discuss them week to week as the guessing was kind of half the fun.

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Overall, there isn’t a single reason why I might like a show or not. Sometimes it is the art and animation that will draw me to a show where normally that isn’t an aspect I pay a lot of attention to other than ‘this is pretty’ or ‘wow, that’s ugly’. Sometimes it will be the theme song that grabs my interest and makes me like a show more than I might otherwise. Sometimes its the characters or the narrative or the themes or it could be mostly anything. I watch shows to be amused, bemused, informed, inspired, shaken, exhilarated, stunned, and pretty much any emotion you can imagine I’m seeking at some point from a show.

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Quite clearly, no single show is going to hit every one of those buttons and nor would I want it to. That would just be a mess. I prefer that when I tune into show A that I know I’ll mostly get such and such a feeling whereas when I go to show B I’ll find something else. I try to sort my watching around that and avoid watching too many shows in the same style close together. I’ve also learned not to watch anything for at least half a day after an episode of March Comes in Like a Lion because that just doesn’t end well.

So what is anime to me?

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Anime is art. It is literature. It is music. It is emotion. It is drama. It is horror. It is a talking point. It is something that can lift me up and can tear me down and sometimes do both in the space of a single episode. It is a reflection of life. It is a doorway to world’s I couldn’t even begin to imagine and characters I can’t conceive. Basically, I love anime and I appreciate even the shows I would declare terrible because while they continue make anime, I know that something will come out that will leave an impression on me one way or the other.

What is anime to you?


Thanks for reading.

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Thanks,

Karandi James.

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Friday’s Feature – Fiction to Change the World

I’m pretty straight forward about being completely obsessed with stories. All my life I’ve been a reader and a viewer of stories. As a kid I read obsessively (thanks to all the friends who have saved me from walking into traffic while reading) and I loved going to the movies and playing computer games. Sometime in my early twenties (pretty much when internet access started getting much better than dial-up) a new outlet for that obsession was found in anime.

But this post isn’t actually about me. It’s about the nature of fiction and why experiencing narratives is so fundamentally important.

Narratives for Entertainment

Obviously reading and watching for pleasure involves entertainment and that is probably one of the main reasons people engage with stories. Right back to the days of people gathering around the fire to hear about how the earth was made or how man discovered fire. It gives you a break from the real and takes you somewhere else for a little while and can amuse you and invoke a whole range of emotions. However, this is just one facet of the experience.

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Food Wars – Fun, energetic, some basic messages about not-being a jerk, and overall entertaining (at least season 1 was).

Narratives as Educators

This should also be straight forward. Back to the gathering around the fire, people passed on their knowledge, their religion, their ideas through the stories they told. They also shared their values and ideologies through the characters who were made heroic and those that were made into villains. You could learn about what was dangerous, what was acceptable, what was known about something through a story.

You also gain a rich knowledge in general through reading stories. Random facts stick with you well after you finish the story. Stories set in real locations or dealing with real issues usually weave facts into the story to make it more believable. While you can’t take everything in a fiction story at face value (how much research was done and how much was made up is questionable), you do gain a fairly diverse range of knowledge about places, settings, and things.

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Shion no Ou – Have to be honest that I knew nothing about Shogi going into this anime. Afterwards had to look up explanations not because the anime didn’t explain it, but because I wanted to confirm whether I’d understood it correctly.

Narratives as Community Builders

In addition to educating, narratives allow communities to form and to mesh. By having a shared story or understanding, people are able to understand one another better. It’s interesting as we see our world becoming increasingly small that we realise that a lot of the fundamental stories around the globe are very similar in nature and yet those small differences can become critical to understanding one another.

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Terror in Resonance – Dealing with issues old and new. While focussed on events in Japan the messages are universal.

Narratives to Develop Empathy

This is absolutely crucial. Over and over we hear that the current generation (whether it was X, Y, millenials) have no empathy and are self-absorbed. By experiencing things outside of their own life and connecting with characters, people can actually learn to empathise in a way that they might not just by interacting with people in the real world. A common trait of someone who does not have very much empathy is very little imagination. It actually takes imagination to consider how someone else might be feeling and imagination can be fuelled by exposure to narratives (not the only way to build imagination).

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One Punch Man – Poor Genos just wanted to be a hero. He worked so hard and got so incredibly rolled by the plot.

Narratives to Break Barriers

Following on from the ability to develop empathy and imagination, narratives allow people to see beyond the concrete reality and think in ways that might allow new solutions or new possibilities to be formed. At the very least, when confronted with a problem, someone with a rich exposure to stories (or to real life experiences) will have a wealth of options whereas someone without that exposure will struggle to think of a way around the issue. So without experiencing everything yourself, experiencing stories is a good way to build up your repertoire of problem solving skills.

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Sakamoto Desu Ga – Title character Sakamoto certainly shows that there are other ways of thinking about situations.

As we increasingly see reality TV shows and talk shows dominating, I think it is important that the importance of narratives and the role they serve is remembered.

What are your thoughts about stories and the role they play? Or, what’s your favourite medium for stories?

 

Friday’s Feature – Anime For Advertising

We all know anime that was produced entirely to get people to buy something. Whether it be cards, the manga, particular products, an idea, or games, these kind of productions have been around for a long time. Let’s be honest, a lot of this is actually the reason anime gets funded. Like with any kind of commercial art, someone is trying to make a profit from it and the show itself may not be enough to cut it.

Usually, I don’t really care whether an anime is trying to advertise something provided it follows a few simple rules.

  1. Tell a complete story. Even if you want me to buy the manga to see other parts of the story and further developments, your anime series should come to some sort of resolution. This is just storytelling basics. Don’t start something unless you intend to end it.
  2. Your advertising should not intrude on the story. This one is an issue for all those card battle anime. Some of them manage to integrate the card systems into their narrative without too much contrivance but others it just feels awkward.
  3. Be up front about your purpose. People more or less accept advertising and product placement. Most fans also accept that something has to fund the entertainment industry. Nobody really cares except for a few idealists who think art should exist in some commercialess (okay, positive that isn’t actually a word) vacuum. What viewers tend to dislike is being sold something (hey, great anime here!) and then finding out that rule 1 and 2 are completely broken and all we have is a vehicle for selling something.
  4. Be good. You bothered to fund an anime to advertise. At least do a solid job and entertain us. This one really should be self-explanatory and yet seems to be the one that gets dropped most often.

The reason I’m thinking of this at the moment is because of Tales of Zestiria/Tales of Berseria. While I am enjoying the anime, the last two episodes have really been pure advertising. I didn’t hate it (in fact I quite enjoyed both episodes) but I haven’t been given a complete story here. What I’ve been given is something that actually was really good and enjoyable to watch, didn’t feel like advertising (for most of the episodes) and I was pretty clear on what I was getting in the first place. But I haven’t been given a complete story.

As someone who hasn’t played Tales of Zestiria and is fairly unlikely to go looking for a spin off/prequel game, this is a bit disappointing. I also know that makes me not the intended audience so I should probably just not whine and enjoy what is available.

I don’t see making an anime for advertising as a cash grab necessarily. A lot of the time these anime do provide fans with a lot of entertainment. These anime can also draw in new fans (not in a sleezy cash driven way but just by exposing a new audience to the characters and merchandise they may not have seen otherwise). Basically, for me it comes down to transparency of purpose and whether or not what is made is worth watching on its own merit. And that is a really important point. Telling me that the visual novel, the manga, the game or whatever else is awesome does not make the anime any better than what it can deliver as a stand alone piece of entertainment.

Where-ever you sit, I’m curious as to what you think about using anime for advertising.

Or failing that, what are some of the anime you’ve watched that have existed to advertise that you’ve enjoyed/found really irritating?