Light novels are the hottest new thing from Japan–a close sibling to manga that’s the basis for many popular franchises! These bite-sized novels include both black-and-white and color illustrations, and bring fans the most authentic reading experience short of learning Japanese!
Thanks, dust cover blurb. Thdurb.
So I got sent this book from the nice folks at Seven Seas, and part of the deal was that I write something about it on my internet web log by the end of the month. Unfortunately, I resubscribed to WoW at the beginning of the month, so the review got held up by the eternal quest for purpz and epic mountz.
Anyway, K-Ske Hasegawa’s Ballad of a Shinigami (Shinigami no Ballad for the folks at home) is part of Seven Seas’ recent rollout of a number of light novels, full of literary masterpieces of Staggering Genius such as Pita-Ten, and, um, strawberry panic. To be fair, these are all light novels, and while some releases like Boogiepop Phantom might break the mold, at least some of the stuff has to be aptly named. Here, let me quote you an example from an upcoming release:
“A love triangle comedy in the vein of Fruits Basket about a boy named Kouta and the fox and wolf girls that love him! On the very first day that innocent country boy, Oyamada Kouta, transfers to a city high school, the prettiest girl in school asks him to meet her alone. They meet in the music room, all alone. Her shining hair and entreating eyes! Her flushed cheeks! Her sweet lips! Her…fox tail?!! Who is this mysterious and alluring girl and just what does she want with unsuspecting Kouta? Winner of the First Annual Media Factory Japan Best Newcomer for Light Novel Award!”
That aside, I had higher hopes for Ballad, since I vaguely remember enjoying the anime a while ago, even though I think I got episodes of that and Hantsuki mixed up in my head. In fact, I actually own the novel in Japanese, but since I’m lazy, I never bothered reading it. Good thing that I’m getting the most authentic reading experience short of Japanese! Once I started digging into it, I was a little less than satisfied.
The basic premise of Ballad is pretty simple, as most light novel stories are. Each chapter is a nearly-independent story of a character who is in proximity to death in some way or another, and Momo, a shinigami, appears and generally talks some sense into them, catharsis ensues. Volume 1 has 3 longer stories followed by one short one. The stories all have pretty standard themes, especially for fiction aimed towards younger readers: Depressed artist-boy paints not for himself, but for his seemingly uncaring but deep-down loving father; boy and girl’s relationship is tested by stray cat they secretly take care of; emotionally-scarred orphan boy finds true love in even more-scarred girl. I wasn’t struck by many of the characters here, other than Momo, who seems to have an interesting character, but doesn’t get much exposition. I assume that the exposition gets spread out over the stories, but the concept of the bureaucratic administration of death and a loli LOOSE CANNON shinigami interests me more than teary vignettes. Guess I’m just a cynical jerk who read too much Yuu Yuu Hakusho as a child. Unfortunately, I didn’t think that the demi-parables offered up here were as rad as the novelized Kino stories, but I never really got bored while reading through. Also, all of the stories have a pretty strong “death sucks, yo” message to them, which is probably more suited towards hormone-filled teens than a far superior 20-year-old such as myself. Anyway, the stories are all interesting enough, and might make you tear up if you’re a wimp. I guess one of the biggest differences for me between the anime and the novelization is that the emotion and mood of the work comes across a lot easier in the anime, where you have the pretty pictures and music that help with that stuff, while this is not only just a chunk of text, but one that’s gone through the process of (a fairly literal) translation, adding another barrier to a reader accessing that side of the work.
A couple of more technical notes, while we’re talking about translation: one thing that bothered me was the transparency of the translation. Within 3 pages I read the jarring “The air that never changed”, “The unchanging scenery”, “his target destination”, use of a fairly awkward passive voice, etc. Honestly, this probably isn’t a problem for most people that don’t know much Japanese, but either way it seems a little stiff. It seemed to get better for most of the remainder of the book (except for a “the absolute worst” on page 18x), possibly because I got acclimated to the style, or possibly because I wasn’t being as critical. Either way, I think a little more care could have been taken in terms of translation. (side note to seven seas staff who may or may not be reading this: the author of this article has JLPT-2 and will work for rates!!)
In terms of physical quality of the book, I have to say I prefer the Japanese version. The color on the color illustrations is a little warmer, the paper overall feels a little more weighty and solid while the product is thinner, and we get a proper dustcover. I honestly don’t think anyone would actually care about that, especially for a book that costs less and will entertain you longer than an average volume of manga. ($7.95, ymmv on time but I think I took about 2-2.5 hours.) Overall, I’d recommend Ballad, but really, don’t come into it expecting much more than material for a fairly quick read on the train/between classes/on the toilet/etc.