It’s been six long months since my last article on Young Adult fiction in Japan, and with the recent explosion of YA in America this month due to the release of the highly anticipated “Hunger Games” movie, I thought there would probably be no better time than right now to jump back into the mix and discuss a topic that will have more than one head turning in curiosity.
In past discussions, I’ve noticed some random readers express disbelief in my claim that Japanese YA sales are not driven by trends. This, of course, for American readers (not to mention publishers), seems quite extraordinary. A good example can be seen from this month. When Suzanne Collins novel took off in sales and popularity, so did the number of “dystopian” genre books that attempted to ride the “next big wave”. You can see the effect of her book in every Barnes & Noble. Title after title of dystopian inspired works now replace much of the space that vampire lit used to retain.
With every new bestselling YA book in America comes a flurry of others attempting to cash in on the genre it represented, and often times, even the story itself. But in Japan, this scenario so many have become used to is far removed from reality. For a nation that loves trends, much of what it reads has none.
In order to better illustrate this, I’ll be showing you the top fifteen bestselling novels from 2008 in Japan. I’ll explain the basic plot of each, so that you can understand the vast difference each of these titles hold from one another.
1. “Full Metal Panic!” by Shouji Gatou
Set in a creatively altered version of history shortly before the new millennium, the world of Full Metal Panic is a somewhat eerie picture of what our world could have looked like had certain historic and technological conditions existed prior to the Cold War. With the Soviet Union still standing resolved and the KGB active, this strange mirror of time is made even more seemingly unstable by the invention of humanoid fighting machines, or “Arm Slaves” as they’re called. Created under the Reagan administration, these tall mechanical robots, controlled by a single pilot inside, have devastatingly powerful weapons. Having been deployed by a number of governments as a part of their national security or wartime offenses, they represent a dynamic shift in control of the world’s power. But amongst this volatile landscape stands a single group that exists in order to prevent an all out war. Self dubbed as MITHRIL, a group that has no country affiliation or ties, it secretly monitors potential threats and independently acts to subdue them, breaking numerous international laws in the process.
When Sousuke Sagara, one of MITHRIL’s best and youngest Arm Slave pilots, is ordered to accept a new and highly hazardous mission in an effort to stop a possible soviet abduction, the seventeen year old is all ears. But when he soon realizes that his mission is to become a high school student in Japan to keep watch over a certain girl whose attention has caught the eyes of the KGB, his stamina is less than energized. The young Japanese native who was raised most of his life in the mountains of Afghanistan has next to no experience with civilization, let alone public school. Though Sousuke objects, MITHRIL places their faith in him and his team is assembled quickly for a departure for Tokyo.
However, what would seem to be the easiest military operation devised in recent memory quickly turns into a sizable culmination of mishaps, misunderstandings, confusion, partial nudity, girls’ locker rooms, and a Korean terrorist hijacking that proves to be anything but simple. With a secret buried deep within the recesses of a young girl’s mind, the socially awkward military high school student must find a way not only to save everyone’s lives, but also himself.
2. “The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya” by Nagaru Tanigawa
There are two main characters in this story. The first is Kyon, the sarcastic, levelheaded young man who wants nothing more than to live a normal life. The second is his classmate Haruhi Suzumiya, the bored, forceful girl who wants nothing but to seek out and discover the strange, weird and abnormal. They say that opposites attract, so then it naturally follows why she shows an interest in Kyon, recruiting him one day into her newly founded after-school club whose goal it is to seek out the paranormal. Less than thrilled at his prospects, he is introduced to three other recently inducted members, who each reveal a secret to Kyon as he slowly gets to know them: they are anything but random students. The book worm claims to be an alien, the klutz announces she is a time traveller, while the charming young man purports he is an esper. As if the insane propositions given weren’t enough to shatter his remaining sanity, when he learns the reason why these three have allowed themselves to be brought together by Haruhi, the answer changes his life in ways he never could have predicted.
A new goal is soon added in secret to the club by its four members: to keep Haruhi happy, because even if she doesn’t realize it yet, she possesses the ability to destroy the entire universe with a single thought.
3. “Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime” by Mizuki Nomura
The narrator and protagonist of this unique story, Konoha Inoue, is a high school student with a big secret. He wrote a bestselling novel in middle school under a female pen name, but the popularity and secrecy that came as a result proved far too great for him to handle, driving him to the edge and ultimately causing him to never wish to write again. Now, ironically, he finds himself in a book club run by his classmate Tohko Amano, a girl one year his senior. And what task does President Tohko demand of Konoha? To write short stories. Why? Because Tohko has a bit of a secret herself. She eats books, literally, and she loves handwritten ones the best. However, one day, when a young first year student comes to the club seeking help with a relationship, things go from strange to the downright bizarre. As the truth is gradually unveiled, several characters will be forced to look deep inside of themselves, and what they find might prove deadly.
Filled with references to famous classic 20th century works such as “The Great Gatsby” and the work of Japanese author Osamu Dazai, details from these classis are intimately woven into the narrative, leaving a presence that lasts all the way until the very end with devastating results.
4. “Toradora!” by Yuyuko Takemiya
This story begins with the main character, Ryūji Takasu, frustrated at his failed attempts to improve his image before the second year of High School. In spite of his gentle demeanor, his eyes make him appear to others as if he were a threatening delinquent. As a result of this unfortunate genetic inheritance from his foregone father, who was in fact an actual Japanese gangster, he finds himself feeling utterly hopeless about his chances of ever finding a girlfriend. On top of all this, he doesn’t have many close friends. Having a mother who routinely comes home late each night drunk, Ryūji takes on more responsibilities than most at his age.
When the first day of school arrives, he is happy to discover that he gets to be in the same class as his only friend Yūsaku Kitamura and the girl he has a secret crush on, Minori Kushieda. But, when he happens to knock into “the palm fist Tiger”—Taiga Aisaka—his new classmate and personal friend of his crush, all hell is let loose.
Taiga is notorious for her negative attitude towards others, not to mention her lack of restraint at snapping at fellow classmates, let alone teachers. After meeting Ryūji, and realizing his cruch on her friend, she begins to concentrate her scorn on him alone. Hailing from a rich family, but living on her own due to numerous issues, she is much to Ryuji’s utter dismay, living in an apartment next to his. With tensions high and the risk of actual death quite possible, Ryuji will be forced to gain leverage on her, if, of course, that’s even possible.
5. “Spice and Wolf” by Isuna Hasekura
Set within Europe during the Medieval Ages, the story introduces readers to the laid back merchant Kraft Lawrence as he travels with his horse and wagon across the rolling country side. Moving from one town to another he sells and trades differing goods ranging from wheat to animal skins. The world in which we he lives is one under the strict and oppressive rule of the Roman Catholic Church, but one in which the seeds of descent are spreading as rumors of Church financial problems surface along with higher taxes on trade.
The novel begins with Lawrence’s startling discovery of a naked young girl in the back of his wagon one night after trading in a nearby rural town, and it quickly grows stranger. This young girl has a set of wolf ears atop her head and a large bushy tail protruding from her lower back. All of this is made even more beyond belief when she announces her identity as Holo. This name is recognizable to Lawrence. It’s the name of the nearby town’s local harvest deity. “Are you a God?” he asks incredulously. With these simple words, a heated discussion begins between the two. At the end, it comes down to a request from the girl. She has grown tired of helping the town’s crops and longs to return to her homeland in the North. She can’t do it on her own though as she would be crucified by the Church if discovered. So a deal is reached between the spice trader and wolf. As long as she repays all expenses, he will allow her to travel beside him on his way north. Agreeing, the two start out on their journey, unaware of the dangers that await them. Could the young merchant have made the best or worst deal of his short career? Only time will tell.
6. “Kino’s Journey” by Keiichi Sigsawa
The setting of Sigsawa’s novel is as foreign as it is similar to our own. Readers are quickly introduced to a world of vast diversity. Countries are the size of towns, and areas exist where, although robots roam, no considerable technological advances have been made. These are just a few of the strangely beautiful paradoxes that take up room in this imaginary creation. The main protagonist, a young teenage girl who goes by the name Kino, is accompanied by her companion, a talking motorcycle, as they visit each of these unique countries on their journey. The novel is told through a series of short stories, each one representing a stay in one of the countries that she visits and each one never lasting more than three days. At each stop she is confronted with the lives, hardships, and problems of people and sometimes entire cultures that she has never met, and at each one she questions whether to intervene. Though none of the stories are connected chronologically, they all share one thing in common: Kino has arrived, and with her, a new perspective.
Beautifully written, painfully poignant, and stunningly thought provoking, this collection of short stories chronicles the journey of one girl’s choices and the relationship between the beautiful and ugly.
7. “Mimizuku and the King of Night” by Kougyoku Izuki
When 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, she does so with the intention of being eaten by a monster. However, when the ruler of the monsters, the mysterious and beautiful “King of Night,” refuses to devour her, she is not deterred in the least and decides she will not leave his side until he does. A tale of lazy knights, scorning wives, crippled princes, bloody flowers, ancient magic and the cruelty of life, Mimizuku is forced to face her own humanity and what that ultimately means for her fate.
8. “Idiots, Tests, and Summoned Beasts” by Kenji Inoue
The story in this instance centers around a boy named Akihisa Yoshii, also known by his peers as “the idiot”. He happens to attend Fumizuki Academy, where school staff rigidly divide their students based on the results of their academic scores. At the start of the school, the students are sorted according to their exam grades. The higher the grades, the higher the class, and the better the benefits. Get good grades and you’ll end up in the prestigious Class A, filled with air conditioners, laptops, a free snack bar, etc. Get bad grades and you’ll end up in Class F, filled with nothing more than mats and wooden tables.
In this academy, all the students are capable of calling forth Summoned Beings. These Beings are then subsequently used for battles between classes with the intention of capturing better classroom facilities. When an intelligent girl named Mizuki Himeji suffers from a fever and is incapable of finishing her test, she is sent automatically to Class F. It is then, when “the idiot” and main protagonist of the story, Akihisa Yoshii, comes up with a plan to rule over the other classes. But in order to do such a thing, and change the power structure forever, they’ll need to start a war.
9. “Song Messanger of the Color of Twilight” by Kei Sazane
In a world where colors are sung, and songs consist of colors, both prove valuable to the one who wishes for power. There are five colors; no more, no less. But until the emergence of one individual, nobody had learned how to master all five.
But with the discovery of the possibility, comes the question that haunts him. Are there really only five? One girl and her son hold the answer, but first he’ll have to find them.
10. “Shakugan no Shana” by Yashichiro Takahashi
Yuji Sakai, a high school student, expected his very normal life to last forever. However, this expectation was quickly shattered the day the world suddenly froze in time. Or, to be more precise, a small section of the world in which he happened to be walking on. With disjointed horror, Yuji watches as blue flames begin to engulf the people around him. Eventually, a monster resembling a large doll becomes visible and begins to suck the flames into its mouth, that is, until it notices Yuji.
Just as it prepares to consume the boy though, a sword-wielding girl in black attire with flaming red eyes appears. With ease she cuts down the doll and only after a few more moments, noticed the frightened boy watching her. When Yuji notices a blue flame in his own chest, the girl, who calls herself a Flame Haze, informs him that the “real” Yuji has already died. He is, according to her words, a “Torch”, a temporary replacement for “erased” humans. His job is to live on until he fades from existence, which will be very soon.
Unsure of whether to believe the girl’s words, Yuji befriends her, with little knowledge that his life, though apparently almost over, has only just begun.
11. “Bakemonogatari” by NISIOISIN
The book concentrates around Koyomi Araragi, a third year high school student who is on the road to becoming human again after briefly having been transformed into a vampire. One day, a classmate named Hitagi Senjōgahara, a known introvert who spoke to no one, falls down the stairs into Koyomi’s arms. He discovers much to his shock that Hitagi weighs next to nothing. Despite threats from her to stay away, Koyomi offers her his help, and introduces her to the strange middle-aged man living in an abandoned building who cured him of his vampires-like tendencies.
12. “Zero’s Familiar” by Noboru Yamaguchi
When high school student Saito Hiraga, while on his way back from picking up his laptop at the local repair shop, finds himself suddenly falling through a vortex into another world, he had no idea why minutes later he was being kissed by a strange girl dressed in a cape and holding a stick in her hand. But when he noticed all the other teenagers nearby them, levitating, he quickly realized that he wasn’t in Tokyo anymore.
Incredulously, he is informed that he is now the “familiar” of a Miss Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière. Though confused at the word then, he soon realizes what it ultimately means: he is her personal slave.
Surrounded by a world where magic is common place and those who can’t use it are poor, he’ll have to find a way back home through some unusual circumstances. Of course, that’s if he can go home at all. Because though no one is sure why Louise managed to summon a human as a familiar (a feat never before known to have happened), they know nothing of his world. Perhaps more mysterious, since his arrival, he’s been branded with a strange set of foreign words on his hand that may hold more meaning than he thinks.
13. “BACCANO!” by Ryohgo Narita
Set deep in Manhattan, New York during the 1930’s, Baccano! is the story of mafia at the height of the Prohibition era. At the heart of the underworld, something foul is afoot, and it involves more than just liquor heists. With alchemists, homunculi and demons on the loose, each with their own goals and plans, a group of mafia hit men will find themselves locked in a plot that began all the way back in 1705.
With every man and woman fighting for the ultimate prize, a crate of bottles that hold immense value, no one is safe from death… unless of course, you aren’t human.
Love, immortality and blind stupidity run side by side in a tale that has all guns blazing and more than a few bombs rolling.
14. “Mushi-Uta” by Kyouhei Iwai
This particular story takes place in the near future. Ten years before the story’s opening, strange insect-like creatures known as “Mushi” began appearing. The Mushi are able to consume people’s dreams and thoughts in return for supernatural powers. The protagonist Daisuke “Kakkō” Kusuriya encounters a young girl named Shiika Anmoto. The two, in time, become quite close. However, unbeknownst to Kakkō, Shiika is an escapee from a secret prison known as GARDEN where those possessed by the Mushi, known as the Mushitsuki, are held. GARDEN’s military force, the Special Environmental Conservation Executive Office, quickly dispatches its finest killer to track down Shiika and things begin to take some unexpected turns.
15. “A Certain Magical Index” by Kazuma Kamachi
Toma Kamijo is a student in Academy City, a technologically advanced city located in Western Tokyo which studies students with superhuman endowed powers. For Toma, it’s his right hand, called the Imagine Breaker, that has the ability to negate any supernatural powers, but in the process, his own luck as well. One day he finds a young girl hanging on his balcony who calls herself Index. He learns from her that she is a nun from Necessarius, a secret magic branch of the Church of England. Her mind, she tells him, has been implanted with 103,000 forbidden books that the Church has removed from circulation. His strange encounter with her leads him to meet others from this secret world and an adventure with his friends where science and magic collide.
So what we can see, from viewing just 15 of the bestsellers from 2008 is that… well… they don’t really share much in common. In fact, the diversity apparent is a bit overwhelming. Other than location (school), there really isn’t much to tie these books together. Though almost every single one of them is a book series, one even stretching back to the 1990’s, readers have continued to buy new books that have little connection to previous bestsellers. This same trend (ironic, no?) is seen nearly yearly in Japan and it doesn’t appear that it will change any time soon.
Something important to keep in mind is that this is only the top 15. If I had shown the next 15 bestsellers, things would have gotten quite interesting with the amount of mysteries, thrillers and paranormal fantasies that are selling. One of my favorites, ranking near 30th place, is a mystery book series titled GOSICK that takes place in Europe during the 1920’s.
So what, if anything, is the reason why the Japanese market appears to usually avoid the cycle of cloning that America seems to be plagued from? Although opinions will vary, my own theory centers on the fact that for Japan, there never truly was “one ultimate book series”. Unlike in America (where “Harry Potter” or “Twilight” had their time solely in the spotlight), in Japan, the biggest book series is just one of many other giant bestsellers. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that when the YA industry saw its proverbial boom in sales, it was as a result of numerous bestselling book series, and not one single holy grail.
Some may remember when parents and librarians were claiming that Harry Potter had saved reading. Of course, this quickly proved false when these same readers had no interest in reading any other books. The problem was, Harry Potter hadn’t made them fall in love with books (plural), but a single book. Whereas, in Japan, readers fell in love with numerous books at the same time and as a result, reading in general.
The bigger question though, one that is sure to float in many a mind, is whether this same ideal can be achieved in the West. The answer is, alas, yet unknown.
(STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT INSTALLMENT: PART 7 – The Fans
In the next article, I’ll be focusing on one of the most important aspects of the industry, the readers themselves. We already are well aware of the devotion some fans can have for an author and their book series’ (Harry Potter & Twilight come to mind), but what about in Japan? How dedicated are the fans and how far will publishers go to please them?)