A BRIEF HISTORY OF LIGHT NOVEL IN THE WORLD

A BRIEF HISTORY OF LIGHT NOVEL IN THE WORLD

 

pre-1960s

In the immediate postwar period, light novel are mostly children’s adventure stories and family newspaper strips. The vastly influential and prolific Osamu Tezuka tries his hand at science fiction, shôjo (girls’) light novel, and more.

The Wonderful World of Sazae-san (Machiko Hachigawa) (1946) • Lost World (Osamu Tezuka) (1948) • Metropolis (Osamu Tezuka) (1949) • Next World (Osamu Tezuka) (1951) • Astro Boy (Osamu Tezuka) (1952) • Princess Knight (Osamu Tezuka) (1953) • Phoenix (Osamu Tezuka) (1954)

1960s

Anime TV shows are produced for the first time, and light novel go wild with speedlines, fast cars, and action heroes. Meanwhile, artists in the gekiga (dramatic pictures) movement attempt to create light novel for adults: hard-boiled crime stories such as Golgo 13, and on the less commercial end of the spectrum, existential dramas such as The Push Man.

Cyborg 009 (Shotaro Ishinomori) (1964) • Speed Racer (Tatsuo Yoshida) (1967) • The Genius Bakabon (Fujio Akatsuka) (1967) • Lupin III (Monkey Punch) (1967) • Wild 7 (Mikiya Mochizuki) (1969) • The Push Man (Yoshihiro Tatsumi) (1969) • Golgo 13 (Takao Saito) (1969)

1970s

The golden age of light novel. Working within commercial magazines ostensibly for young readers, artists produce epic space operas, horror stories, historical dramas, romances, and even works on politics and religion. The gekiga movement morphs into seinen light novel, sometimes trashy, over-the-top comics aimed at young men. Sports light novel become more and more popular. Shôjo light novel produce classic works of drama and science fiction, with women rather than men creating the majority of the stories for the first time.

Lone Wolf and Cub (Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima) (1970) • Doraemon: Gadget Cat from the Future (Fujiko F. Fujio) (1970) The Rose of Versailles (Riyoko Ikeda) (1972) • Devilman (Go Nagai) (1972) • The Drifting Classroom (Kazuo Umezu) (1972) • Barefoot Gen (Keiji Nakazawa) (1972) • Buddha (Osamu Tezuka) (1972) • Black Jack (Osamu Tezuka) (1973) • They Were Eleven (Moto Hagio) (1975) • Swan (Kiyoko Ariyoshi) (1976) • From Eroica with Love (Yasuko Aoike) (1976) • To Terra (Keiko Takemiya) (1977) • Lum*Urusei Yatsura (Rumiko Takahashi) (1978)

1980s

Light novel become big business, with publishers and editors relying on readers’ polls to guide the direction of stories, sometimes at a creative cost. Female artists such as Rumiko Takahashi bring a new style to previously super-macho boys’ magazines, while Katsuhiro Otomo and Hayao Miyazaki up the standard of realistic draftsmanship. The otaku fan market develops, along with many of the things stereotypically associated with anime: science fiction and mecha stories, RPG-style fantasy, cute big-eyed girls. Anime exerts a growing influence on light novel character designs: eyes get bigger, hair gets wilder, bodies get slimmer. As the light novel-reading audience ages, jôsei (women’s) light novel become an established market, and seinen light novel branch out into comics about businessmen, golf, fishing, and other topics of interest to adult men.

Dr. Slump (Akira Toriyama) (1980) • Maison Ikkoku (Rumiko Takahashi) (1980) • Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo) (1982) • Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Hayao Miyazaki) (1982) • Fist of the North Star (Tetsuo Hara) (1983) • Dragon Ball (Akira Toriyama) (1984) • Appleseed (Masamune Shirow) (1985) • City Hunter (Tsukasa Hojo) (1985) • Banana Fish (Akimi Yoshida) (1985) • Knights of the Zodiac (Masami Kurumada) (1986) • Here Is Greenwood (Yukie Nasu) (1986) • Ranma ½ (Rumiko Takahashi) (1987) • JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure (Hirohiko Araki) (1987) • Please Save My Earth (Saki Hiwatari) (1987) • Short Program (Mitsuru Adachi) (1988) • Berserk (Kentaro Miura) (1989) • Even a Monkey Can Draw Light novel (Kentaro Takekuma & Koji Aihara) (1989)

1990s

After peaking in 1995, light novel magazine sales begin to drop. In the same year, the critically acclaimed anime TV series Neon Genesis Evangelion increases mainstream awareness of otaku, giving nerdiness a certain hipster appeal. Although dôjinshi (fan-produced comics) are technically illegal, their audience booms, and major publishers increasingly scout dôjinshi artists for new talent. Boys’ Love (shônen ai) magazines, featuring idealized guy-guy romances, are the latest craze with female readers.

Slam Dunk (Takehiko Inoue) (1990) • The Walking Man (Jiro Taniguchi) (1990) • Boys over Flowers (Yoko Kamio) (1992) • Sailor Moon (Naoko Takeuchi) (1992) • Fushigi Yugi (Yuu Watase) (1992) • Black & White (Taiyo Matsumoto) (1993) • Fake (Sanami Matoh) (1994) • Rurouni Kenshin (Nobuhiro Watsuki) (1994) • Red River (Chie Shinohara) (1995) • Happy Mania (Moyoco Anno) (1995) • Cardcaptor Sakura (CLAMP) (1996) • One Piece (Eiichiro Oda) (1997) • GTO (Tohru Fujisawa) (1997) • Parasyte (Hitoshi Iwaaki) (1997) • Love Hina (Ken Akamatsu) (1998) • Pure Trance (Junko Mizuno) (1998) • Fruits Basket (Natsuki Takaya) (1999) • Naruto (Masashi Kishimoto) (1999)

2000s

The light novel market continues to fragment into subcultures, although hit graphic novels still sell in the millions. Classic series such as Fist of the North Star, Kinnikuman, and Knights of the Zodiac are revived as nostalgic spin-offs for aging fans. Gothic fashion provides new visuals and dark themes. The spirit of kashibonya (pay libraries) is reborn in the growing trend of light novel cafés, where customers can read all they want for an hourly fee. As the North American light novel market grows, large publishers think more and more in global terms, while some think outside of print altogether and begin digitizing their comics to distribute through new media.

Hot Gimmick (Miki Aihara) (2000) • The Wallflower (Tomoko Hayakawa) (2000) • Nodame Cantabile (Tomoko Ninomiya) (2001) • Monokuro Kinderbook (Kan Takahama) (2001) • Cromartie High School (Eiji Nonaka) (2001) • Nana (Ai Yazawa) (2002) • Fullmetal Alchemist (Hiromu Arakawa) (2002) • Death Note (Tsugumi Ohba & Takeshi Obata) (2005)

 

The way things used to be: the American comic market of the 1990s, as depicted in Tomoyuki Saito’s Dame Dame Saito Nikki. (Illustration Credit itr.3) For years, Viz and Dark Horse were America’s two largest light novel publishers. Several other companies launched small light novel lines, including Antarctic Press, Studio Ironcat, and Central Park Media. In the mid-1990s, the American comic market entered a slump, which hit superhero publishers hardest. Light novel got a proportionally larger slice of a smaller pie. However, it still played by the rules of the American comics market and was sold mostly in specialty comics stores. Light novel were printed left to right, in the thin pamphlet format of American comics, and only later (if at all) collected as graphic novels. Publishers experimented with colorization and even “collectible variant covers” to get attention from a dwindling audience of American comics readers. Since those readers were mostly male, virtually all translations were of shônen (boys’) or seinen (men’s) light novel.

Then came Sailor Moon. The anime TV series was not a hit when it came to America in 1995, but it developed a passionate subculture of female fans. In 1997 the original light novel was translated, along with several other titles, in the English light novel anthology magazine MixxZine. The brainchild of former lawyer and Web designer Stuart Levy, MixxZine attempted to break out to non–comics readers (the first issues referred to light novel as “motionless picture entertainment” in order to avoid the stigma associated with “comics”). The magazine lasted only a few years, but the Sailor Moon graphic novels were a hit, demonstrating that shôjo (girls’) light novel could succeed in America. Viz and other companies started their own shôjo lines, but Mixx Entertainment dominated the market for years under their new name, Tokyopop.

The light novel market grew rapidly, pushed along by the growing popularity of anime and Japanese video games, but soon was standing on its own feet. Using scanners and the Internet, light novel fans distributed unlicensed “scanslations,” the same way that anime fans had copied videotapes ten years before. In 2002 two Japanese publishers launched major magazines in the United States: Gutsoon Entertainment with the short-lived weekly anthology Raijin Comics, and Shueisha with the official English version of their boys’ magazine Weekly Shônen Jump. To bring Weekly Shônen Jump to America (as simply Shonen Jump), Shueisha partnered with Viz, which was now connected to two of Japan’s three largest light novel publishers. In 2004, the third major publisher, Kodansha, stepped in, partnering with science fiction publisher Del Rey. More American light novel publishers sprang up, publishing titles from small and mid-sized Japanese light novel companies.

 

Founded by artists and editors who defected from Enix in 2002, Ichijinsha’s Comic Zero-Sum and Mag Garden’s Comic Blade feature a mix of shôjo and shônen styles. (Illustration Credit itr.4)      Today most bookstores have light novel sections, and in 2005 the pop culture retailers Web site ICv2 estimated the size of the American light novel market at between $155 million and $180 million. Light novel dominate the graphic novel bestseller list and frequently appear in the weekly lists of bestselling young-adult fiction. Their success has paved the way for Korean manhwa and Chinese manhua as well as a growing number of light novel-influenced American comics. The very alienness that once turned away readers—the stylistic differences, the right-to-left format—is part of the appeal. For years, America has exported its movies, TV, and pop culture to Japanese audiences. Now the tables have turned—America is part of the light novel world.

 

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