Answerman
Why Haven't Light Novels And Visual Novels Caught On In America?

by Justin Sevakis,

Carl asks:

I was wondering why light novels and visual novels haven't caught on in the US the way Anime and Manga have. While some Light Novels and arguably less Visual Novels have been translated they seem to be huge in Japan but only a niche interest in America.

It's always difficult to answer questions like this, and I usually avoid them. Trying to come up with a reason why something hasn't happened is a bit like trying to explain why the sky isn't orange. You can conjecture and come up with a handful of reasonable sounding ideas, but frankly, you're never going to come up with anything definitive, or even vaguely satisfying. But as these are two pretty major differences between the US and Japanese markets, I think they deserve at least a cursory look.

Let's start with the easy one: visual novels. I can come up with a dozen different reasons why the American audience wouldn't really gravitate towards them (they're slow-paced, they're not all that visually impressive, they tend towards romance, they have a reputation for adult content, etc.) but most of those reasons boil down to one thing: Japan has always integrated a hell of a lot of text and reading into their games. American game developers and consumers tend not to.

If you go back to the late 80s and early 90s, the market in Japan was rife with talky JRPGs with extended cinema sequences, some of which would go on for an extremely long time. There was a lot of reading. Contrast that with the American market: while computer games started with text (by necessity) back in the day with Zork and similar text adventure games, by the time computers could display graphics, text was pretty much out. Sierra games like King's Quest involved small smatterings of text, but largely relied on graphics to get its point across. Soon, even those died out in favor of point-and-click interfaces, and keyboards became joysticks with more buttons. On consoles, text was never much of a dominant element. Long bits of reading only ever came about when JRPG's got translated for the US, and a huge number of them never did.

Visual novels really came of age in Japan on a computer that was unique to the country, the NEC PC-9801. While on the surface it looked like a standard PC (it ran a Japanese flavor of DOS), under the hood it was a completely different beast, and entirely incompatible with anything sold outside of the country. The PC98 series was hugely popular in Japan, and even as regular PCs and Windows edged out the platform, it was the otaku system of choice for visual novels. Since there was no easy way to release these games in English speaking countries, and no obvious audience for them in the West, the vast majority stayed in Japan. The fact that the vast majority of these early visual novels were erotic in nature -- and not in a tongue-in-cheek way -- was a further cultural barrier.

Since then, of course, the visual novel has found a home on virtually every game and computer platform, and become a diverse art form all its own. But as playing them is still a slow burn with mostly still graphics, they lack the inherent sexiness of a bigger, more graphically intensive game. A few small publishers have, of course, made their mark in either translating Japanese visual novels or creating new ones in English, but these efforts have largely stayed niche: nobody has really made a big splash yet. There's been no "killer app," or anything that has simply gone viral (Hatoful Boyfriend aside). It could happen, but it would have to be so interesting that it would overcome a lot of preconceived notions about what a video game should be.

That lack of inherent sexiness, I think, is also the main thing that keeps light novels from being a bigger thing in the US. They're much harder, more expensive and more time-intensive to translate than manga, and the unique visuals of anime - the chief motivating factor in Western fandom - aren't present, save for the cover and sometimes a few illustrations. No matter how you spin it, without those visuals, a translated light novel is just a book, with nothing special to differentiate it from the thousands of other pieces of fiction released to the American market. I want to stress that there have been plenty of success stories both with visual novel and light novel releases in the US - these are not dying or stagnating mediums, quite the opposite - but we're talking about mainstream success here, emerging out of a niche market. By all accounts, plenty of light novels sell pretty darn well in the US - for a niche product.

While translation quality varies wildly, the simple Japanese that light novels are usually written in often doesn't make for especially good English prose. A well-translated novel reads just fine, of course, but the inherent limitations in what can be expressed in Japanese can make for English that can come across as stilted. This is a pretty common refrain in reviews of English-translated light novels, anyway. Further, a book that's just full of text is "just a book", if you're thinking about this as a product. It loses the "specialness" that attracts so many fans to Japanese content in the first place. And if the way the writing comes across isn't exceptionally good in English, there aren't many other selling points left.

Again, this is all conjecture, based on broad strokes and stereotype. There are always exceptions to all of these. But Japan and its media market will always have tastes that are different from Americans and even American otaku. The two have become far more similar to each other in recent years, but they will never be the same, and we shouldn't expect them to be.


Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!) animenewsnetwork.com.

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap. Please note that he does not take question submissions via Twitter.


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