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New York Comic Con 2013
From Light Novels to Anime/Manga Panel

by Todd Ciolek,
Light novels may have excessively long titles, but they're a major factor in today's anime industry. And Kadokawa Shoten, as a large publisher of books, has a considerable stake in that. Shinichiro Inoue, Representative Director and Senior Managing Director at Kadokawa, delivered a look at this phenomenon during the New York Comic Con's Light Novels to Anime panel, presented by The Japan Foundation.

Inoue explained that light novels target teenagers as well as readers in their 20s, similar to the trend of young-adult fiction. However, he added that the difference between the two is mostly a matter of illustration: light novels have artwork that plays a significant role in progressing the story and selling the book, and it makes light novels prime ground for anime adaptations. The two fields are much alike in the genres they explore: mystery, science fiction, fantasy, and even romance. Yet Inoue noted that light novels as a whole don't have as much prominent romance as YA novels.

Inoue then turned to the origins of light novels in Japan, starting in the 1700s with the popularly of kodan, a lively form of oral storytelling for the masses (and the origins of Kodansha's name). Many of these stories dealt with samurai and heroes, often in heavily fictionalized form. Many of these tales were novelized in later years—a good example being the work of Tatsukawa Bunko in the 1910s and 1920s. Inoue recalled that he once had trouble explaining the idea of light novels to his bosses at Kodansha, until he described the books as “like Bunko stories.”

Record of Lodoss War played a significant role in the rise of light novels, starting off as a tabletop RPG series for the magazine Comptiq. Ryo Mizuno's serialized novels, or “replays” of game campaigns followed, and an anime series arrived years later. Central Park Media released it in North America in the 1990s, earning it a place in the nostalgic recollections of that decade's young anime fans. The series was recently re-issued on Blu-Ray for its 25 anniversary.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Inoue said.

Light novels of the 1980s also drew from popular anime, as Kadokawa showed with a series of Gundam books in 1985.

“We didn't have a label for light novel yet,” Inoue recalled. “So we came up with the idea of putting a blue mark on the spine. But it didn't stand out, so we decided to launch a label just for light novels.”

This label would spawn several popular anime series, including Slayers. Hajime Kanzaka's original novel won Kadokawa's light-novel prize, the Fujimi Fantasia Novel Award, and it quickly jumped to anime, manga, and video games. It also started a trend of fans submitting their novels directly to Kadokawa.

“Lodoss and Gundam emerged from the fantasy and sci-fi genres,” Inoue said. “But Slayers was made specifically as a light novel with that audience in mind. It was an epoch-making light novel.”

Light novels had spawned anime before Slayers and Lodoss, of course. Inoue pointed to Haruhiko Takachiko's Crusher Joe books and Baku Yumemakura's Kimaira as early work that “would be classified as light novels if they were published today.”

However, light novels would reach another stage in 2003 with the publication of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, which inspired a hugely popular anime series. So the cycle began: the light novel went from comic to TV series to DVD to video game to movie to magazines...and then back to the light novels.

“Haruhi accumulated different types of fans at every step,” said Inoue, “The year that the Haruhi TV series was also the year that YouTube became widely known, and it was through YouTube that Haruhi garnered international attention, and this was what most people saw.”

Inoue then played the ending clip of the Haruhi Suzumiya series, which had fans imitating the Hare Hare Yukai dance to humorous effect, intentional or not.

“We encourage that, actually, the editing of footage by fans,” Inoue said. “We're happy to see the fans collaborating. But not so much pirated copies. We're hoping to release more official content, so please support us that way.”

Inoue then turned to Kadokawa's current hit in light novels and anime: Sword Art Online.

“During the beginning, light novels took a few years and five to six books to become anime,” said Inoue, pointing out that Sword Art Online's three-year trip from print to animation was faster than the norm.

Inoue outlined the typical path for a successful light novel. Releasing seven to eight books in several years is best for the series, Inoue said, because it provides ample source material for an anime without overwhelming readers.

“But if it's less than five books, it's not enough,” he joked.

Light novel adaptation rates are steadily increasing, Inoue pointed out. While the amount of manga turned into anime series has dropped from 50 percent to 33 percent since 2011, the number of anime based on light novels rose from 42 percent to 56 percent.

“From now on, I think light novels will continue to be part of mixed media,” Inoue said.

Inoue also discussed the trend of light novels with exceptionally long titles, which he attributed to the rise of Twitter.

“It's like the tweets become the titles,” he said.

At the panel's final stretch, one audience member asked what Inoue thought of the North American audience for Japanese light novels.

“I think the demand is increasing,” said Inoue. “With the rise of pirating and scanning, it's hard, but I think the demand is out there.”

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