20 Years of Boogiepop

by Kim Morrissy,

In 1997, Kouhei Kadono's Boogiepop and Others won the 4th Dengeki Novel Prize (then the Dengeki Game Novel Prize). Despite the publisher's obvious faith in the novel's quality, when the manuscript was published in 1998, nobody could have expected that it would change light novels as a medium forever.

When Boogiepop and Others was first published, light novels were still in their infancy. Swords and sorcery tales featuring larger-than-life characters like Slayers and Orphen were all the rage, and it was hard to conceive that stories about powerless high school students could do well. Dengeki Bunko itself was just a minor publishing imprint at the time with no big hits under its belt. So when Boogiepop became a success, its impact truly was unprecedented.

Hardly anyone in the West could have known about any of this at the time. Some anime fans may have watched the Boogiepop Phantom series from 2000, but this was an anime-original sequel to Boogiepop and Others, and there was very little awareness of the novels that inspired the anime. So little, in fact, that when Seven Seas published the first three Boogiepop novels (plus the sixth book, Boogiepop at Dawn) in English in 2006, they produced an “ultimate guide” simply to introduce people to the franchise. Even in 2006, this guide was written with a historical perspective. The implication was that English readers were late to the party, and we needed to catch up.

To add insult to injury, Boogiepop didn't even sell well in English, and the translation was quietly discontinued at the time. It wasn't until 2018, when an anime adaptation was greenlit to commemorate Dengeki Bunko's 25th anniversary, that English publication of the series resumed. And by that stage, we were... 20 years late. Meep.

For many English-speaking fans, the modern TV anime adaptation, produced at Madhouse and directed by One Punch Man’s Shingo Natsume, will probably be their first exposure to the series. And what a weird series it is! The first three episodes tell a vague story about a man-eating monster out of chronological order through the point of view of half a dozen characters. The titular “Boogiepop” doesn't even appear to do much besides stand around and soloquize. It's certainly a mysterious series with a strong sense of atmosphere, but why was it such a big deal at the time? It's hard to figure out just from watching an anime adaptation 20 years later in a vacuum.

Personally, the Boogiepop anime sparked my interest in the history of light novels. It didn't surprise me to hear that the likes of Ryohgo Narita (Durarara!!, Baccano!) and NisiOisin (Monogatari, Zaregoto) were inspired by Kadono's non-linear storytelling. Yet despite Boogiepop's lasting influence on certain writers, its style of storytelling feels emblematic of a zeitgeist that has passed. I was inspired to dig deeper into the kind of story Boogiepop was when it was first published in order to understand its significance now, 20 years later.

Boogiepop and the Sekai-kei Movement

In the late 90s and early 00s, stories about teenagers having a metaphysical connection with the fate of the world came to prominence. In these stories, whether the world continued or ended depended directly on the characters’ emotional state and their relationship with their significant other. Although these characters fought in vaguely defined wars, the geopolitical context never mattered, and their internal battles were clearly just as, if not more significant than the external battles.

This kind of story was known in otaku circles as sekai-kei. The representative titles of this movement were Mizuhito Akiyama's Iriya no Sora, UFO no Natsu, Shin Takahashi's She, The Ultimate Weapon, and Makoto Shinkai's Voices of a Distant Star.

I call it a “movement” rather than a “genre” because sekai-kei is defined so vaguely that it's not useful at all as a genre label. In What is Sekai-kei?, writer Satoshi Maejima identifies the origin of the term in a blog post from 2002. In that post, sekai-kei was described as “works inspired by Neon Genesis Evangelion.” Maejima argues that sekai-kei can be thought of as “post-Evangelion.

The connection between Evangelion and sekai-kei is obvious when you think about it. The plot of Evangelion revolves around a boy named Shinji whose fluctuating mental state determines how well he can pilot a robot. The context behind the war he fights against the mysterious Angels is never truly explained. Infamously, the final episode of the series takes place entirely within Shinji's head.

When Evangelion first came out in 1995, it resonated with the young people of Japan's Lost Decades. When Japan's bubble economy broke, young people lost their job security. 1995 was also the same year the Great Hanshin Earthquake happened, taking thousands of lives, and a doomsday cult released sarin gas in Tokyo's metro. The future seemed downright apocalyptic when Evangelion hit the airwaves in October.

Evangelion effectively captured the mood of the times, this intense feeling of helplessness and of being caught adrift in powers outside of one's control. Instead of looking outward for the solution to the world's problems, the protagonist of Evangelion looks inward. This theme of introspection became one of Evangelion's many lasting influences on otaku media.

Although the word sekai-kei didn't exist when Boogiepop was first published, it retrospectively came to be applied to Boogiepop because of its themes. In the world of Boogiepop, supernatural phenomena appear to be linked to teenage anxieties. Most of the characters exert very little control over the strange events that happen to them, and no single character sees the entire big picture. In an interview with the literary magazine Faust (vol. 5), Kouhei Kadono said that he was able to write the story in this way because he felt as if he couldn't understand it all himself.

However, it would be a stretch to say that Kadono was directly inspired by Evangelion. In the afterword of The Dance with Pluto and Beast (2000), he notes that the story was first written before Boogiepop and Others, so he probably wrote it in 1996 or earlier. Given that the themes are consistent across all of Kadono's books, then and now, it's more likely that he was always preoccupied with this subject matter.

Kadono may have been ahead of the curve because he was one of the first people to experience the NEET/hikikomori lifestyle during the 90s before either of those buzzwords were coined. In an interview in Becoming an Author (2004), he said he quit his job at a building maintenance company almost immediately after he was hired, and then spent his days at home writing stories to submit to publishers. He was around 30 when he finally debuted, older than most other newly published light novel authors were at the time.

In an interview for the Dengeki Taisho, Kadono describes Boogiepop’s success as a “fluke.” There was no way he had calculated that its themes would resonate, especially because it didn't match what other light novels were doing at the time. Evangelion may not have inspired his writing, but it did, perhaps, open up the market to be more receptive to something as weird and off-beat as Boogiepop. Japanese blogger gentleyellow puts it like this: “It was the times that caught up with Kadono, and then left him behind.”

Boogiepop as Anime

When a light novel becomes popular, the obvious next step is to turn it into a media mix, but this is where Boogiepop encountered a roadblock.

This should be obvious to anyone who has tried reading the novels, but the structure doesn't lend itself well to anime. Because of the story's huge cast and its focus on introspection, the plot comes off as disjointed when translated directly to the screen, and it's hard to get attached to any of the characters. Although Kadono says in Faust that he had no qualms about submitting his writing to light novel competitions, his primary influences as an author were English and Japanese science fiction novels, and it shows: Unlike most light novels then and now, Boogiepop reads less like an anime or manga script and more like the pulp sci-fi novel that it is.

Nobody was more aware of the difficulties of translating Boogiepop to anime than Boogiepop Phantom's screenwriter Sadayuki Murai. In the anime's scenario compilation book, Murai remarked that the structure of the novels meant that a straight adaptation wouldn't work as an anime, so he instead chose to write an original story set after the events of Boogiepop and Others. This was probably the right decision as far as the artistry is concerned, as the resulting narrative was tailor-made for animation, but it was not accessible to anime-only viewers by any means.

When Boogiepop Phantom came out in January 2000, it was in an odd spot. According to Murai, Boogiepop Phantom was meant to be a companion piece to the live-action film, which was a retelling of Boogiepop and Others. However, the film ended up coming out a few months later, so only light novel readers would have had the slightest clue what was going on in the anime when it first came out. The anime was poorly received in Japan, and probably failed to expand the novel's audience.

One of the common criticisms about Boogiepop Phantom is that it is too dark and edgy. Although it captures the style of Kadono's writing, it doesn't capture his spirit. By emphasizing the horror and gore aspects above all else, the anime downplays the importance of human agency and personal relationships. This is reinforced by the anime's bland character designs and its washed-out color palette.

Nevertheless, Boogiepop Phantom developed a cult following among some Boogiepop fans. Even in the West, which had very little exposure to the original novels, the anime was well-reviewed by critics. It had excellent storyboarding and sound direction, which still hold up well to this day. And despite its obtuse storytelling, the anime is genuinely well-scripted. But the point is that Boogiepop Phantom succeeded as an original story, and not as a Boogiepop story.

The case of Boogiepop Phantom highlights why Boogiepop was originally so ground-breaking, but also why the series ultimately failed to adapt to the changing market. Besides the titular Boogiepop and perhaps Nagi, none of the series’ characters are iconic, design-wise or in popular memory. Their appeal failed to translate to anime. Even the manga adaptation, which was handled by series illustrator Kouji Ogata himself, was discontinued after two volumes. Boogiepop was always best as a book, but in today's market, that isn't enough. The media mix is essential.

Boogiepop Today

Boogiepop's lasting influence can be seen in the works of individual writers like NisiOisin and Kinoko Nasu, both of whom have talked publicly about the impact the series had on them. Its legacy is prominent not just in light novels but also in visual novels, which have a close relationship to light novels because the two fields share many of the same writers. CHAOS;HEAD and Steins;Gate in particular both draw directly from Boogiepop's aesthetic and style of storytelling.

Perhaps even more significantly, Boogiepop's has become a "Chūnibyō" (middle school syndrome) landmark. Boogiepop's costume and theatrical way of speaking will immediately strike the modern viewer as the kind of thing that could appeal to imaginative and pretentious teens. Shadowy organizations and grand conspiracies have also become standard "chūnibyō" tropes, and the Towa Organization from Boogiepop is one of the more memorable examples of a supernatural organization that spans the entire globe. The "supernatural battle" subgenre, which often involves teenagers gaining supernatural powers and battling against enemies while juggling school and relationships, was trendy in the early-mid 2000s and owes a lot to Boogiepop as well.

Chūnibyō parodies like Love, Chunibyo & Other Delusions! may be where Boogiepop's aesthetic lives on most prominently today. The "Chūnibyō"-afflicted characters are clearly channeling Boogiepop when they start speaking theatrically and presenting themselves as oh-so-very dark and edgy. Modern Chūnibyō parodies tend to hark to an earlier era of fantasy because they're meant to remind adult viewers of what they used to like when they were in their early teens, and that's why so many of them draw from Boogiepop and the "supernatural battle" genre.

However, if you ask me, Boogiepop’s legacy lies within Dengeki Bunko itself.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, when Boogiepop was first published, Dengeki Bunko was a minor label in only its fifth year of life. A young label's first major hit has a defining impact on what kind of titles the label pushes in the future. And because Boogiepop was an urban fantasy/sci-fi tale, this shaped Dengeki Bunko's brand even to the modern day. Without Boogiepop, we may not have gotten titles like Shakugan no Shana and A Certain Magical Index - at least, not in the form that they exist.

Boogiepop is so intrinsically tied to the history of Dengeki Bunko that for the label's 25th anniversary, they decided to greenlight a new TV anime. Kadokawa producer Shō Tanaka told Pash that he personally pushed for a new Boogiepop anime. He said Boogiepop was one of the very first light novels he ever read and he wanted the young generation to understand its appeal. My impression is that this is mostly a vanity project rather than a serious attempt at reigniting the phenomenon.

However, just because Boogiepop will probably never hit the big leagues a second time doesn't mean that the quality of its writing is diminished. The fact that it became big in the first place was an accident. It seems more natural to think of Boogiepop as the kind of series that attracts a small yet dedicated following, while the rest of the world looks on in bemusement. That's exactly how Boogiepop/Touka voice actor Aoi Yūki describes what the series was like to her: “When I was in school, all the bibliophile subculture kids read it.”

I believe that there is inherent worth in subculture. The Boogiepop boom may have passed us by in the West, but the books still exist. And those books still have the power to speak to the youths of today. I can say that with confidence because I am one of the youths discovering Boogiepop for the first time. There are a lot of monsters within the world of Boogiepop, many of them direct manifestations of the human psyche, but the story always offers a way forward, even for its most damaged and helpless characters.

There's a particularly iconic line from the VS Imaginator arc which I've seen Japanese readers quote. I'll reproduce it from the Seven Seas translation:

“Adapting yourself to society is essentially being brainwashed to match societal requirements. The only difference from your situation is that the source of it is not clearly defined. There are no humans who have not been brainwashed. Now the problem: within that context - within your brainwashed, restrained psyche - what do you value the most? Bound tightly by the world, what do you still desire?” (Boogiepop omnibus 1-3, pg. 574)

20 years ago, Boogiepop told its readers to look beyond the chains of society and acknowledge their own worth. Today, Boogiepop remains as mysterious and elusive as ever, like a bubble that will pop and vanish in a moment. The world still hasn't gotten clearer; if anything it's murkier now. But this shadowy reaper's words are still a comfort somehow. I feel as if I shouldn't fear the unknown. That's a powerful message, even today.

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