Thoughts on Hakomari

covers2-3I still don’t know what happened there…

For those who haven’t heard of it, Utsuro no Hako to Zero no Maria (or Hakomari  for short) is the most well-regarded light novel in the English-speaking anime fandom… at least if you listen to MyAnimeList. It’s currently rated the #2 manga/light novel of all time, beaten only by the Berserk manga. That’s some pretty high praise for a novel that has never received an anime adaptation, or even an official translation.

I’m really happy that Hakomari became such a hit with the English fandom. The light novel fan translation scene is chock-a-block with machine translations and half-finished work, and most of the stories that get picked for translation are narou shit anyway. (Gotta be blunt.) Hakomari is different, so it stands out.

Unfortunately, I can’t say that I actually like Hakomari myself.

The dialogue in this series is utterly inane. I don’t know how any of the characters can actually understand each other, as I usually need to re-read their conversations several times before I can piece together what they are even trying to say. Part of that could be the fault of the translation, which is particularly rough in the early volumes, but I’m pretty sure that the characters would sound utterly chuunibyou in Japanese too.

It reminded me of my experience reading Pandora Hearts, where everyone stands around making dramatic-sounding statements and pointed commentary about how nobody is acting like a normal human being. The Hakomari characters are self-aware about how abnormal they are, but that doesn’t make me connect with them any better. And it doesn’t make the psychological drama very effective either; all the psychology is explained in excruciating detail in the narration because none of it can be inferred through the character interactions themselves. Hakomari is definitely more on the “tell” side than the “show” side when it comes to its storytelling.

hakomari4

An example of the terrible dialogue I’m talking about. WARNING: Spoilers.

To its credit, Hakomari does have a neat premise that combines all sorts of plot devices from popular stories: time loops (All You Need is Kill), death games (Battle Royale), backfiring wishes (Madoka), the list goes on. But because the rules of the universe remain vague throughout the entire story, it’s hard to follow the action. The mind games in particular tend to fall flat because the reader is rarely given any clear logic around how the battles are fought, other than abstract concepts like “you lose when you give up the box.”

If that wasn’t bad enough, volume 2 is almost completely irrelevant in the larger plot, save for the cliffhanger at the end. The main characters involved are simply put on a figurative bus and disappear from the plot altogether, never to be mentioned again. Volume 2 was terrible, and it almost made me quit the series altogether.

Fortunately, things pick up in volumes 3 and 4, which were easily the most effective in the entire series. The “Kingdom Royale” game had clearly established rules from the outset, setting up interesting scenarios that made the most of the characters’ traits. Mikage is a more entertaining writer when he’s merely tweaking the rules of the book instead of going off the rails altogether.

The last volume is… well, let’s not even go there. I couldn’t stop laughing when it tries to establish how twisted the MC has become by (SPOILERS) making him literally kill a dog. And it only gets crazier from there. I don’t know how anyone could ship the two MCs together by the end, but I suppose the sheer level of wtf-ery is a point in their favour. Their relationship transcends creepiness and becomes… well… let’s just say they definitely deserved each other. (END SPOILERS)

20130401204921utsuronohako3_3

Regardless of my feelings about the MC, he does look good in a maid outfit

I get the feeling that the author Eiji Mikage wrote himself into a hole by coming up with such convoluted plot twists, which might explain why the release dates between volumes were few and far between. He clearly put a lot of thought into the underlying ideas and themes behind the series, but the execution wasn’t quite there.

In the end, I can’t say I dislike this light novel, though. At the very least, I was entertained throughout it all. And as I said at the beginning of the post, I’m glad that it became popular. It just wasn’t my favourite light novel, and those MAL reviewers who call it “one of the best works of Japanese literature” ought to calm down and read more Japanese literature.

Looking back, maybe I would have enjoyed Hakomari more if I had read it in Japanese, but I think I have a better idea of what English readers would like to see in their light novels after reading the fan translation. I can see where they’re coming from. I, too, would like to see more plot-driven light novels available in English. There are many gems that will never see the light of day in English, usually because they don’t have an anime adaptation, so it can only be a good thing when a relatively obscure light novel like this one gets exposure. If you haven’t read Hakomari yet, go read it and form your own impressions!

(As a side note, Hakomari is vastly more well-known among English light novel readers than it is among Japanese readers. It just goes to show that a fan translation can still have the power to shape a fandom’s tastes, even in this day and age.)

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Posted on October 4, 2016, in Reviews and Impressions and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.

  1. I think I dropped this one half way through volume 4. Honestly, I think has the same strength as most of the popular visual novels and light novels in western fandom: interesting premise, decently complex plot, lots of ideas and themes underneath. Unfortunately, it share the same problem, too: unnecessarily convoluted, awful prose, characters who act and speak like insane philosophy 101 students. Frankly, I think Toradora and Legend of Galactic Heroes(if that one count) are the only one I enjoy with little reservation.

    The sad thing is, I find those stories decently enjoyable flaws and all, but cannot discuss with anyone about them. The fanbase seems to be very interested in maintaining that their favourite works are flawless. For a recent example, look at the shit storm when Gigguk criticized some parts of Re:zero.

    • Did you read the light novel versions of Toradora and LoGH or are you just talking about their anime adaptations?

      • I’ve read the official translation of LoGH, and the fan translated Toradora.

        LoGH did have problem with the prose. There are awkward phrasing and some weird sentences, but it is written like an actual novel. Toradora fan translation is alright as well.

  2. Nice post!

    HakoMari was the first Light Novel I’d ever read back when I discovered what a LN was during the Haruhi craze, so I have a lot of fond memories of it. The translation wasn’t finished back then, so I don’t think I even finished the first volume. Even so, I was fascinated by the concept of a time-loop where the characters are given roles and their whole perception of reality is molded by said roles (I think that’s what it was? My memory might be a little foggy, lol.)

    The dialogue in this series is utterly inane. I don’t know how any of the characters can actually understand each other, as I usually need to re-read their conversations several times before I can piece together what they are even trying to say. Part of that could be the fault of the translation, which is particularly rough in the early volumes, but I’m pretty sure that the characters would sound utterly chuunibyou in Japanese too.

    I find this bit particularly interesting, because it’s not the first time I’ve heard this complaint when it comes to Light Novel/Visual Novel prose/dialogue.

    This kind of thing always puzzled me a little because I either (a) Never seem to notice it, or (b) I actually… like it a lot, lol (shame)

    For example, people keep complaining about the prose in F/SN’s translation and how it makes the whole thing almost unreadable, but that same prose was one of my favorite things about it. (more shame)

    And I know for sure I’m not the only one who actually enjoys such embarrassing (?)dialogue. I’ve been hanging around some Index LN threads for a while now and I’ve noticed that some of its fans also gobble up dialogue like that.

    But here’s another thing I’ve noticed: most of the people who seem to love this kind of writing also happen to have English as their second language.

    I think for those of us who didn’t grow up with English as our first language, AND mostly learned by reading video game dialogue and Japanese media fan translations (and bad yaoi fanfics as well in my case, h-haha), what is considered good prose can be very esoteric, lol. I think it doesn’t help that chuu2 dialogue like that sounds a little less ridiculous when you read them in a foreign language. (Maybe? It might just be me, lol.)

    It’s a little embarrassing, but I think my taste in written works (and even the way I word my sentences in English to a lesser extent) has been hopelessly influenced by all the fan-translated Visual Novels I read as a teenager – back when my grasp of the English language was very loose.

    In HakoMari’s case, I remember liking some of its lines so much that I even saved some excerpts of it the same way someone might highlight some lines from their favorite book, lol.

    One such example:

    “In these 20,000 recurrences, I stopped being myself. I’m self-aware of this fact. I couldn’t endure this boredom and lost my heart. I can’t even communicate properly with others anymore.”

    (I’ve completely forgotten the context, but I still think it sounds kinda cool, lol)

    Every time someone posts a screenshot of how shitty a translation is, I always pretend to agree because I’m too embarrassed to admit that not only don’t I see what’s wrong with it, but it’s also usually a line that I think sounds pretty cool, h-haha…

    But it’s not like I don’t understand what people mean when they say that the writing sounds unnatural or that it doesn’t flow well, because even as a teenager I couldn’t stand reading manga fan-translations in Spanish (my mother tongue). I hate this word, but “cringey” is the best way to describe how it feels, lol.

    Well, most of this is just conjecture on my part, and I’m mostly talking about my personal experience, so other non-English speakers might not even feel the same way as me. I might be talking out of my ass here though. Maybe I should just read more actual English literature? lol

    So yeah, I have no idea where I was going with all this, lol. I just love it when people discuss language and translations, even though I mostly feel lost when they start going about English prose and good flow and whatnot. I think stuff like this and how it affects our enjoyment of media is super interesting. Like, F/SN is one of my favorite works of fiction of all time (shame^10), but I think most of my enjoyment of it came about because of the context in which I read it (an impressionable teenager with a loose grasp of English who felt moved by some of the faux-philosophical lines and themes?)

    Just my .2$. Sorry I went on and on about something that’s mostly unrelated to the contents of your actual post.

    • Just wanted to add my two cents to yours, since I found your comment really interesting. Light Novel writing styles are something I have a lot of trouble with as a native English speaker; there are often (not always) sentences that just rub me the wrong way, and I have to admit that I don’t have enough of a background in linguistics to puzzle out why. They just don’t seem right.

      So the idea that people reading in their second language don’t have that problem is kind of cool.

      But the real reason I’m commenting is because I wanted to say that you shouldn’t be embarrassed about what you like. No matter how much I might criticize a story, whether it be anime or light novel or visual novel, i’ll never bag on the people that -do- like it, and that applies to prose/cool sentences and all that stuff too. If you find enjoyment in something or think it’s cool then that’s awesome, even if I don’t like it myself.

      I read the F/SN VN a while ago, but I don’t remember having major problems with that!

      • For what it’s worth, I once saw someone post a comparison between the official and fan translated versions of one paragraph that sets up a joke from The Devil’s a Part Timer, and while I didn’t really see how one was so much better than the other (to the point that it could have affected my long-term enjoyment), I DID notice that the way the buildup was handled in the official version made the punchline at the end of the paragraph a lot funnier. When comparisons like that are brought up, there’s usually a thing or two that I realize are always better in the official version, though if it wasn’t pointed out and if they weren’t side by side, I don’t think I’d be able to notice.

        Also, thanks for the encouragement! I tend to be pretty self-conscious about the things I like, although in this case it really helps that I know Frog-kun and the people that frequent his blog aren’t the kind to pigeonhole someone based on the stuff they like (otherwise I wouldn’t have written such a long comment about how I find such things cool, lol).

    • I think for those of us who didn’t grow up with English as our first language, AND mostly learned by reading video game dialogue and Japanese media fan translations (and bad yaoi fanfics as well in my case, h-haha), what is considered good prose can be very esoteric, lol. I think it doesn’t help that chuu2 dialogue like that sounds a little less ridiculous when you read them in a foreign language. (Maybe? It might just be me, lol.)

      I relate to this a LOT, actually. It’s why I enjoy reading light novels in Japanese. I know a lot of native Japanese speakers think that light novels are poorly written, but I find them enjoyable, maybe because the writing is often so simple and straightforward. It’s definitely interesting how your experience with a language can shape your perception of the prose!

      And as Silvachief said, there’s no reason to be ashamed of your tastes! Thanks for your comment.

  3. I was prepared to be the guy writing “that” comment. The one where I disagree completely with the original article because I really didn’t enjoy HakoMari. And then you wrote the comment for me XD

    You’ve more or less summarized my exact thoughts on the series (which I didn’t finish, admittedly). The characters are ridiculous, and not in a good way, and despite the semi-detective air surrounding some of them logic often seems to be a foreign concept. As you say, the translation didn’t help but the concept lucky dip wouldn’t have made up for the tedious dialogue and unnatural relationships even with a professional behind the wheel. I also agree that some later developments/plot tools can only be described as laughable.

    I tend to have a thing about titles I don’t think deserve the attention they’ve received, so my view towards HakoMari is slightly prejudiced. That said, I didn’t enjoy the time I spent reading it and I would rather some other light novel were the one that was exploding.

    • It can be really disappointing when something doesn’t live up to the hype. Hakomari gets a disproportionate amount of attention because a lot of the really well-regarded light novels in Japanese simply don’t have an English translation, fan or otherwise. Hopefully, things will change in the coming years as more works get translated.

  4. I took one look at the example of dialogue you had up there, and I immediately knew this wasn’t for me. Monogatari is one thing, but the level of weird in that series is why I love it in my opinion. But I am not a big fan complicated dialogue, especially if it’s an amateur writer trying to sound intelligent. Though to be honest if I looked at this novel beforehand, then I might have tried it out. So I should probably read maybe the first volume so I could have my own thought.

    Also, looking forward to the second season of Sound! Euphonium!! Have I ever thanked you for getting me into that? Well I’ll say it now I guess, thank you Frog. That show actually helped me when I was going through a bit of a slump, and I really needed a bit of Kyoto Ani’s magic. Also you can never get enough of some good yuri shipping;) Hope you have a wonderful Fall Season!

    • Yeah, don’t let my negative thoughts deter you from seeing Hakomari for yourself. I’d say the first volume gives you a pretty clear idea of what the series is like in general, so if it’s not your cup of tea, no need to continue.

      Also, I’m glad you got into Eupho! It’s a great show, and I love the positive messages in it too. I think I’ll watch the second season after it’s finished airing, as I did with the first season. Either way, I’m looking forward to seeing some more beautiful animation!

  5. Hakomari huh….It’s a very nostalgic series for me as I read it as they gets updated in the fan TL scene and had to wait for years for the FINAL volume.
    It’s actually something I like due to how ‘different’ it is.
    It’s like something different from the generic ‘up-to-date’ thing at that time with how it’s delivered, just like monogatari series. Or for another example, how Log Horizon and Maoyuu Yuusha are different from most similar genre.

    Like what ribbit said exactly, “Hakomari is different, so it stands out.”

    And yea, it has some awkward moment/plot esp at volume 2.

    Best volumes for me would be the first and final.
    The first volume was truly epic, and when I watched Madoka and Re:Zero years later I was like, I’ve seen these. And I like the Hakomari’s more with how twisted it is.
    The final volume being how chaotic and (I think) very romantic, had an ALMOST perfect enclosure. Best (creepy) couple there.

  6. WHAT DO YOU JUST SAY ABOUT HAKOMARI YOU LITTLE SHIT

    Lol, that screenshot is useful. But okay, jokes aside, HakoMari is always a tricky thing to discuss for me. I talked with Silvachief before (who doesn’t really like it too as you can see) about it and while I defended it like hell, admittedly, I actually wasn’t sure how much of it is fueled by my opinion, or by my bias towards the very first light novel I read. In fact, the more discussions I had with people, the more I’m made aware of it’s flaws.

    I feel like I’m just repeating what Victorrama said here, lol. But nonetheless, as my first light novel, HakoMari definitely impressed me. It feels different, and it has a hell of a strong start in Volume 1. At the time when I was still gullible about the light novel scene, it’s already enough to make a lifetime fan out of me.

    • Owh, I just noticed I was referred :D
      For bias… it’s not the very first LN I ever read and not the first unique LN I encountered either, but somehow…I suppose it gives some sense of uniqueness for me because IIRC, at that time, everyone just go to read Index and the likes and I wanted something… different. ( which I never liked, but it’s only me, please don’t stone me.)
      And yes, it makes me a fan of the series.

      P.S : Nice ribbit smash.

  7. My understanding is that the fan translation is no better than the Japanese. The only reason HakoMari is popular is because it’s the first and most complete translation in BakaTsuki. No one practically knows the series in Japan; the writer took forever to live up to the hype in the first novel, so no one read the following. Unless you’re living in the West.

    I can’t say I didn’t dislike it entirely — I used to like it, then I got older and got to read actual Japanese novels that deal with similar themes. It’s just nostalgia and I like to keep it this way.

  8. I heard from someone else that Hakomari’s author took so long to write the series because he hated writing it…If that’s the case, at least he made sure what he wrote was well-placed together.

    Euphonium S2 looks as good as ever, although I hear Yuri on Ice could give Eupho a run for its money – Yamamoto Sayo’s directing, the animation and ice skating choreography is excellent, and the male fanservice is claimed by the head writer to “put the fanservice of bishoujo animes to shame”.

    • Where did he say he hated writing it? In the afterwords of the light novels, he made out that he had trouble writing it, but I didn’t get the impression that he hated it.

      • Some 3rd party source said the author hated it – perhaps they interpreted “trouble writing it” as a reluctance or hatred of the novel.

  9. …this is what I get for not checking back on your blog for so long. Wow, totally missed this.

    First of all, IIRC, this was Eust/Kadi’s first project on B-T and, I don’t think either of them are native english speakers so, awkwardness ensued. In fact I made a long-time friend from this project because Kadi (editor) asked me to help out once.

    Hakomari characters are not very realistic and certainly not easy to understood, although sometimes I wonder if this part is… intended? For the most part, the characters, while recognizing their abnormality, understands neither themselves nor each other. As a result they’re constantly prodding and being awkward/abrasive to one another. So basically, the reader is tossed in from the exact perspective — often baffled by what exactly they’re trying to say to each other.

    …Thinking about it, I doubt I would enjoy the novel as much if reading now. But back when I myself was an awkward/abrasive teenager? Yeah… XD

  1. Pingback: Light Novel Notes (October 2016 — Round 2) | English Light Novels

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