The Isolator is Reki Kawahara’s Best Work

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Reki Kawahara is well known for Sword Art Online and Accel World, but if you ask me, his best work is The Isolator, a sci-fi thriller and psychological drama series that only gets a new volume once a year. It’s based off a web novel Kawahara began writing in 2004, but he has rewritten the story heavily for its light novel release, and it is easily his most mature work.

At first glance, The Isolator seems like a pretty typical story about teens with superpowers, and truth be told, the plot beats don’t stray far from the genre template. What really makes the story distinct is how grounded it is in a sense of physical and psychological reality. Not only does the narration always tells you which real-world location a particular scene is set in,  the supernatural powers are given very detailed explanations about how they work in relation to modern physics and chemistry. But most interestingly, the powers are manifestations of the characters’ mental state. The added layer of psychological drama makes the battle scenes intensely gripping and relatable.

The big theme of the story is isolation and how people respond to their negative emotions. Interestingly for a Kawahara work, a significant amount of time is dedicated to exploring the perspective of the villains, and there are hints here and there that perhaps our heroes and villains are not so different despite being on opposing sides. Unlike the “Jet Eyes”, who are given powers with seemingly no strings attached, the “Red Eyes” are instilled with blood lust and must seek ways to survive in society without being apprehended for their crimes. Yet in spite of their different circumstances, both sides derive their powers from emotional trauma and a feeling of rejection from society.

Added to this, the protagonist Minoru is a morally ambiguous character, and his personality is easily more complex than Kirito and Haruyuki’s combined. Minoru is never outright malicious, but he does wish for absolute solitude, meaning that for all his good intentions, he is apathetic to the lives of those around him. When a stranger dies, he can’t muster feelings of grief. He can’t fight for lofty ideals like justice either. When he eventually does join the Specialized Forces Division, the government branch dedicated to fighting Red Eyes, he does so because he makes a deal with the chief to erase all memories of his existence from the minds of those around him. He wants to be forgotten and alone, so that his existence is perfectly safe.

Minoru’s situation essentially comes down to the hedgehog’s dilemma. He is afraid of hurting and being hurt by others, and so he cloaks an impenetrable barrier around himself – literally. However, he cannot bring himself to remain unaffected by the lives of those around him, and so he struggles to bring people into his barrier in order to protect them. For all his psychological hangups, he’s a sweet and kindhearted boy with the humble wish of not causing much trouble, and that makes his eventual decision to protect others so much more affecting. Even if he can’t act like a big hero out to save the world, he can shield others as long as he’s near them. Minoru’s motivations are always easily understandable to the reader, even when he struggles to understand them himself.

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The other characters in the series are more archetypal (at least so far), but they act as excellent foils for Minoru. My favourite supporting character is Suu, who first appears in volume 3. She can turn invisible, an ability which is driven by her fear of other people’s gazes. Like Minoru, she has a shy and retiring personality, which is why the two of them develop a mutual understanding. In the end, however, it turns out that despite complementing each other so well, the root of their abilities come from different emotional impulses. I can’t say anything more out of spoiler reasons, but it’s really gratifying to see how Minoru’s understanding of his own ability develops over time.

If there’s anything bad I can say about the novel, it’s that the science talk and technobabble does get a bit overbearing at times. It’s certainly not on Kamachi levels, though. One of the things I appreciate about Kawahara’s writing is how he’s able to make hard sci-fi concepts so accessible to general readers, and that’s also the case here in The Isolator. But it does occasionally slow down the pace of the story. After three volumes, it feels like the story is only just getting started; looking back, it doesn’t feel that a lot has actually happened outside Minoru’s head. That said, I read each volume in one sitting, so they can’t have been boring.

I read the first volume in Japanese and English, but I’ve only read the next two volumes in English, so I can’t comment much on the accuracy of the translation, but I did find the prose to be smooth and easy to read. Interestingly, each volume has had a different English translator so far. The first volume was translated by Adair Trask, the second volume was translated by ZephyrZ, and the third volume was translated by Jenny McKeon. (Curiously enough, the third book credits ZephyrZ for the translation, but I confirmed with Jenny herself that she worked on it.)

All in all, The Isolator is well worth a read, even for the extra money you have to drop for the hardcover books in English. As with all of Kawahara’s books, there’s no English ebook despite there being a Japanese ebook, which is a bit of a peculiarity. Still, the hardcover edition looks quite nice, and the enlarged illustrations relative to the Japanese bunko-bon sweeten the deal. Shimeji’s character designs are simple yet attractive, which makes sense given his background as an animator, and I would love to see these characters in motion one day.

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For now, however, The Isolator is one of the few light novels available in English that doesn’t have an anime adaptation. It’s well worth supporting if you want to see the more interesting and lesser-known LN titles receive the English translation they deserve. The English version has already caught up with the Japanese version, and volume 3 has covered all the events in the web novel, so I’m with everyone else in Japan aching for the next volume to come out.

In the meantime, I have nothing else to say except to express my selfish wish as a fan. Kawahara-sensei, stop writing so much Sword Art Online and Accel World and write more Sword Art Online: Progressive and The Isolator! Please! I’m begging you!

Posted on December 31, 2016, in Reviews and Impressions and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Great work, Froggy. It’s cool you linked the original web version on his old site. That’s a good touch. I have been having a great experience with the series and it’s good to see that you have been as well. I’ve just been loving it, and i just love Minoru. And yeah Suu really was great! Her scenes with Minoru in Vol 3 were some of my favorite so far. I also do like Yumiko and definitely look forward to learning more about her.

    I too would like to see The Isolator cast in motion. I’ll admit I’ve often wondered and thought what would they sound like and how would they look in animation. Especially with the perspectives of the villains.

    Speaking of exploring the perspective of the villains, I believe that SAO started doing so in Vol 15 which came out following the release of the Isolator Vol 1. AW, SAO, and Isolator always feel incredibly connected to one another. Not in that they are all a part of the same universe but in how important they all are to the journey of Kawahara. The Kawahara who wrote the SAO web novel is not the same one who wrote AW and that Kawahara is not the same one as the one who wrote The Isolator light novel. I love watching Kawahara grow with each installment of his three (well four if you consider SAO Progressive separate) series. I freely admit that I look up to man. I admire his humility and how he keeps on doing something that obviously loves and does his best with. And I can’t help but love him for that.

    “In the meantime, I have nothing else to say except to express my selfish wish as a fan. Kawahara-sensei, stop writing so much Sword Art Online and Accel World and write more Sword Art Online: Progressive and The Isolator! Please! I’m begging you!”
    Haha, nothing wrong with being a little selfish. Though since Alicization is finished, that means there is no more web material to make use of. Aside from an unfinished side story called Cradle of the Moon. One day I’m sure The Isolator and AW will be able to shine out of there older sibling’s shadow and the main SAO series will finish so he can focus more on SAO Progressive and Isolator until then we wait.

    • Aww, thanks for the comment, Russell! You hit upon a lot of great things here.

      First off, I’m glad you like Minoru and Suu. They’re the best. And I agree that Yumiko is also great. That scene where she hugs and punches that animal doll in the third volume totally won me over hahaha.

      It’s also really great to see how Kawahara has grown as a writer over the years. I admit I haven’t kept up with the later SAO volumes, but it’s interesting to know that he’s been trying to write more through the villain’s perspective in that series too. I always thought, especially in his early stuff, that his ability to write villains was one of his weakest points as a writer.

      The SAO and The Isolator LNs have both covered their web novel counterparts, so I really have to wonder what Kawahara will be doing this year… will he be able to juggle four different storylines effectively? Well, we’ll find out with time, I guess. I’m rooting for him!

      • Don’t mention it, Froggy! They really are the best. And yeah, that was a nice Yumiko moment.

        Yeah, Vol 15 on the focus shifts a bit since Kirito is out of commission and stays that way til Vol 18. Volume 14 hit him hard. And in some it seems to switch around between quite a few different characters. I’ve kept with with what happens in general as I’ve largely decided to wait for official releases.

        I do sort off agree that his villains. I do like Laughing Coffin and Kayaba as well as Alicizations two main villains. But I’ve always felt Sugou could die in fire and nothing of value would be lost. He’s always been what makes Fairy Dance sour for me. And there’s some small time guys that aren’t all that great. Noumi in AW isn’t really fantastic but I do really like his villianous rant about he got back at his brother and his motives. I’ll admit I’m a sucker for stuff like that.

        But the villians in The Isolator have been much better. On abilities alone I’ve found them much better. I really liked the Biter and the sense of thread and terror I felt reading Volume 1. I do often quite like psychopathic antagonist and villians. Though I often like when they’re part of a much larger variety. And I’m quite curious about The Syndicate.

        Yeah, we’ll see. Ganbare, Kawahara-sensei!

      • “The SAO and The Isolator LNs have both covered their web novel counterparts, so I really have to wonder what Kawahara will be doing this year… will he be able to juggle four different storylines effectively? Well, we’ll find out with time, I guess. I’m rooting for him!”

        Well, first of all. End the original SAO with Cradle of The Moon and give it a goodbye. (until the inevitable cute extra stories, see the cast living happily and things like that).

        So, i will not worry for SAO. It is ended, albeit Kawahara will had to write things to fill Vol 19.

        For AW, he will give it the usual treatement than every year, and for SAO Progressive and The Isolator, well, if Kawahara can manage to write AW along SAO:P and The Isolator for all this time, he can continue with it.

        I am actually more worried if Kawahara and Dengeki can milk SAO Progressive as good as they did with SAO original but given who like the 80% of the SAO publicity is about Aincrad then it should not be a issue. It actually will rise the sells.

  2. Well, the original SAO is ending either the next year or in 2019, and Accel World is in its final arcs, right?

    And about the article itself…YES!

    The Isolator is just so cool, and i agree who Kawahara is good at explaining scientific concepts in a quick way (that is actually one of my favorite things of him :P)

    • I think Kawahara’s good at explaining those sci-fi concepts because he calls himself an “absolute liberal arts” guy. So he gets the pain of people like me who thinks science is cool but it goes completely over their heads.

  3. God, that indeed looks very interesting… I’ll definitely put it in my PTR list.

  4. You said that the web novel was heavily rewritten for the light novel, in what way are they different? Has he rewritten to make his prose better to fit his current style or did he change the plot? It seems that there are a lot of author who start with a web novel and then make a transition into light novel, I would like to see you make an article about in what way do authors edit their own stories for the book version.

    • I haven’t had the time to read the web novel to compare closely, but Kawahara claimed that the LN version is 90% different, and that not only did he change the sentences and grammar, he restructured the plot and added new scenes, etc. He also did that independently, so the experience for him was like producing a whole new work.

      Generally speaking, every web novel -> light novel transition is different, and also I’m not privy to the editorial decisions behind any LN. I can’t write about the differences between a web novel and light novel without spending a lot of time comparing the two versions, and that takes a lot of time. So while I think it’s an interesting topic, it’s not very practical for me to write about unless I’m REALLY interested in the source material.

  5. In your opinion, does Isolator have the potential to be made into an anime, based on how its written and read? ATM I think the only thing stopping Isolator from getting an anime is the lack of source material to adapt. Perhaps once 7-8 books are out..

    • I’m not privy to the production committees of anime, but my guess is that for Kadokawa it would depend on whether the Kawahara brand is still worth promoting after SAO and Accel World are finished. The Isolator doesn’t move nearly as many copies as the former two series, so I think Kadokawa would only consider promoting it through an anime when Kawahara is in a position to publish volumes more regularly. So either way, give it time.

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