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.
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 fourth volume in Japanese, but I’ve only read the first three 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. 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.
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 fourth volume is set to come out in English on April 24th, 2018. It’s the first volume to continue the story past the original web novel, and I can assure you that it’s just as good as the first three volumes.
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!