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Novel vs Anime – A Certain Magical Index

Note: This is a repost of a series of an article I originally wrote for Crunchyroll. Check my writer profile to see my latest articles.


A Certain Magical Index is based off one of the most popular light novel series in Japan ever. If you count the side story volumes and the New Testament sequel currently being published in Japan, the Index series has over 40 volumes in print—and this isn’t even counting the A Certain Scientific Railgun manga spinoff which has its own sprawling continuity. If you’re even vaguely familiar with anime and light novels, you’ve probably heard of the Index franchise.

index cover

I’m gonna have to be honest with you straight up—Index isn’t this light novel fan’s cup of tea. I find the constant exposition tedious, and the prose childish and repetitive. This might be a consequence of the author’s insane schedule. Kazuma Kamachi has written one full-length book a month for the past two years, juggling Index with his other series: Intellectual Village no Zashiki WarashiHeavy Object, and Saikyō o Kojiraseta Level Counter Stop Kenseijo Beatrice no Jakuten Sono Na wa “Buu Buu”. He also writes crossover volumes and short stories, as well as keeping up a web novel series on his personal website. You can imagine that he doesn’t exactly have time to polish everything he writes.

Having said all that, I can appreciate why Index is so popular. Index is set in a world where science clashes with magic, and it’s almost impossible to tell where sci-fi ends and fantasy begins. If you’re the type of fan who gets immersed in detailed fantasy settings, you’ll get a kick out of the Index light novel, because it goes into so much more detail than the anime counterpart. If you’re a history, occult, or physics geek, you’ll especially get a kick out of the way the story manages to tie so many of the concepts in these fields together into one big, interconnected metric. It’s just a pity that the imaginative setting of Index’s Academy City looks so drab and lifeless in the anime, distinguishable only by the CG-animated windmills that dot the landscape.

index 8

This level of detail in Index does come at a cost, however. The characters spend far too much time spouting exposition at each other when they’re supposed to be in life-threatening situations. It’s more noticeable in the anime where you can see all the action physically happening as the characters talk, which is ironic because the anime actually cuts out the most egregious examples of exposition-itis. The anime toned down what is actually the most appealing part of the light novel for worldbuilding fans, but it didn’t cut out enough to make the story accessible for anime-only viewers.

index 6

index 7

While the anime boasts strong special effects animation, especially during the action scenes, it also struggles at making the dialogue-heavy scenes visually interesting to watch. There are many occasions in Index where the characters merely sit or stand around talking to each other, and while this isn’t a problem in a novel as long as the dialogue itself is interesting, the scenes look static in animated form. While the anime does use some direction tricks here and there to spice things up, such as split screens, camera pans, and the Dutch angle, the effect can be hit-and-miss.

index 2

For example, take this scene from episode 1, where Index explains to Touma the existence of magic. The off-kilter camera angles in this scene are supposed to make the viewer feel a sense of unease, as if something about the scene is not quite right. But the effect is almost immediately compromised whenever the camera cuts to Index and Touma pulling goofy faces at each other. Is the viewer supposed to feel some of Touma’s unease after having his view of the world overturned? Or are we just supposed to laugh and take the existence of magic in stride? The framing of the scene supports both interpretations, and in the end it just leaves me confused about what kind of anime Index is trying to be.

That said, the anime does add in some nice visual details here and there, which tell us a lot about the characters. Index (the character) does not seem particularly religious through the dialogue or the light novel’s descriptions, but she is shown making the sign of the cross in episode 6 at a time when she’s particularly worried. Index (the anime) appears to be a loose depiction of Christianity at best, but little things like this are a neat reminder that Index is indeed a nun in this universe, and that her actions are consistent with her education.

index 5

There are also continuity nods in the anime that don’t exist in the light novel. In the first light novel volume, Misaka doesn’t appear outside the first scene, but she is shown throughout the anime adaptation alongside her friend Kuroko. Not only does this help establish the importance of her character for later episodes, her role as an observer in the first arc helps show that there’s more happening in the world of Index besides what’s happening through Touma’s perspective. I find this kind of scene-setting more interesting than the light novel’s constant explanations of magic and science lore, and I wish the anime did more of it.

index 3

All in all, A Certain Magical Index isn’t bad as an anime, and I’d recommend it as a more digestible form of the story to those who like the concept behind the setting but aren’t particularly fussy on the details. Besides cutting a good chunk of the exposition, the anime is a faithful, almost page-by-page adaptation of the light novel. If you don’t care about exactly how the special abilities work and just want to find out what happens in the plot, the anime is a fine substitute for the light novel… just be warned that it doesn’t move along quick enough to smooth over the glaring pacing problems in this series, and that the dialogue-heavy scenes don’t make a strong impression.

But if you have gotten hooked on the world of Index, the first nine volumes are available in English from Yen Press. The first season of the anime covers the first six volumes of the light novel, while the second season covers volumes 7-13, plus some of the side stories. While I’m here, I might as well recommend the Railgun manga, though, which is my favorite iteration of the franchise. I’ve always liked the idea behind the Index series, even when the execution doesn’t quite appeal to me at times, and I think that the franchise is broad enough that there’s something in it for everyone.

What’s your favorite version of the Index story?

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Posted on August 10, 2017, in Anime Analysis and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. It’s always interesting to consider how to adapt an exposition-heavy text to visual media, and unfortunately for budgets, I think that strong retooling is required. Sometimes writers have to explain things in dialogue because they’ve picked a specific narrator who wouldn’t be thinking about such things, and the details have to be explained to the reader somehow.

    But there’s a reason we have the saying “a picture is worth 1000 words.” That same exposition could probably be converted into a 5-second establishing shot for a scene/sequence. Heist films and shows do this all of the time, and the more organically integrated a Chekhov’s Gun is, the better. The visual medium is not necessarily confined to “what the narrator notices,” so the adaptation should be finding ways for the world-building to be shown, not told.
    And then cut the exposition from the dialogue scene entirely, except for the parts relevant to character.

    But yeah, it’s a budget problem. Writers have a limited time to adapt scripts for TV, so minimal alterations to the source material is the easiest way. Oishi could complete such a full adaptation of Kizumonogatari only because he was not constrained by a specific runtime, or the relentless TV broadcast schedule.

    • It’s not really a budget problem unless you mean scheduling problem?

      But yeah, I really like your point that the visual medium is not necessarily confined to “what the narrator notices”. I don’t think that books are necessarily confined that way either (and certainly not Index, since it’s written in third person), but I agree it’s easier to express details on a screen without drawing attention to them in the narrative itself. Doesn’t help that Index itself is not exactly trying to be subtle with its dialogue, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing in itself. Just makes it harder to adapt for screen.

      • Well, the harder the source material, the more time it may take for someone to figure out the best way to adapt it. If the adaptor is working on other projects, they may only have a limited number of hours to work on it. In other cases, people are hired to do the adapting, and thus paid a certain amount out of budget to work on it. And if the show doesn’t allot much money to pay the adaptor/writer for their time, they get what they pay for.
        Exceptions would be passion projects, of course, like Shinbo/Oishi and Monogatari.

        Same for the other way around, of novelizations. Some are lackluster repeats of only what was in the source film/show, while others take the time to figure out what new things the text format can offer, like a deeper insight into what characters are thinking, or elaborations on world-building.

  2. Huh, I wrote a longish comment a few days ago, but it immediately disappeared. Into the spam folder, perhaps?

  3. Testing, this site appears to eat my comments?

  4. Thank You for the article!

    Indeed, the stifling techno-(and, err, magic-)babble is slightly off-putting but somewhat bearable. What was more annoying in the novels was the not-so-professional writing, the style – in patches – and, ultimately, the content in (other) places. Interestingly enough, the anime was slightly expanding the scenery and thus the content by infusing some live into the sometimes dry and too Shounen-y story.

    One thing that might have drawn that many people in to reading or watching this series is the a…little bit chuuni setting. Honestly speaking, though, it still is a fantasy setting many of us (I extrapolate) have at the very least once thought of. (…I didn’t do it just yesterday! Or last week! Or too often to count, really!)
    “Magic vs. Science” is, as childish and antithetic to itself as it may be, a thought experiment many have wanted to see animated (in both(/all three?) meanings). As for more prominent examples (sorry that there are so few, right now they’re the only ones appearing in my mind), “Harry Potter” would have gone that route, if Mrs. Rowling or the films’ director enabled some situations to allow that. Many Lovecraft stories go that way, in a way. Here it is, from the perspective of a Japanese novelist, who also has to think about what’s going to sell (alas), while still trying to input as much ideas and perhaps even love as he can, and the animation crew with similiar intentions. So while one has to bear with the quite annoying mood-jumps between a more serious tone or informative moment and a big plunge into “comical” ludicrousness, it is still a somewhat western interpretation of this topic by a Japanese.

    However much I would say that – as objective as I think I can try to be and say – “Index” is not per se a good work, I personally still like it quite much for the lore, the world building and the atmosphere, nevermind the sometimes accuring and sometimes not so much accuring character development and some of the characters themselves. Also, continuity. And at times a really nice application of the good, old trope “For Want of a Nail”.

    “Railgun”, of all the iterations and sub-franchises of the series (You did – not forget, I reckon, but simply – not mention the “Accelerator”-manga and -side stories, for example) takes the biscuit for me in being the all-round best of the stories so far. With its smaller and more direct yet not (not always, at least) predictable stories and charming characters it is the best sub-franchise to actually get a picture of the city, the place where most of the stories take their place. It’s basically the Slice-of-Life-part of the “Index”-franchise without so much Slice-of-Live. Or something like this.
    One of the better series I almost *generally* tend to recommend to friends and inquirers is the third arc of the “Index”-series or, when talking about anime, the first arc of the second season of the “Railgun”-anime. (For that arc, and specifically for that anime season, to be ‘understood’ somewhat, one has to watch at least the first season of the “Index”- and then the “Railgun”-anime. Which might be not so nice for those with less perseverance or affinity to Shounen.) It is, surprisingly enough, well-written compared to many other books and anime arcs in the series, especially so for being the third book, and might be more likeable to audience less inclined to actually go through more of the series.

    On one thing I’d like to correct (I guess?) You, though: It is not exactly a page-by-page adaptation. While You may – probably rightfully – deject me as a nit-picker in some or most instances, there are still enough to at least point out that some parts were changes a lot. Volume two of the books was adapted quite differently than it was written, for example. In other places some explanations which did add a little of thought and life into the story and some which even *explained the situation* and were the main clue or the final words were cut out – maybe involving much pondering, maybe just because they were not that flashy and not fantasy-ish enough (Sorry, not going to spoil here anything with examples unless otherwise wished/allowed by Our Fordship Frog-kun).

    On another note, where I can’t say that I’d like to correct You since it’s just an opinion, there is the bit about the lifeless-ness and boring-ness of the city (If You allow me to condense and slightly exaggerate Your statement). From an artistic perspective it is not incredible, that I concede. However, the futuristic changes are subtle yet present and recognisable, the city-scape intendedly classic (and perhaps even luckily so) and the city not as alive as real Tokyo but for the most part not lifeless. (It is also rather amusing to see people who have relatives or homes in Tokyo recognise the places in the anime where they actually live or have often been; as it is always. *cough* Darker than Black 2 *cough*).
    Disregarding the non-physically useful windmills inside the city, it still is a rather lovely prospect of a plainly looked at drab (if not cynical) but not hopeless future (and thus partly post-cyberpunk-ish?, maybe?) fantasy.

    tl;dr: Thank You for the article and Your articulated and reflected opinion—me like—”Index” okay—”Railgun” nicest—adaptation is not entirely correct (yes)—it is nice although it isn’t (that’s not a Kino-quote).

    And while we’re at it: I humbly would like to ask to be excused for this well of text. (Not a wall. There is no candle nor a feeling of despair in a wall.)
    If some poor soul manages to read all this: Thank You for the patience.

    • Sorry for the late reply, but thanks for the comment! I read all of it :) I’m glad you like Railgun too! It really is a great series – even better in manga form.

      It was pointed out that when this article was first published on CR that the Index anime isn’t a “page for page” adaptation of the novel. The first volume is, though, which was the only novel I was talking about for this particular article. I should have made that clear, both then and now.

  5. I enjoyed Index but there is a lot of babble to explain things that really don’t end up making sense anyway other than it works because the story needs it to. That said, I think Railgun was the better story. Still, fun fantasy/action kind of story.

  6. Huh, I’ve attempted to comment here a few times, and they all got immediately eaten. Sent to the spam folder?

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