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Light Novels: Bungaku Shoujo v01

bungaku shoujo 01Full title: “Bungaku Shoujo” to Shinitagari no Pierrot
Author: Nomura Mizuki
Illustrator: Takeoka Miho
Label: Famitsu Bunko
Year of publication: 2006
Pages: 254

This is a mystery novel. It was okay.

There, that should take care of the reader requests.

With the possible exception of Haruhi, no light novel has been hyped like Bungaku Shoujo: forum posts praise it, 2ch threads list it as the best series ever, and the glorious Kono Light Novel ga Sugoi! ranking saw the title rise from #8 to #3, to the coveted #1 last year, spanking my precious Toradora!. In other words, something out of the ordinary ought to be on display in this latest series by author Nomura Mizuki, who debuted way back in 2002 with some sort of vocal ping pong priestess amalgamation I’ve never heard of. The illustrator assigned to liven it up is Takeoka Miho, who uses watercolours to create a sweet, dreamy, and absolutely delightful mood in her imagery. Faces don’t always seem to be the right shape, but there’s a sense of nostalgia in the drawings that seeps right into your soul.

As a former best-selling genius girl writer beauty, main character Inoue Konoha at least manages to be rather unusual. Having achieved absurd success with his first novel at age 14, he suffered a nervous breakdown after a certain event and vowed never to write another book. Now he’s peacefully whiling away his youth as a second year high schooler at Seijou Academy and member of the illustrious literary club, after being dragged into it by third year student Amano Tooko, the club president and only other representative, and also the series’ second main character. To mix things up a bit, there’s a third recurring character – Kotobuki Nanase – who is Konoha’s tsundere classmate and possible romantic interest (if she stops hating him).

Let’s take a break here, and look at the cover (top left). This is Tooko. Notice her mouth? That’s a piece of paper hanging out. She’s munching on stories, you see, because she happens to be a “bungaku shoujo” (Literature Girl), a youkai that feeds on the written word. Regular food carries no taste for her, and instead she enjoys the sweetness in a love story, or gags at the bitterness of a tragic death ending. To keep her with a fresh supply of snacks, Konoha has to write short stories for her daily, followed by her rather colourful impressions while she tears the paper into strips and puts them into her mouth.

Hoping to vary her diet, Tooko comes up with the idea to lure innocent girls into writing essays on their love life, by helping them fall in love in the first place. A clumsy, cheerful first year student named Takeda Chia takes the bait, and Konoha is conscripted to write a love letter in her name. Chia comes back praising its success, and asks him to write a new letter every day, so she can deepen the relationship with her beloved Takaoka-senpai. Reluctantly Konoha agrees, but eventually something happens that makes him feel a need to meet the guy in person. Konoha asks friends, checks the student register, visits the archery club where he’s supposed to be a member, but Takaoka is nowhere to be found. Instead there are rumours that Chia is dating another first year student, and Konoha grows suspicious.

Each volume in the series is seemingly built around a classic work of fiction. This first book follows Dazai Osamu‘s Ningen Shikkaku, and had I actually read that, I might be able to give a more insightful review, but no such luck. Bungaku Shoujo is interspersed with bold text sequences, recounting letters from someone who is morbidly fascinated with Ningen Shikkaku. As such, the theme of the book becomes the overwhelming feeling of not being quite human; of not understanding grief and joy like a regular person, and the anguish of covering it up with a mask. This creates an interesting mix in Bungaku Shoujo, between the mellow atmosphere generated by Tooko and Konoha, and the dark, severe nature of the bold text’s mystery.

bungaku shoujo p169Unfortunately, the mystery isn’t handled very well. I’m an enormous fan of the genre, having read dozens of Poirot and Miss Marple novels by Agatha Christie, and more recently loving the marvellous Kubikiri Cycle light novel by Nishio Ishin. In most mystery novels, it is the deriddling that takes centre stage, with the search for clues, the construction of theories, the skilful pressing of suspects through clever dialogue. In Bungaku Shoujo, none of that has any place. The mystery here is just a plot device to display Tooko’s love for literature. There’s a section in the middle where part of the mystery is revealed, and it’s a long line of unprovoked confessions where characters just fall over each other trying to explain everything to the smallest detail. It’s not the enigma’s resolution that matters, but Tooko’s persuasion of the perpetrator through a verbose account of how wonderful a particular author is.

It’s just too bloody convenient. A final twist appears, and it does hit home nicely, but again it’s concluded in an overly simplistic manner, and the air just fizzles out. Bungaku Shoujo also has the honour of being the very first written work where an excessive use of girlish expressions has me irritated. Normally a writer will dot the dialogue with cute ending particles like “wa” and “no” to create the sense of a feminine character, but here it floods the page as though Tooko found a whole box of the damned things in the bargain bin. The author also abuses the ~ symbol to create long, whining lines that really grated on my mind. All things in moderation, if you please.

There are good things to find in this series, though: the relationship between the main characters is pleasant to watch as it unfolds with great chemistry, and it was the desire to see where they go from here that made me order the rest of the volumes in one go. Nomura also manages to implant the urge to read Just One More Page, which helps the reader sail through the novel in a surprisingly short time. Perhaps in vain, I’m also hoping the next story will be better put together, giving me at least the hint of a puzzle I can solve myself, instead of just observe passively.

For those of you who think it’s tiresome to read lots of words, there’s also a manga adaptation of the first book being published, and there’s an anime movie in the works by Production I.G.

Amazon link: Japanese

May 29, 2009 at 12:37 pm
18 comments »
  • May 29, 2009 at 1:12 pmxcswmboy

    seems interesting, ill probly wait for the movie. this isnt being translated by bakatsuki so ive no source to browse it with. still the youkai thing is rather convenient, other youkai should pop up right?

  • May 29, 2009 at 1:15 pmSilivious

    Hmmm…sounds interesting enough. Wonder how the movie is going to come out.

  • May 29, 2009 at 1:21 pmherpaderp

    This one seems kinda interesting. I’m not a big fan of light novels (only read Haruhi) but this one piqued my curiosity, is it translated or planned to be translated?

    Great review btw.

  • May 29, 2009 at 2:14 pmRawr

    As a former best-selling genius girl writer beauty, main character Inoue Konoha at least manages to be rather unusual. <— Girl? So his alias while a writer was female?

  • May 29, 2009 at 2:55 pmdesho?

    I like the character designs, at least. :/

  • May 29, 2009 at 3:46 pmShin

    Definitely will check out the anime movie.

  • May 29, 2009 at 4:29 pmSadmask

    @Rawr
    That’s correct.

    Aside from the manga, I’ve never seen Bungaku Shoujo translated. I’m waiting for the movie eagerly because I’m in love with the series. I’ve never been a huge fan of mystery myself(I’m rather indifferent to it). I just love the surreal feel of the novel. I’ll eat it. Thanks a lot for this Patrik.

    Also requesting the ever-unpopular, even among the light novel community, “Vamp”, if you find the time (it’s by Ryohgo Narita).

  • May 29, 2009 at 5:13 pmConfusedGirl29

    This is a mystery novel. It was okay.

    There, that should take care of the reader requests.

    LOL! Bungaku Shoujo sounds interesting, would be nice if they made an anime of it

  • May 29, 2009 at 7:46 pmMeery

    Thanks for the well-balanced review. I hope this gets published in the US sometime soon. It seems like a good read, despite lacking in the mystery department. Definitely want to see I.G.’s movie, it should look pretty. Just curious, what is the JP reading comprehension level for this series?

  • May 29, 2009 at 8:33 pmPatrik

    Thank you, Meery. It’s hard to judge the difficulty on these things, because it’s so individual. A relative scale is the easiest, but then you’d have to have read the reference works. Saying “you need x years of studies” doesn’t work, because people study in different ways, and the rate of learning is accelerated by living in Japan (or so I’m told!). Personally I need a dictionary to get through the vocabulary of Bungaku Shoujo, but the phrasing and grammar isn’t too tricky, so I’d put it somewhere like 7/10, I suppose?

    Putting in some references, I’d go:
    1/10 for Yotsuba&! (manga),
    2/10 for Slam Dunk (manga),
    3/10 for Bleach (manga),
    4/10 for Monster (manga),
    5/10 for Zero no Tsukaima (light novel),
    6/10 for 9S (light novel),
    7/10 for Bungaku Shoujo (light novel),
    8/10 for Toradora! (light novel),
    9/10 for Spice and Wolf (light novel),
    10/10 for anything I can’t even figure out the first sentence of.

    Most of the things I read end up somewhere in between all these titles, so I’d have to use numbers like 4.6 and eventually 3.14159…, etc, etc. And truthfully, I should be adding 11-12-13 and so on to that scale if I wanted to include proper literature.

    There are many factors that decide how hard something is to read. Either the vocabulary is advanced (lots of non-standard kanji, or political/economic/technical/religious jargon), or the grammar is complicated (extremely literary use, descriptive prose, stuff that doesn’t appear in dialogue), or there’s too much slang (like yakuza talk, or dialect), then there’s liberal use of pop culture (can be hard to pick up references), or simply lots of jokes (humour is tough to learn), and finally there’s old-style Japanese (which is plain difficult to absorb).

    Another element is the simple question: how long does it take to read? I give up and choose a new book if I spend more than 3 minutes per page, because it stops feeling like I’m making any progress at all if I just sit there and look up word after word. When going is that slow, it’s also hard to get a connection to the plot, since it gets so broken up when you pause to fiddle with a dictionary every single line.

    Manga makes this a lot easier, because there’s less text per page, and you get helpful images to keep you focused on what’s happening. If you’re going to read novels, you’d better have a decent grip on kanji, as there’s not very much furigana, and the text density means you’ll be reading a lot of words. :)

  • May 30, 2009 at 1:30 amVaelis

    Baka-Tsuki has translated the first two chapters of volume 1 in the teaser section.

  • May 30, 2009 at 3:55 amKinny Riddle

    Thanks Patrik for writing what is possibly the first ever English review for this work, as I’ve been looking everywhere for some sort of decent review to figure out just how good it really is, to be able to topple Toradora and rank alongside Suzumiya Haruhi.

  • May 30, 2009 at 3:42 pmn3wgrass

    yay! thanks!

  • May 30, 2009 at 3:49 pmn3wgrass

    sorry for the double post, but if you want to read bungaku shoujo manga beyond the third chapter (where mangfox stops), check out mangahelpers

  • May 30, 2009 at 5:28 pmMark

    I really appreciate these suggestions and as soon as I get some money I’ll likely order a few of them in order to keep my motivation for learning Japanese up. Thanks.

    Sticking your ‘reading difficulty’ ratings up there with each light novel’s basic info (and possibly an ‘enjoyment rating’ for that volume) would also be helpful.

  • May 31, 2009 at 7:12 amOnizuka-GTO

    Ah thanks for the reminder Vaelis, Kinny.

    I knew this novel sounded familiar.

    I hope this review raise the profile and interest in this novel. :)

    If you are curious and want read a little bit of a teaser, here is a little preview of it:

    http://www.baka-tsuki.org/project/index.php?title=Bungaku_Shoujo

    Courtesy of Baka-Tsuki.

    Your one-stop Novel Translation Community.

    (shameless plugin)

    :p

  • June 2, 2009 at 12:58 pmqwertyaardvark

    Speaking of some hard to read novels, I gave my shot at trying to read the Byousoku 5 SENCHIMEETORU novel. Wow… I should have learned beforehand that Shinkai Makoto was a Japanese literature major; he uses a lot of really artsy grammar and in some cases kanji my dictionaries (<-plural) could not find. Never got past the first story (as good of a story I think/know it is, its just sooo sad ;_; ), but I must say I was impressed with what I did get finished. Felt like the movie plus more. :)

  • December 29, 2009 at 7:32 pmHeisT

    I have read the novel to book 4, and I can said the more you read – the more depressing the story until the final book. Good thing it wrap it up with a good ending, while the first few volume end up with tears and so many emotions hitting your brain.