Light novels are the new “in” thing in Japanese pop culture, ever since hit anime like Sword Art Online, Haruhi Suzumiya and Kara no Kyoukai. But some of us (the less hardcore ones, that is) may not know just what precisely is a light novel. Are they novels? If they aren’t, then how do they differ with ordinary manga?
Well, light novels are akin to pulp fiction, in a sense. It mainly targets young adults (middle to high school students) and rarely exceed 200 pages — making them a novella by US standards. The text are often serialised in anthology magazines, much like how manga stories begin. A collection of chapters will then be collated into books, published by labels like Famitsu Bunko or Media Works Bunko. Like manga, light novels are often published as a series, also with quite a tight publishing schedule.
The main difference is that light novels are said to have more text but with accompanying illustrations, so not fully telling a story in comic form. Other than that, there’s nothing much separating them from manga nowadays. They are sold as cheap paperbacks most of the time. Most of these stories come from competitions where cash prizes are given to winning stories, and of course fame and the chance to see your light novel developed into an anime, if it becomes a bestseller!
And now light novels have really broken into the anime scene. Not only are more light novels being turned into anime, it is sometimes the other way around. Popular anime like Death Note and Fate/Zero have light novel adaptations, as part of the companies’ efforts to go “mixed media” in this era. Basically every successful franchise should have manga, light novels, anime and games to draw in all types of crowds.
Currently I have found no difference in the anime that result from light novels and those from manga, maybe because light novels tend to be written with a certain target audience in mind (cough the word chuunibyou comes to mind). However, perhaps things like Natsume Yuujinchou more obviously come from light novels (it has, to me, a certain literary flair).
The demand for light novels has increased outside of Japan. English publishers like Tokyopop and Viz publish light novels translated into English. Not many have travelled to Singapore yet, but I know many Singaporeans who have read light novels of Sword Art Online and Mahouka Koukou no Rettosei, so this shows that there is a consumer base — just that they have found their channels on the internet. I do hope to see more light novels in Comics Connection though. The idea of reading your favourite anime fantasies in words should be a novel experience!