Anime shows based on light novels – or, if we’re being totally honest here, light novels themselves – don’t exactly have a glowing reputation among much of the anime fan community. Particularly after some of the more recent adaptations (Pilot’s Love Song, Irregular at Magic High School, Black Bullet, etc.), it feels like a great many titles lately have been labelled “light novel trash” before they’ve even seen the light of day.
However, while I’m forced to agree that there’s an awful lot of crap out there, I also think it’s good practice not to paint a whole category with the same brush. So rather than sound off about all the light novel adaptations in existence that I personally think are terrible, I wanted to take the opportunity to instead write about some light novel-based anime that I think are actually really good.
Note that I’m deliberately leaving Baccano!, Durarara!!, and Toradora! out of this post. I like all these shows – in fact, the latter two have earned their respective spots in my personal top 20 anime list – but I’ve talked about them plenty of times before, and they’ve certainly never suffered from lack of attention elsewhere. I’m therefore putting them aside for the purposes of this particular article in order to make room for other titles.
Kino’s Journey is considered an anime classic, and for good reason – the late Nakamura Ryutaro, who also directed Serial Experiments Lain, did a fantastic job with this. The largely episodic piece is perhaps best known for its exploration of beauty in dark places; the show feels a bit like a warped fairy-tale that seems charming, albeit just a little off, in some areas and yet is surprisingly brutal in others. I say ‘surprisingly’ because there’s very little on-screen violence depicted here, and whenever tragedy or cruelty strikes, it does so while juxtaposed against a relatively calm and relaxed slice-of-life mood, complete with muted colour palette and an easygoing soundtrack. There may be only two main characters – the polite but generally impartial Kino and a talking motorcycle named Hermes – but these two end up being more than enough to make for a fascinating and extremely well-executed series that really knows how to deliver impact when it counts.
Read or Die
Preceded by an also very good OVA, the excellent Read or Die TV series is one of the best modern-day fantasy anime out there. Unique and stylish, it combines a bit of everything, from mystery-adventure to comedy-drama, with some nice action sequences and a bit of awkwardly sweet romance for good measure. There are one or two pacing issues, but Read or Die is overall a pleasure to watch, with an oddball cast of characters and a very cool plot. Given that so much of what goes on seems centered around notions of family, it’s a good thing that so much love was so obviously put into this show. Whether you watch this before or after the OVA (either is fine, though the series is set five years after the events of the OVA), Read or Die is refreshing, imaginative, and a lot of fun all-round.
Another fantasy anime (one of the best known and most respected of the early 2000s, in fact), but this time set in what initially seems to be a Middle Age-style alternate universe, Scrapped Princess in an ambitious take on the genre. Definitely not all it appears at first glance, many viewers have commended the series for its solid main protagonists, genuinely interesting antagonists, and a storyline that at first just about screams “classic fantasy cliché” but is actually pretty well thought out and fully realised in scope. Better yet, the blend of action and drama is fun but usually fairly believable, and very rarely falls prey to either melodrama or fanservice. That said, there’s more than enough there to get the audience emotionally invested in what’s going on (personally speaking, Fulle’s storyline was the one that really hit home). If you’re looking for a high fantasy anime with class and decent visuals and haven’t tried Scrapped Princess yet, you’re missing out on one of the best.
Oh snap, yet more fantasy – oops. Still, Twelve Kingdoms is large enough and epic enough that it easily manages to stand out from the crowd – and I say that as someone who didn’t think much of the show at first (largely thanks to Youko, who thankfully undergoes some enormous and brilliant character development later on). Unlike the previous titles on this list, Twelve Kingdoms has a very classical Chinese feel about it, and is also highly politically-charged. Each country represented in the rich tapestry of the setting has its own distinct history and culture – it’s as much an intricate historical drama as it is a fantasy, and as such unfolds very slowly and deliberately. While the pacing may well put some off, the rewards are well worth it; the only major downside is that the anime, while technically complete, leaves a lot of things hanging, so viewers are forced to read the novels in order to find out what happens in the long run.
For a chanbara anime, this is one heavily dialogue-driven show. Then again, Katanagatari does very little by the book – a swordsman who fights without a sword, a collection of blades that are sometimes not actually blades, a romance that involves hardly any blushing… even the artwork is more than a little unconventional. A lot of people really don’t like this series, and I’ll accept that it’s certainly not for everyone, but I honestly believe Katanagatari to be incredibly well-written. The characters aren’t necessarily likeable in the typical sense – well, there’s really nothing typical about Katanagatari to begin with – but the way in which they’re portrayed is smart, and my original skepticism had completely given way to admiration by the time I was through. However, since the anime really isn’t one that’s easily explained in words, I’ll simply finish up by saying that the experience gave me a newfound feeling of respect for the medium – one that also provides vibrantly crisp character and background designs, a great soundtrack (composer Iwasaki Taku, who incidentally was also responsible for the music in Read or Die, does excellent work as always), and a highly memorable vibe.
Question of the post: Do you think that light-novel based anime are deserving of such a bad name? Do you have any favourites of your own?