Anime titles based on light novels are a dime a dozen these days. An evolution of pulp magazines, light novels are short, cheap, and especially popular with the teen market. Combined with their serialized nature and often manga-style illustrations, this tends to make them relatively easy (not to mention commercially convenient) to adapt to the screen.
Anime based on full-length novels, on the other hand, are a rarer breed, as their usually far larger size and lesser honed target audience can present a far greater challenge and financial risk. In particular, while foreign classics such as Journey to the West, The Count of Monte Cristo, Ronia the Robber’s Daughter, and Les Misérables are given anime adaptations every now and again, anime based on Japanese novels seem even more infrequent.
One in a blue moon however, Japanese novels find their way into the anime market, and when they do, they tend to be of a very high calibre. The last decade has seen several such anime titles that are well worthy of a mention, so I thoroughly encourage readers to check these out if they haven’t already done so.
Welcome to the N.H.K. (2006)
Written in 2002 and with a cover illustrated by Abe Yoshitoshi (of Serial Experiments Lain and Haibane Renmei fame), Welcome to the N.H.K. is a black comedy, with bits of drama and a dash of romance added into the mix. Featuring a main protagonist who is not only an otaku shut-in but also a paranoid and delusional conspiracy theorist, this show makes for a deliciously twisted and at times cringe-worthy watch that deals with a great many cultural and psychological themes. However, while the subject matter is often quite serious, the characters and their stories are usually presented in ways that aren’t particularly difficult to understand or relate to. The anime cuts out certain content included in the novel (most notably Tatsuhiro’s hard drug use), but still manages to pack a surprisingly hard punch while never leaving behind its rather morbid sense of humour. The fact that I managed to get through this without thinking of it as crass or overly depressing despite some of the subject matter should be considered pretty high praise.
Seirei no Moribito/Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit (2007)
This series has been mentioned several times here on Otaku Lounge before, and for good reason. The first novel in a series of twelve written back in 1996, Moribito is first and foremost a fantasy, although the anime also has a very strong slice-of-life feel. Main protagonist Balsa, a woman in her 30s, is a major rarity in anime and easily one of the finest main characters I’ve seen in any series to date, while the detail of the world that she and the other characters inhabit – the culture, religion, government, mythology – is one of the show’s biggest draws. The action, although sporadic, is truly exceptional in terms of realism, and I honestly believe there’s something here for everyone with the patience to see it through. Unique, innovative, and emotionally rewarding, I can’t recommend Moribito enough – particularly to those viewers bemoaning the prevalence of fanservice and other tropes and conventions that commonly pander to viewers.
Written in 2009, Another is easily one of the best horror anime to be released in recent years – probably the very best, in fact, with the possible exception of Ghost Hound (the latter of which is in any case more of a supernatural/psychological thriller). To be fair, it hasn’t really had all that much competition, and so even with its seemingly rushed and frenetic conclusion, I have no qualms about including it on this list. Where the show excels is in its steady but suspenseful build-up as the grisly death toll mounts, the side characters gradually picked off episode by episode in increasingly gruesome spectacles. The eerie soundtrack and vividly dramatic art style play a significant role in allowing the series to come off as genuinely creepy instead of just plain cheesy, and unlike certain other horror titles I could name (coughShikicough), most of the characters are actually likeable and proactive enough to feel as though they’re doing the show a favour rather than hindering it. In all, Another is a solid work with a delightfully sinister atmosphere, and a must-watch for any horror fan.
The first of five volumes in the Classic Literature Club mystery series, Hyouka was written in 2001 and is unequivocally excellent – certainly the best KyoAni production to date, and a gorgeously crafted show in its own right. Every aspect of the visuals is stunning, from the subtle camera work and clever framing to the lush colour palette and wonderfully smooth animation – and even better, the writing is strong enough to match it. Complemented by a fairly small but surprisingly emotionally complex cast, and topped off with a great soundtrack, there’s very little about Hyouka that I’m able to criticize. If any single part of series is less than stellar then I suppose it would be that the tension very occasionally tips over into melodrama, but even this never becomes a significant problem, and doesn’t detract from the overall beauty of the piece. I don’t count myself as a mystery fan, but this is an anime I can (and have) re-watch multiple times, and still manage to gain something new from each viewing.
Shin Sekai Yori/From the New World (2012-2013)
Based on a 2008 novel, Shin Sekai Yori is a bit of an odd duck in that it’s difficult to pin down, and I get the feeling that it’s actively doing everything it can not to be. I suppose I’d very loosely call it a drama, though it could equally be termed a supernatural mystery or even supernatural horror, and also involves elements of dystopian science-fiction. The story takes place in future Japan, but the so-called ‘utopia’ bears little resemblance either in physical or cultural terms to any Japan I’ve seen in anime before, and needless to say, not all is as it seems in such a universe. Rife with strange rumours and suspicious disappearances, the story is further complicated by two significant time skips and a cast that doesn’t necessarily make for reliable narration. The twists, when they eventually come, sometimes appear predicable at first glance but rarely play out as such, and a pervasively uncanny vibe permeates the series from start to finish. It’s this atmosphere that’s largely responsible for creating such a memorable show, although that’s not to say the striking art style and solid soundtrack don’t play their own unique roles in this peculiar but highly compelling title.
Uchouten Kazoku/The Eccentric Family (2013)
If Shin Sekai Yori is quietly eerie, then Uchouten Kazoku is positively bursting with life and energy. A fantastical comedy-drama written in 2007, the show is a colourful romp through modern-day Kyoto, but with a twist – though most humans live out their lives as usual, the main protagonists are a family of tanuki with the ability to take on human appearance, while tengu rule the skies above. Despite the fact that Yasaburou and his fellow tanuki live in fear of literally being made into an annual hot pot like his father, Uchouten Kazoku is an exuberantly upbeat little series, with a superb cast of characters and a magnificent OP. I’ve never been overly fond of P.A.Works as a studio, but unlike many of their productions, this title is neither ponderous nor overly sentimental (most likely because it involves little in the way of romance), although it is unexpectedly touching. For anime fans after something lively, creative, and just plain fun, then Uchouten Kazoku should be at the top of the to-watch list.
Question of the post: Would these titles likely make your own list of great anime based on full-length Japanese novels, and are there any others you’d be tempted to include? How do you feel about this season’s addition to the Japanese novel-based anime list, Subete ga F ni Naru/Everything Becomes F: The Perfect Insider?
29 thoughts on “Good Anime Based on Japanese Novels”
A few that haven’t been mentioned:
Legend of Galactic Heroes
Crest/Banner of the Star (my feelings is mixed, but it’s worth a watch. Strange enough, lots of people said that the books suck)
Mōryō no Hako
Kiki’s Delivery Service
The Tatami Galaxy
If we look at Ghibli films, then we’ve got a bunch more, though I didn’t know specifically about Kiki’s, but Howl’s Moving Castle is a good book, much better than the film, if you ask me, Tales from Earthsea is of course based on Le Guin’s series, and then we have The Borrowers (Arrietty) and When Marnie Was There, who are also based on western books.
Yeah, I decided to skip the movies for this post and go for the TV shows, though I may end up doing a separate post for those at some point. Ditto with novels by Japanese writers – there are plenty written by non-Japanese authors as well, including Howl, Earthsea, Arrietty, and Marnie, but that may likewise be material for another post sometime.
Would also like to give a shout out to The Tatami Galaxy, I think it’s a great take on what it feels like to be an aimless college student, and the special scenarios and relationships that can only be experienced there.
I’ve been meaning to get on that for so long now, and every time I’ve been distracted by something else, so I still haven’t seen a single episode. I know it’s a pretty popular show though.
I confess I haven’t yet seen Legend of Galactic Heroes, Crest/Banner of the Star, or Tatami Galaxy yet. I’m currently watching Mouryou no Hako but haven’t seen enough to really judge whether I like it or not. I do like Kiki’s Delivery Service a lot, but I decided to go with TV shows for this article rather than movies – though I may end up doing a separate post for that later. I have seen all of Arslan and liked it quite a bit, but… I don’t know, I think I’d need to see the whole story before I decide exactly how much I like it, and while season one is over, the story just doesn’t feel complete to me. I’m hoping we’ll be getting a season two at some point.
You know, some books/LNs really blur the boundaries. Especially when it comes to long series. For a comparison, in my mind, the Drizzt Do’Urden novels are very much light novels. Is Hyouka a series of novels, or light novels? Moribito versus Juuni Kokki as well.
Regardless, I too look out for “novel-based shows”, because they tend to be better. Their plot-structure is usually better, and the characters more fleshed out. Aside from Another, I watched and thought highly of each of the above shows, and some are stand-outs, that even if they’re not my favourites, are commonly on my recommendation list.
My thoughts on Perfect Insider aren’t the best right now, because I find its characters unlikeable, and find the show trying too hard to make characters appear smart and/or cool. And then there is one failing which is shared by most novel-based shows (maybe not Hyouka, but it’s structured more as young adult/light novel fiction, with its shorter stories), which is a pretty slow start. Some things work out better when marathoned or when read, and pacing of the first act is definitely where all these shows suffer, but so it goes. I still have high hopes for it.
The concept of a light novel as a genre didn’t really exist back in 2001, so id say Hyouka is certainly a straight novel. It also doesn’t share many of the traits of modern day light novels.
I think you’re missing the point of The Perfect Insider if you’re watching it for likable characters. This is not a show trying to get you to buy its character merch, it’s trying to tell a psychological thriller. Plus, novels by their nature aren’t going to be fast burns as that is not traditionally good novel writing technique.
Kino’s Journey is classified as a light novel and started its run in 2000. Juuni Kokki started its run in 1992 and is classified as a light novel.
Regardless, I don’t really find the dry “definition” as much interest here, and would argue that in terms of composition and structure, Hyouka is certainly structured as light novels, or YA fiction in the west that would be the equivalent.
And I’m not missing the point of Perfect Insider, I’m just not finding it enjoyable. I also think you and others are being way too lenient on it. While the show is sometimes mocking the Professor, it certainly keeps presenting him as all that, as a genius, when he’s anything but.
And yes, I did say that is the nature of novels, did I not?
That’s true, some do really straddle that line between light novel and full-length novel, especially when it comes to serialisation. Personally though, I tend to look at length (of each individual volume) for my first major clue. Light novels very rarely go over 50,000 words, while the vast majority of full-length novels start at a minimum of around 60,000 words and often go up to double that.
I haven’t made up my mind about Perfect Insider yet, but I quite like what I’ve seen so far. I don’t find it’s characters particularly unlikeable, though I agree it’s had a slow start. This doesn’t bother me overmuch right now, but it’ll have to pick up the pace eventually if I’m going to stick it out.
Moribito’s so great. I remember coming across the first novel way before I’m aware of the anime; damn shame I didn’t pick it up, a bit hard to track it down now. Would love to see the author’s other anime adaptation (Beast Player Erin) at some point. I’ve read the NHK manga and bits of the novel, and liked them too. The others in this list are on my backlog (although I’m a bit surprised you rated Another better than Shiki; it’s usually the other way around).
Other novel-based shows that made strong impression to me are Legend of Galactic Heroes, Tatami Galaxy (same writer as Eccentric Family, apparently), and Aoi Bungaku (particularly the Soseki’s Kokoro segment). Also, I thought Juuni Kokuki’s a novel, but apparently it’s categorized as LN. No matter, it’s there with Moribito as the best geopolitical fantasy anime I’ve seen.
Insider: I like the visual and art direction, not so much with the prose. The central mystery’s gonna be the deciding factor for me.
Moribito’s definitely a favourite anime of mine. I managed to track down and watch all of Erin a few months ago and really enjoyed that too – I can certainly see some similarities in terms of writing and world-building technique, although in most respects the stories themselves are completely different from one another. In any case, highly recommended!
I know, everyone else seems to love Shiki, but it just didn’t click with me at all. Granted, I’m not a huge horror fan to begin with, but I just found the characters in Shiki so damn annoying that I never even finished the show.
I haven’t yet seen any of Legend of Galactic Heroes or Tatami Galaxy, although I’ve been meaning to watch the latter for ages and just never seem to get around to it. I have seen all of Aoi Bungaku though, which I reviewed in full here on Otaku Lounge a while back. To sum up, I like the idea and some of the stories, but feel the execution is definitely lacking in many respects.
Yeah, I haven’t really come to a decision about Perfect Insider either. I too like the visuals and general art direction, but have yet to make up my mind about the writing.
Ohhhhh, Another. I think I might actually be more sour on that series BECAUSE it was so good before it crashed and burned (I yearn for a great horror anime, and the yearning goes on).
Marvelous list – I wonder if the shortness of it has to do with how much ends up getting cut or lost in translation (you can really tell with SSY that they were really rushing to cram plot events in at the expense of the character drama).
Oh good, I’m not the only one who thinks the ending of Another isn’t anywhere near as good as the rest of the show then. But yeah, I’m not a big horror fan, and even I can see that anime is sorely lacking in this department. Other than Another, and if I don’t count Ghost Hound (which I did really like), I think I’d have to go back to something like 2003’s Requiem from the Darkness for a horror anime that I actually thought was decent.
It’s THE WORST ENDING. I actually like splatterfests now and then, but it’s a very different set of tone and pacing things, pretty well as far removed as you can get from the moody slowburn of the rest of the show. It felt very “we’re out of time and we don’t know how to end this.” Which is a shame. I’ll have to give Requiem a chance (Ghost Hound has been on my list for ages, though I heard it also stumbles at the end?)
Yes, that’s exactly how I feel about the ending as well. I thought about not putting it on this list for just that reason, but then decided it still at least deserved a mention for it’s pretty stellar overall story and atmosphere.
I wouldn’t say Ghost Hound stumbles towards the end per se, but there is a definite shift in tone that I can very much understand how some viewers wouldn’t like. Rest assured though, it doesn’t go the whole sudden splatter-fest route as Another does. If you ever end up watching it, I’d be really interested to see what you think.
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I’d like to read more LN/novels in general but they’re fairly rare to be translated. How about Kino’s Journey and Un-go?
I love Kino’s journey, though I didn’t like Un-Go enough back when it was airing to watch more than the first couple of episodes. I guess I could always give it another try sometime?
I know everyone thinks of the horror elements before anything else, but I always saw Another as an allegory for how Japanese society devalues individuality and creativity. Good show.
Hyouka is also great but I think the first half drags quite a bit. I almost dropped it during the movie club arc. Great payoff in the second half though, that was one of my favorite Valentines Day episodes ever.
Huh, I can’t really say I’ve ever thought of Another in those terms. That said, I haven’t watched the show since it first aired, so maybe I should give it a re-watch one of these days and see what I think now.
Funnily enough, I didn’t like Hyouka at all back when I first watched it, and ended up dropping it fairly quickly. Then for some reason I tried re-watching it about a year ago, and found it far more enjoyable. I don’t know, maybe my tolerance for slower-paced stories has gotten better over the years or something.
Put me down as another part of the Legend of the Galactic Heroes crowd…
Anyways, I’ve seen three of these (Welcome to the N.H.K, Shin Sekai Yori, and Uchoten Kazoku,) and I love them all. There’s certainly a quality to the writing of these shows that sets them apart from the rest of the market, which is something that I very much appreciate. Although, I must say, it’s frustrating to me that, as someone who can’t read or speak Japanese, there’s no way I can read the source material for myself. As someone who’s only means of experiencing these stories is through the adaptations, however, I am happy they exist.
As for Perfect Insider… still too early for me to make a judgment. I really like the tone and overall style, but as of right now I’m not really sure how much real substance is behind it.
Welp, guess I really need to brush up on my retro sci-fi anime…
Yeah, it’s a shame that so many full-length Japanese novels just don’t get any English translations. The best-sellers and old classics often do, like Murakami Haruki and Natsume Souseki, but it’s extremely rare for those kinds of books to get screen adaptations. The only recent-ish one I can think of is Aoi Bungaku, which I enjoyed well enough but didn’t love. I reviewed it here on Otaku Lounge a while back if you’re interested.
I don’t think I’ve decided how I feel about Perfect Insider yet either. Like you, I’m liking what I see so far but think that it has yet to really prove itself. The potential’s definitely there, though.
I agree on the choices with the sole exception of Another. I hated that show for it relied on shocking deaths rather than its good premise. Probably it is the case where the words in the novels were not able to be translated in anime form.
For my addition, Shiki was good too.
I liked Another up until the last couple of episodes, when it turned into a huge mess. The earlier shocking deaths didn’t bother me – I pretty much expect that from any kind of horror title, to be honest. Horror normally isn’t my shtick at all, so when I do watch it, I prefer it to be at least a little shocking in order to be impactful.
I know Shiki is incredibly popular, but I really didn’t like that show. The characters all annoyed the crap out of me, and I didn’t much care for the art style either.
Good lord, these are all either anime I’ve watched and enjoyed or are currently on my queue. How did you get a copy of my viewing history? We seem to have similar tastes, so let me just ask – what did you think of Red Data Girl and Witchcraft Works? The former I found oddly compelling for its staunch refusal to conform to a three act structure while the latter was for me a surprisingly funny metaphor for the War on Terror.
I didn’t much like Red Data Girl to be honest. It was certainly nice to look at, but I found that the story really started to drag around the second half for me, and also that it began feeling narratively incoherent at about the same time. That said, P.A.Works doesn’t have a great track record with me to begin with – to date, the only anime to come out of that studio that I’ve liked wholeheartedly have been Angel Beats and Uchouten Kazoku.
I haven’t actually seen Witchcraft Works yet, but it’s on my neverending to-watch list. From the looks of it, it seems like something I might well enjoy.
Oh, I get what you’re saying about RDG and it’s certainly not for everyone. it just happened to hit the sweet spot for me of great animation, literally offbeat story structure, and magical realist logic (though I realize that lots of times calling something magical realist is oftentimes merely ethnocentric and essentially acknowledges that one doesn’t understand the underlying cultural logic behind the narrative).
As far as Witchcraft Works go, I wrote a short thing about its use of the imagery of terrorism.
I strongly recommend Mouryou no Hako, Tatami Galaxy, Shiki, Juuni Kokki
I’ve seen all of those other than Tatami Galaxy, which is somewhere on my ever-increasing to-watch list. I didn’t like Shiki much at all to be honest, but I did enjoy both Mouryou no Hako and Juuni Kokki.