What is this Japanese thing? Light Novels

A light novel (ライトノベル raito noberu) is a style of Japanese novel primarily, but not exclusively, targeting middle- and high-school students (young adult demographic). “Light novel” is a wasei-eigo, or a Japanese term formed from words in the English language. Such short, light novels are often called ranobe (ラノベ) or LN in the West. They are typically not more than 40,000–50,000 words long (the shorter ones being equivalent to a novella in US publishing terms), are rarely more than a few hundred pages, often have dense publishing schedules, are usually published in bunkobon size (A6, 10.5 cm × 14.8 cm), and are often illustrated, mostly with manga style art. The text is often serialized in anthology magazines before collection in book form. A light novel is a prose book with illustrations. It is called “light” because the content tends to be easy-reading and the size is small and portable.

Light novels are an evolution of pulp magazines. To please their audience, in the 1970s, most of the Japanese pulp magazines, which had already changed from the classic style to the popular anime style covers, began to put illustrations in the beginning of each story and included articles about popular anime, movies, and video games. The narrative evolved to please the new generations and became fully illustrated with the popular style. The popular serials are printed in novels.

In recent years, light novels’ stories have been popular choices for adaptation into manga, anime, and live-action films, though in the case of the former two, usually only the first two novels are adapted. The higher the popularity of the light novels are, the longer the manga will continue to adapt. Light novels are often serialized in literary magazines such as Faust, Gekkan Dragon Magazine, The Sneaker and Dengeki hp, or media franchise magazines like Comptiq and Dengeki G’s Magazine.

Popular literature has a long tradition in Japan. Even though cheap, pulp novels resembling ranobe were present in Japan for years prior, the creation of Sonorama Bunko in 1975 is considered by some to be a symbolic beginning. Science fiction and horror writers like Hideyuki Kikuchi or Baku Yumemakura started their careers through such imprints.

In the 1980s, epic novels by Yoshiki Tanaka — The Heroic Legend of Arslan — took young male Japanese audiences by storm. Also, RPG-inspired Record of Lodoss War novels achieved popularity. All of those were later animated.

The 1990s saw the smash-hit Slayers series which merged fantasy-RPG elements with comedy. Some years later MediaWorks founded a pop-lit imprint called Dengeki Bunko, which produces well-known light novel series to this day. The Boogiepop series was their first major hit which soon was animated and got many anime watchers interested in literature.

Dengeki Bunko writers continued to slowly gain attention until the small light novel world experienced a boom around 2006. After the huge success of the Haruhi Suzumiya series, suddenly the number of publishers and readers interested in light novels skyrocketed.

Light novels became an important part of the Japanese 2D culture in late 2000s. The number of ranobe series put out every year increases, the most celebrated artists from pixiv illustrate them and the most successful works are animated and made into manga and live action movies.

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