You know, I’ve become rather curious about publishing standards in Japan. Ever since I finished the first light novel of Durarara!! just a few days ago, I’ve been kind of stunned as to how it got published in the first place.
Compared to the Herculean effort it takes for writers in the English speaking world (at least) to get their stories marketed and published in the first place, it’s amazing how light novel writers can churn out product that any agent worth their salt would expect to find at the bottom of their pile during the first week of December. (That’s the week after NaNoWriMo, in case you’re wondering.)
I was actually quite excited to see Narita’s novels finally published in English by Yen Press. I picked up the Durarara!! manga a few years back, I love both the anime of Baccano! and Durarara!!… And it’s such a shame that their source material just isn’t worth looking over at all.
I haven’t read the official translation of Baccano! yet (because I downloaded a fan translation from Baka-Tsuki many years ago, sorry), but there seemed to be very little difference between the two. Seriously, the writing is still very simple, and what bugs me about light novels is that they can’t seem to decide whether or not they’re screenplays or actual novels.
Every single moment of reading Durarara!! felt like somebody had just written the first few episodes into a novel-ish format. And yes, I’m aware that Japanese readers, at the time of the novel’s original publication in 2004, did not have the anime or manga to inform them in the way I (and later readers) did. But I still struggle to comprehend what makes this so compelling.
I know that manga are published in magazine format in Japan and novels are sometimes released in miniature editions to make them easier to read on the subway commute, but come on.
I’m hardly a snob as to what constitutes a “book”, but there’s very little meat on the bones of the Durarara!! light novel. And Baccano! And Spice and Wolf, although that’s by a different writer. I remember when I was really into Slayers and .Hack as a teenager, I had my fingers burned by the novels Tokyopop put out.
That should have been my warning, but I really love Durarara!! as a concept? I mean, it’s really fun, frenetic and contains elements of the super-heroic, the fantastical and the malaise of contemporary life in Tokyo. There’s a motorcyclist who’s actually a Dullahan, a headless Irish harbinger of death. There’s the doctor who sincerely loves her and does medical jobs for criminal organisations. There’s a guy with super strength but no invulnerability, there’s an information broker with a real nihilistic mean streak, there’s a black Russian guy who sells sashimi and has ties to the mob, and in the midst of all of this craziness is Mikado Ryuugamine, who’s about as normal as one could expect… up until the face heel turn, of course.
But yes, there’s so much bizarre and wacky things going on in the world of Durarara!! that reading the novel just feels like: “Hey, I should go put on the first five or so episodes of the anime!” The chat logs that every character participates in are far more interesting in the show, and of course, they’re translated a bit better.
I don’t begrudge the translator, and coming up with a decent translation is a difficult and often thankless task. From my brief studies in translation theory, depending on the publisher or the writer’s instructions, one has to stick to the original to some degree, but you’re aren’t always allowed to add in any flourish or polish up the odd sentences that are too short or way too long… Hence the really simple dialogue and writing style in this novel, I presume.
I get it, light novels are done for a specific audience that just wants a story rather than anything too mentally taxing during the morning commute or whatever. There’s no real equivalent to a light novel in mainstream Western publishing, so my criticism is probably a bit unfounded.
But I was just expecting a little bit more. Even if I’ve seen the adaptation, it’s nice to return to the original work and see if there’s any little secrets or things you can take away that didn’t make it into the adapted product. There’s no such thing in Durarara!!, which reads like, again, just a novelised screenplay of the first few episodes of the show.
I’m sure there’s a lot more to the fantastical worlds Narita has created within the rest of his light novels, but the first novel of Durarara!! does not leave a good first impression, and like I said earlier, it just seems far too typical of light novels for them to contain little substance and read in the dull, simplistic way that they do. The characters and setting are just much better fleshed out by the adaptation, I find.
Final verdict: D