I recently posted a review for the first volume of The Hentai Prince and the Stony Cat, which was translated by fellow blogger Frog-kun. After some discussion of the story over Twitter, we decided to put together a post on some of Henneko‘s themes.
But first… spoiler alert! Some of the discussion deals with the ending of the first volume (namely in part 4 of the discussion). If you don’t want the ending ruined, be sure to read the book first. (Note: For anime viewers, the first volume appears to have been covered by the adaptation’s first four episodes.)
1) Familiar Character Archetypes
Cho: Do you have any thoughts on how Henneko works with very familiar tropes to establish its characters? Characters in this story are really quite ridiculous, and yet the first volume felt designed to make them still possible to relate to in some fashion. Do you think there are people like Youto, Tsukiko, Azusa, and Tsukushi?
Frog-kun: I don’t think there really are people like Youto, Tsukiko, or Azusa–or at least I haven’t met any! For all that, I think Henneko does manage to capture some truth about people in its portrayal of its characters. The theme of the story is balancing social conventions and emotional honesty. What Henneko does is show characters who are very extreme on both ends, and the result is that none of the characters ever manage to effectively communicate. This is what results in typical romcom miscommunication moments, but it’s also what feeds the drama.
Perhaps another reason that the characters come across as exaggerated anime tropes is because they are all shown to be strongly influenced by the fiction they consume. Youto frequently compares his situations to pornography, Azusa deliberately models her personality on a manga, and Tsukushi is incapable of telling fiction from reality altogether. You can see it as a way of explaining their quirks, but I think it’s also a way of expressing the theme of the story from a different angle: “How can we achieve emotional honesty in a story that strictly follows conventions?” This is a question many light novels of this sort deal with.
Cho: You brought up how various characters’ personalities were shaped by fiction, which I think is an interesting point Henneko worked with. (Even Oscar Wilde seems to have had a strong influence on Youto, to my amusement.) It’s a concept I’ve noticed showing up in a number of light novels and anime as of late–how teenagers make a “chuunibyou” effort to model their lives after characters they like. Based on Henneko‘s themes in general, I imagine this can be construed as a part of the “identity-creation process,” though I believe it could also be a form of hiding one’s true feelings?
Frog-kun: I think you’re right about the “chuunibyou” influence and the identity-creation process. Seems like it’s hitting on an essential part of what it’s like to be a teenager. We don’t really know ourselves, so we look to others to define us.
2) The “Real Me”
Cho: What do you think Henneko brings to the table in regard to one’s persona? Is the ultimate goal for teenagers to find oneself, or to be willing to express oneself the way they see fit? Is Tsukiko “not herself” anymore, without her emotions?
Frog-kun: As I explained before, the root of the conflict is in the honne (true feelings) vs tatemae (facade) dichotomy. (You can see these terms explained here.) Ultimately, I think the answer the novel is trying to get at is why not both? Tsukiko tells Youto not to be so bothered about distinctions. “Human emotions cannot be so neatly labelled,” she says. “Why not let both your façade and your true feelings guide you and just act according to what you say?” And later, as we see, she sacrifices her own feelings for her sister’s sake. The theme here is that withholding your true feelings can become a kind of truth in itself. If you lie for someone’s sake or act differently to them out of regard for their feelings, then you are still acting according to your own true nature. It’s seemingly contradictory but at the same time not!
Cho: I liked reading your post on honne and tatemae. Societal expectations place limits on everyone, and it’s left to each individual to decide which limits are warranted or not. But reading into the context of these Japanese words certainly sheds some light on Henneko’s themes. The idea seems to be the act of hiding your “true self” actually being an important part of being true to yourself, because your “true self” will vary considerably in different situations and when interacting with different people.
3) The “Hentai Prince”
Cho: I was wondering whether or not you feel Henneko accurately portrays the perverted thoughts and behavior of high school boys, and what the series may do differently compared to other light novels and anime on that subject. Are we to accept Youto’s lusts as a part of his true nature? There is conflict with societal standards when Youto is no longer able to “hide” this (core?) part of his personality.
Frog-kun: Well… personally, I found Youto’s perverted nature to be very exaggerated. But for the sake of the story, yes, I think it’s saying that his pervertedness is part of his true nature and that we’d all be better off if we don’t deny the existence of our lusts. But lusts do cause problems for others, so we need to temper sexual desire with genuine empathy. This is where societal expectations are useful and necessary.
Youto seems to observe a trend in recent light novels/anime focusing on male characters who are open about their sexual desires (e.g. Issei from High School DxD and Sora from No Game No Life). He does come across as more ridiculous and insufferable than the two other examples I just mentioned, mostly because Youto doesn’t have superhuman powers or intellect. He is often the butt end of the novel’s jokes. I suppose he is the author’s attempt to accurately portray the true nature of a teenage boy–and not in a flattering light.
4) The Screwball Ending
Cho: The ending for Henneko was quite… interesting. I suppose the real question to ask here is what is the big deal with little sisters? =P I interpret Youto’s decision to proclaim Tsukiko his sister as an effort to avoid responsibility (or rather, in fear of where an actual romance would lead him, and how it would change who he is), which may tie in to some degree with the otakuan penchant toward The Imouto (i.e. a less intimidating form of love?). As for Tsukushi’s desire to marry her sister–well, I took that as a goofy joke, though I’m not sure if it’s poking fun more at how much of an idiot Tsukushi is, or if it was a bizarre jab at the whole imouto-loving trope in general.
Frog-kun: Who doesn’t love little sisters? :P I took that whole ending sequence in the same way you did–as a goofy joke and a playful spin on the “siscon” trope. I admit that it had me cracking up. In a story where much of the humour is recycled, that gag came out of complete nowhere. If good humour arises from subverting expectations, then that scene was a stroke of brilliance. In fact, you could read the entire novel as the setup for that punchline.
Looking back, I’m actually reminded very much of the first volume of OreImo. That was also a novel that dealt with the relationships between family members in a relatively down-to-earth and serious way, only for the protagonist to shout “Eroge is my soul!” in the last chapter, prompting his father to punch him in the face. This kind of head trick has bizarre implications thematically. It’s attempting to portray reality as complex, and then choosing to reject it altogether. If you take the implications too far, it can lead to some unorthodox and also kind of horrifying moral lessons. OreImo’s controversial ending is pretty much common knowledge on the internet by now…
In light of that, I still do think that Henneko manages to retain some emotional honesty, but it’s a very tentative balance, and the later volumes don’t help its case.
5) The Translation Journey
Cho: You already wrote a lot about your time translating this light novel, but I’m always curious to hear more on the matter. What made you choose Henneko? Was there a favorite character you enjoyed writing for? My favorite character was probably Azusa by the way… (The ojou-san is always the best, am I right?) But I think I laughed every time Ponta showed up, so perhaps he’s actually my favorite. ;P
Frog-kun: I chose to translate Henneko because I wanted to try my hand translating a light novel that had a following but also wasn’t being translated by other fans. I’d never watched the anime, but I liked the character designs and I quite enjoy this genre of light novels. It was a tossup between Henneko and Oregairu, actually, but Henneko won the poll I posted on my blog.
As I was posting Henneko on my blog, I got an email from Nano Desu asking me if I wanted to translate Oregairu for them because their Oregairu translator had quit the project. At that time, I’d already completed about a quarter of Henneko’s first volume, so I replied that I wanted to finish this volume first before starting a new translation. And that’s the story of how my translation of Henneko ended up on Nano Desu and why I’ve switched over to Oregairu instead of sticking with Henneko.
Honestly speaking, I’m not sure how much of Henneko‘s zaniness I would have been able to tolerate had I continued translating the series. The first volume was charming and all and I did like the characters (especially Azusa) but there are only so many weird contrivances and anime tropes I’d be able to stomach before getting bored of it. Still, I’ll always look back on Henneko fondly as the first book I ever managed to translate on my own.
As for any characters I particularly enjoyed translating, I would say Tsukiko’s deadpan speech was very fun to write, as was Ponta’s monk-like idiosyncrasies. It’s very fun to translate dialogue in a light novel. It’s not so much fun to translate prose. Part of that is definitely because the language in dialogue is simpler and I’m used to how certain patterns of speech are normally translated through anime subtitling. Prose requires a lot of rewriting to capture the flow, but Henneko did make it easier on me by being written in plain prose. Ultimately, I would say the whole experience was very rewarding, if a bit frustrating at times.
Cho: Glad to hear you had fun with translating Henneko, and I look forward to eventually reading Oregairu as well. That’s a series I watched the anime for, and was pleasantly surprised by. So it will be interesting to see what differences there will be in the original stories.
I was wondering, how long have you studied Japanese, Frog-kun? I’ve been studying for a while, but don’t feel anywhere near ready to try translating an entire light novel. (There’s certainly plenty I’d like to, one day!) Just curious what process you took to learn the language (and what motivated you to stick with it), since that’s no simple feat.
Frog-kun: I studied Japanese for three years in high school and Japanese is my major in university. So that’s six years altogether so far. This is my last year of undergraduate and I’m planning to take a masters in translation next year. After that, I’ll have the credentials to translate professionally.
On the whole, I would say most of my Japanese was acquired in the classroom. My knowledge of kanji was mostly self-taught. Unlike many of my classmates, I don’t have any Chinese writing background, so I compensated by reading and/or writing kanji every single day for the last two years. Light novels are a great help in this regard. The ability to read Japanese as a non-native speaker isn’t something you can acquire overnight, but if you practise it even a little bit every day, anyone should be able to do it.
Cho: Sounds like a plan. Time to hit the textbooks then–or at least some more light novels.
And that wraps up our part of the Henneko volume 1 discussion. I think I’ll try to have more posts like this in the future for other light novels, if people enjoy this sort of thing. But for now, this is your chance to chime in with your own thoughts on the Henneko subjects we discussed. Leave a comment below, and feel free to bring up other related topics if you wish.