LN Reading Program 2 — June 12

(pictured: The Empty Box and the Zeroth Maria)

(pictured: The Empty Box and the Zeroth Maria)

For the first week of this summer reading program, we will discuss the first third of Baccano! (volume 1) and The Empty Box and the Zeroth Maria (volume 1). For Baccano!, you need to have read up to page 79 (covering “Epilogue 1”, “Prologue,” and a good chunk of “Day One”). Meanwhile for Empty Box, you need to have read up to the chapter titled “27, 754th Time.”

If you have read further ahead, please refrain from spoiling anything past the points in the stories mentioned above. (Also, obviously, if you’ve experienced a manga or anime adaptation in the past, don’t reveal what happens next.)

Baccano!

So far I’m really enjoying this, which perhaps should be no surprise since I like Ryohgo Narita’s other series releasing in English (Durarara!!). Another series full of unusual characters appears to be setting up, and this time with the unique aspect of its less-than-typical setting.

Discussion Points

The “epilogue” that kicks off the beginning of this story features a Japanese photographer (our first viewpoint character) in modern-day New York City, meeting with a member of the Camorra, a group comparable to the Mafia (their founding stemming from Naples, rather than Sicily). Our setup here forms a frame story for the rest of the book, and based on what we learn, I assume the Camorra member telling the story is Maiza Avaro. Do you feel he is the narrator of the novel? The story goes on to cover many different viewpoints, so I do question somewhat if the opening scene is simply for effect. Baccano! reads like a third-person omniscient story, much like Durarara!! What purpose does this “epilogue” fulfill?

The prologue that immediately follows the opening “epilogue” takes place in 1711, on a ship in the Atlantic. A number of people have used some form of alchemy to summon a “demon,” though the story acknowledges this may be a misnomer. In any case, it appears the people involved all obtained immortality–and not only that, but the secret to losing their immortality and dying. What do you think of immortality in general? Do people really want to live forever? Or is it simply the fear of death that drives the alchemists’ efforts?

Any guesses on who “the man who obtained the knowledge” may be? He told his younger brother the secret of the elixir of immortality, but this younger brother was subsequently “absorbed” by another immortal (who presumably stole the secret in the process). Any guesses on who this culprit may be?

In the portion we read from the chapter “Day One,” quite a lot has already happened. It is 1930 in New York City: the Prohibition, the Depression, and Mafiosos. (And jazz music.) How well do you think this time and place is being portrayed? Do you think this setting was chosen for specific reasons, from a storytelling or thematic standpoint?

Among the characters shown so far, which ones are immortals? What do you think they are trying to achieve? Keep in mind these people have been alive well over 200 years now.

Any favorite characters yet? And any predictions for what will happen next?

(The Empty Box and the Zeroth Maria art by Tetsuo)

(The Empty Box and the Zeroth Maria art by Tetsuo)

The Empty Box and the Zeroth Maria

This will be my second time reading the first volume of this series, but I’m fine with that. It’s an interesting story, and I have forgotten most of the details. I think what stands out to me most in this second reading is just how well this book could pass as a sort of psychological horror.

Be sure to notice what “Time” it is at the start of each chapter, as this story is not told in chronological order.

Discussion Points

At this point all the main characters have been revealed, and it’ll be important to keep track of who is who.

  • Kazuki Hoshino — our protagonist, who appears to have a central role in the creation of the Rejecting Classroom. He likes Umaibou, which I’ll go ahead and mention are kind of like a flavored Cheeto the size of a glue stick.
  • Aya Otonashi — the ominous transfer student who appears to have maintained her memories over the endless repetitions of March 2nd. Her actions are hard to predict, to put it lightly. (Note: The academic year in Japan begins in April and ends in March.)
  • Kazuki’s friends: Haruaki Usui (lighthearted boy who falls for Aya), Daiya Oomine (moody but perceptive boy with a sharp tongue), and Kokone Kirino (energetic and willful girl). What role will each of them play in this story?
  • Kasumi Mogi — a quiet girl Kazuki has fallen in love with. What is it about her that he likes so much?

The beginning of the story feels purposefully mysterious and complicated. What is the cause of the “Groundhog Day” loop for this book? What is the “empty box” that Aya is referring to? Do you think it’s possible to relive a single day so many times and not succumb to madness?

Do you think this story has anything to say yet about the high school experience?

———

As mentioned before, feel free to discuss any point you would like to bring up about either (or both) of these two books. General impressions, predictions for how the stories will play out, some compare/contrast between the two books, or any random observations and things you’d like to analyze are all fair game.

13 responses to “LN Reading Program 2 — June 12

  1. The Empty Box and the Zeroth Maria has been pretty unusual so far. In particular, I was surprised that the protagonist – Kazuki – fell into despair so fast, at least from the reader’s perspective. It gives the impression similar to the stories that, in order to talk about shouneny ideals like friendship or fighting spirit, take a sceptical approach rather than a straightforward one, if you understand what I mean. Seems like Kazuki will have to bear a lot regardless of the outcome of the story.

    Another thing that caught my interest is Kazuki’s affection towards Kasumi Mogi. We didn’t see much of their relationship in the first part of the book, but it seems to be somewhat different from the usual silly romances associated with school. While not making things too complicated, it’s clearly stated that Kazuki himself is unsure about his feeling as they were born during the Rejecting Classroom. Combined with the constant memory loss, I think it’ll be hard to create a constant bond – in fact, I believe that won’t necessary be the case.. Anyway, I have great expectations for further development. (Oh my God, I have no experience with romantic LNs whatsoever, am I just taking this part too seriously?)

    I’m also impressed with the way Aya Otonashi’s personality is slowly uncovered. The author surely has a skillful way with his words as she appears genuinely grim and ominous. It was hinted that her determination originates from the wish she wants the box to fulfill, and I’m curious about it more than any other missing puzzle so far.

    Well, my chatter doesn’t look like a proper discussion at all, these were just the points that piqued my interest. Anyway, I think both June’s books are great so far, cant wait to read other people’s thoughts.

    • Thanks for commenting!
      I suppose Kazuki could be an unusual protagonist for a shounen manga, but he seems to behave how I’d expect a fairly normal and level-headed boy would in his situation.
      I wouldn’t say anything about Kazuki and Kasumi’s relationship is normal at this point, but as you note there is probably something vital to still be revealed on that front.
      Aya is a pretty creepy character at the moment — I’ve read this volume before, but I still felt worried when she suddenly showed up at the McDonald’s. She knows where you are, what you’re going to do and say, and is perfectly willing to kill your friends if needs be. At the same time though, there’s already a tragic element to her character as well, isn’t there?

      • Now that you mention it, Kazuki rather belongs to the “usual high school student” category. Compared to him, Aya seems much more passionate about her ambitions, though I’m not sure it’s the right way to put it. Well, rather than being a lawful antagonist, she just looks like a complete opposite of Kazuki.

        By the way, after reading the synopsis on Baka-tsuki I thought the story is going to be about Aya “breaking” Kazuki’s routine life and showing him the joy of being young. Not that the “An antisocial beauty with a resolute personality” line didn’t put me on guard, thought. Now, I wonder if it could be another way to interpret the story. I think one has to finish the book in order to make such assumptions, but for me that’s a fun thing to keep in mind.

  2. I have read some of the Baccano manga that began last year, as well as watched the anime, so I will steer away from the predictions.

    After reading Durarara!! it felt like Narita Sensei kept a lot of the same styles from one book into the other. The setting and superpowers are different, but the way he tells the story seems pretty similar, but also very different from other light novels, which I appreciate.

    While I was initially surprised at its placement, I think the “epilogue” did a good job of setting up the rest of the story. By showing modern day New York through the lens of a Japanese photographer, I bet the intended Japanese reader felt more comfortable with him as the narrator for the chapter. And as someone who lives very close to New York, it will be interesting to see a story set in New York written by a Japanese author. Was very convenient how many people involved spoke at least a little bit Japanese in the epilogue, though.

    After consuming a lot of media about immortality I am convinced it would be a horrible thing to have. Depending on the story and type of immortality, you’ll lose your friends and family as they age, and you might start forgetting everything on top of that.

    I really like Issac and Maiza. Their exchanges at the hat store between each other and the employee, and its abrupt ending, are pretty funny. Knowing how the anime portrays them kinda helps in the enjoyment, though. I found myself picturing the anime vividly as I was reading this part of the LN.

    • Thanks for joining the discussion!
      I think it’s interesting that Narita is still working on both Durarara and Baccano at the same time? Both are fairly lengthy series at this point too, so I hope he has a good plan for how to wrap them up when the time is right.
      The epilogue does seem to be a way to “bridge the gap” a bit between Japan and New York City. I have to assume Narita wanted to write Baccano because of a personal interest in the place and time period being depicted — I may have to see if I can find an interview one day. (Or perhaps something will be mentioned in the afterward.)
      I found it interesting that the demon provided a means for the immortals to die right off the bat. On one hand this could just have been to create a “game” for them to try killing one another, but at the same time it felt like they were already planning ahead by including that escape route from the onset. How long would most people wish to live I wonder, if they didn’t have disease and old age to worry about? I feel the time of the 1800s (and its decades before and after) would have been interesting to witness, at the very least.
      I had long been aware of Isaac and Miria a bit because they’re fan favorites of Baccano, and now I’m already seeing why that is. I read one person describe them as “two boke and no tsukkomi,” which seems perfectly apt. They also remind me a bit of Walker and Erika from Durarara, though their blend of comedy relief is more referential, while Isaac and Miria are just… out there. I liked how even the narrator seemed to be in a state of disbelief at their antics, ha ha.

  3. This is my second time reading HakoMari or The Empty Box and the Zeroth Maria (Personally, I always refer to it as HakoMari) and while I do remember the bigger events, I often forget the crucial details leading up to it.

    I’m a bit surprised by this first part of the novel, mainly because of how jarring the light-hearted high school portions were. In fact, I thought it was almost too happy, annoying even, having the cast joke around about their daily lives. The situations involving Haruaki’s sudden confession and Kazumi’s panty shot, felt unimportant and I breezed through it. However, this only proved to show how big the contrast was between Kazuki’s “ordinary high school life” and the oddity that is the Rejecting Classroom. I’ve always pegged HakoMari as that type of psychological thriller series based on the content, but seeing the cheerful behaviors characters was definitely noticeable before the novel got serious with the time loops. Intentional or not, it was definitely something I didn’t catch my first time.

    Kazuki’s time in the Rejecting Classroom has impacted him, but I wouldn’t say that he’s in complete despair right now (at least not on the level of Subaru’s breakdown in Re:Zero Episode 7) He’s fighting back for the sake of his everyday life, but he won’t last long. If he was alone, he probably would have broke a while ago. Fortunately, Aya is experiencing the same thing he is, if not worse from spending more time in the Rejecting Classroom. I predict they’ll come to some sort of understanding in this next part after more fighting between each other.

    • I like the contrast between the “peaceful everyday school life” that is portrayed, versus the more harrowing plot that quickly builds up all the meanwhile. Reminds me of things like Higurashi a bit.
      We will be reading Re:Zero in August, so it will be interesting to compare that to Empty Box when that time comes. People seem to be enjoying the anime adaptation for that one, from what I’ve heard.

  4. I told myself just to read the first third of Hakomari, but then I got absorbed and read the whole book. Damn it. I guess that’s a point in its favour, though?

    It’s hard to discuss the events of the first act without being influenced by my knowledge of the rest of the story, so I’ll just make an observation about the style of the book in general.

    The book’s style of psychological thriller certainly reminded me a lot of Gekkou, in the sense that a lot of the events seem like a physical manifestation for the frustration and regret that teenagers experience in their everyday lives. The “everyday” opening of the story, as a result, feels “off” before the plot even kicks into gear.

    I found the writing style rather pretentious. This isn’t necessarily a detracting statement, as it also felt quite reflective of how a sensitive and overly imaginative teenager would write. Still, I can’t help but feel emotionally distant from the characters, possibly because I find it harder to relate to such an attitude nowadays.

    The whole time loop premise is far from original in the context of light novels, but I’m glad that the story is light on the “meta” jokes and otaku humour. It’s very accessible as far as light novels go, and I can see why it became a hit outside the usual fanbase for these stories.

    • Glad you enjoyed the story well enough, Frog-kun. I’ll reserve most of my thoughts for the volume’s overall quality once I’m finished with this re-read. I don’t think the prose itself really stands out to me one way or the other personally (though I will note that English translation-wise, it’s certainly one of the better fan efforts out there–which I imagine is another reason for the series gaining a bit of a following).
      I think it makes sense that HakoMari is often recommended alongside Gekkou. Both have that darker atmosphere, and the plot of both involves murder and a mysterious classmate girl.
      Time loops sure seem to show up a lot, don’t they? For another disquieting take on the premise, I’d also recommend to people All You Need is Kill (in which the setting is a war against aliens).

  5. The “epilogue” really got me hooked and so far, and that became one of my favorite scenes in the book!
    I think if I was one of the characters on the ship in 1711, I would not take the elixer. I would not age like everybody else and everyone I knew would be gone in a matter of years. This reminds me of the book Tuck Everlasting.
    My most favorite character so far is Firo and Ennis.
    I think the reason why Baccano! is loved by many people in western countries is because of the setting, New York. In the anime, the dub was largely popular and it suited the show so well.

    • The epilogue was a fun way to start things off. I’ll be curious to see how the “second” epilogue brings things back full circle in the end.
      I’ll have to give the anime another shot one day — I vaguely recall seeing the first episode (way back when I was first getting into anime) and getting squeamish from all the violence. I can probably handle it better now though.

  6. I’m super late… D:

    I didn’t reread HakoMari so just want to say that everything I said here (and on possible future HakoMari posts) will be based on pure memory. (Would love to re-read it, but if I re-read it now, then I would probably want to just read everything from Vol.1 to 7, not sure if I can handle that now :p)

    But first and foremost, I just want to say that starting the whole story in the sort of “imaginative/dream world” is just such a perfect way to start. It helps set the surreal atmosphere, theme and premise behind the story, while effectively setting up some important plot points down the line. Perfect foreshadowing, though I’m sure other stories had also done similar things like this before. The jump between that prologue and the story also feels so natural, I mean this is a time loop story so stories would continuously be “jumping” anyway, and the “vague prologue” settled in naturally.

    Also, did I mention I’m always a fan of psychological thriller? :p HakoMari has that exact same atmosphere and what’s better is that the writing managed to continuously maintain the mystery that just keep you coming back for more.

    • No worries about posting late — feel free to chime in whenever!
      The start of the story does well to quickly establish that something is amiss. Certainly raises a lot of questions to hook you in, at least!
      The atmosphere for this story is interesting, in that I think it shifts along with the direction of the plot. It will be interesting to compare the tone of the ending chapters to the tone of the beginning chapters.

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