New Staff Member: Introducing Kastel

Cho: Hope everyone is having a good new year so far. I’ve been updating more LN entries lately, and hope to have some other good content up in the weeks to come. But first, you might have noticed a great review for Sukasuka the other day. That wasn’t written by me–that was from a new contributor for this site!

How about you introduce yourself?

Kastel: I am Kastel, writer of Mimidoshima and the editor for Tanoshimi.xyz. I do nothing but spam people’s Twitter timelines about the cool stuff I’ve been reading because I like to forget I don’t have a job. I’m an Indonesian Chinese who has schooled in Singapore and am now living in Chicago with my best friend, Ms. Amazon Kindle. Supposedly, I write for a living since I have a degree in Fiction Writing from my college. But that’s not really true … I ask my parents for money all the time. I love international visas restrictions…

I like to pretend I know something about the publishing industries in the United States and Japan, the former especially because I have friends inside them. Markets and genres are my current subjects of study.

Cho: What got you into light novels? What do you like about them?

Kastel: I was learning Japanese through visual novels and some of my favorite writers in the medium like Tanaka Romeo (Cross+Channel) who has written stuff like Jinrui wa Suitaishimashita (Humanity Has Declined) published by Gagaga Bunko. There is a close network of writers who write visual novels, light novels, and science fiction works. Writers who have written for Hayakawa SF — a serious science fiction label akin to Tor Books in the US — would sometimes pop up on Gagaga, Dengeki Bunko, or some pretty big light novel label. I’m not exactly a huge science fiction buff, but I find the intersection quite fascinating. It’s hard to differentiate modern Japanese science fiction from certain light novels. In fact, the light novel market today is born out of Hayakawa’s own works in the 80s. The market is way too fascinating for me to ignore.

I can’t really generalize what I like about light novels. However, I do appreciate the ambition when the market allows it: for example, I’m reading the Ryuuketsu Megami Den series, which is a woman-targeted light novel published by Cobalt Bunko; it is 27 books long and tracks a 13 year old girl right up to her motherhood. Otaku-targeted media has a lot of freedom to explore ideas and themes mainstream works stray away from. I find that light novels — alongside visual novels, anime, and manga — can be a powerful tool of subculture to challenge the conventions of the status quo. It has more room for failure when writers and publishers step out of the boundaries. That said, it’s easy for creators in the field to sell cliches. But I feel the few good works outweigh the many bad ones. That’s why I’m still reading light novels alongside what is generally considered Japanese literature.

Cho: What are some of your favorite light novels?

Kastel: I love Iriya no Sora, Ufo no Natsu for depicting the cruel realities of adolescence. Jinrui wa Suitaishimashita is the only work I know that makes me come out of the book feeling that I have a responsibility to change the world. Those are the only two light novels that I can say without hesitation are cream of the crop. There is also Qualia the Purple, a science fiction story in the vein of The Stars My Destination andSlaughterhouse-Five. I adore it to pieces, even if it’s a flawed journey.

Of course, this website also talks about books like Euphonium which aren’t actually light novels. I’ll include that as well as Disco Wednesdayyy when we are talking about subculture works.

Cho: What kind of posts do you plan to write?

Kastel: Honestly, I don’t know. I will obviously contribute reviews of various light novel series I find interesting to talk about. That said, I don’t feel like I know enough of the market to pass judgment. People will probably find my answers confusing. If you ask me if GAGAGA is a light novel label, I will of course say yes. But plenty of Japanese people consider GAGAGA as its own “genre” because their works are too different from the usual light novel. Meanwhile, if you ask me what I think of Fate/zero in this website, I may actually refuse to answer the question because Seikasha doesn’t explicitly publish light novels; it publishes philosophy, literary criticism, and Fate stuff along the side. If that sounds confusing, that’s why I am not too keen in writing original posts about them even if it is “factually” correct market-speaking-wise.

I suppose I’ll mix up what I’ll be reviewing. I am reading some classic light novels published in the 90s, but I also want to talk about certain contemporary light novels that you wouldn’t expect to be light novels. After all, what kind of weirdo writes about the job market and how difficult it is to get a decent job in a fantasy setting? I hope I can toy with the readers’ expectations a bit here as well as mine when I look through the crazy market of light novels.

Cho: That sounds great. Out of curiosity, how did you go about learning Japanese?

Kastel: I first learned Japanese through reading visual novels. Visual novels have not only the visual and textual components down but the audio too. To hear the words spoken aloud helps you understand the words you are trying to remember better. You can pronounce them when you subvocalize reading books. I basically used my techniques on learning English — I am actually an English as Second Language writer — to learn Japanese.

I started learning Japanese in December 2012 but really took off in summer 2013. First, I played Flyable Heart because it has Noizi Ito (Haruhi‘s character designer) as character designer. But the writing was too awful and boring. So I went to Harumade, Kururu which is a science fiction visual novel by Ryouichi Watanabe. I actually told the writer on Twitter that Harukuru was how I learned Japanese and he said something along the lines as “I feel honored!”.

Along the way, I felt overconfident because I knew some Mandarin. Except Chinese is really useless when you are learning Japanese. In Japanese, 娘 (musume) means daughter. In Chinese, that character (ko) means mother. Great stuff like that confused me for years. So I actually took a few months off to relearn everything and pretend I know nothing about Chinese.

I began reading Japanese books in general on and off in 2014 and 2015. I was more concentrated on practicing listening, so I watched let’s plays in NicoNicoDouga and random variety shows on YouTube. Reading Japanese tweets is fun too. I suppose I went off the deep end into immersion.

2016 was when I felt ready to take on books. I bought series after series on Amazon JP and have now amassed a giant backlog that will never be finished. I spent my day reading while catching up on years of anime I missed. I expect to do the same this year too.

I don’t really think I have stopped learning the basics of Japanese. Even today, I admit I screw up on even the most basic of grammar. I can’t be bothered to memorize Japanese names and I would read slower when people start slurring words or using accents in dialog. I get extremely lost in anime especially. While I know Barakamon confused everyone in Japan with Goto Islands dialect, I can’t say that I had the same problems following the show without Japanese subtitles. It’s just a matter of knowing what screwed you up and trying to fix that. That’s really what learning anything is all about.

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That and a crazy motivation to consume everything.

Cho: Outside of light novels, what other things do you enjoy?

Kastel: I used to be a film student studying directing and editing, so I have huge respect toward filmmaking and animation as crafts. I love analyzing and reading about production in films and anime I love. The scale of collaboration is really huge. You can’t just shirk off responsibility like you would in college groups; the whole hierarchy crumbles if a costume designer fails to show up at the right time. Everything is a passion project in those mediums. While it’s easy to see them as marketing tools, the people working inside these projects clearly don’t.

I read a lot of Western literature too. Some of my favorite books include Tristram Shandy, if on a winter’s night a traveler, and The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck.

I also like looking up philosophies and nonfiction because I enjoy learning weird stuff. Recently, I looked up the Kabbalah and the controversies surrounding the MTV show Big Brother. I also like going onto JSTOR and typing random words to see if something pops up. It helped me discover folkloristics, a discipline I am obsessed about nowadays because it’s basically memetics in a more humanities world.

Wasting time with friends on IRC/Discord/Twitter is another activity I enjoy too. Stalking my favorite creators (Ayano Takeda, the writer of Euphonium, is my latest love) is something I do subconsciously everyday. I also enjoy pretending to be MIA whenever my family calls too.

Cho: Thanks for sharing! Glad to have you here, and I look forward to seeing what you post next. :)

Kastel: I look forward to contributing more.

13 responses to “New Staff Member: Introducing Kastel

  1. Great to see you on English Light Novels, Kastel!

    Can I ask what’s your opinion on the light novels currently available in English translation, and where you think the market is headed?

    • How do I say “it’s actually kinda bad” to both questions in the nicest way possible?

      Well, let’s dig at the first question: I didn’t read many novels that were translated into English because I’m not part of the “audience” the English light novel market publishers are targeting at. Using Cho’s list as a reference, I’ve read Twelve Kingdoms, Haruhi, Zaregoto, and Book Girl. I have some interest in Devil is a Part Timer! and Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash, but I doubt I’ll be digging my hands into Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?, Accel World, and Seraph of the End.

      This is not to say those books are inferior, but they aren’t on my radar even before I learned Japanese. I was more interested in a bigger variety and there wasn’t much back then. It’s better now, but I can’t really imagine someone outside anime getting into light novels whereas in Japan that’s something you can dip your toes into once in a while.

      I have a friend who reads plenty of young adult fiction. His complaint is that there aren’t many light novels translated that focus on a woman protagonist. This is a huge shame when there’s quite a lot of light novels with a strong woman character. Unlike what is usually adapted into anime, feminist themes are like butter in light novels because of how large the medium is.

      So the current light novels available in English don’t represent anything in Japanese light novels. Even the popular light novels. Granted, English readers have access to novels such as The Irregular at Magic High School and No Game No Life — both popular novels by their own right — but there’s so much more from Japan that isn’t translated.

      The English speaking community is missing Saiunkoku Monogatari (an influential light novel aimed at girls that focuses on a girl’s rise to the men-dominated civil service system), Iriya no Sora (the missing link between Eva and 00s anime), and more.

      We’ll never get up to speed with Japan. That’s impossible. No one, even those who can read Japanese here, can read all the “important” light novels — Fortune Quest is still being published since 1989 — so we shouldn’t even try.

      When it comes to selection, I just hope publishers pick a bigger variety of books. It’s a losing battle, but that’s with everything in translation. At least, light novels are in better shape than Japanese literature.

      The future of light novels in English is shaky too. I really wish writers and Japanese publishers aim for more mainstream publishers than just Yen Press and co. Light novels will do well in a young adult market as long as it is actually translated and marketed well. Publishers that are already dealing with light novels should go beyond “anime audiences” and try to dive into the young adult, new adult, and adult fiction market. The “anime audience” is very small and doesn’t allow much freedom. I think it’s alright for them to treat that as a core audience, but peripheral audiences would be really good. I just don’t see publishers trying hard to do that.

      With all that said, there’s been growing interest in light novels thanks to anime adapting like a million narou novels. For better or worse, many people think anything written then animated in Japan is a light novel. It’s both a good and bad thing since light novels as a term is usually a pejorative. But at least, the name is out there?

      I can’t be certain that light novels might “survive”. But we’ve seen a smaller niche medium, visual novels, live this long with even more problems. If the fanbase is willing to contribute and the publishers can dedicate more willpower to putting the word out, the market can do well.

      I do wish translators get paid more though.

      • I agree that I would like to see more female protagonists, though I love the Dungeon books. The spin-off, by the way, Sword Oratoria, takes place largely from Aiz’s point of view, so there’s one story with a major female protagonist and the is still so far above Bell in the main series in abilities, she’d slaughter him.

  2. Welcome. I can’t wait to see your work. I agree on the whole point of challenging the status quo. i think that to make progress and solve problems, folks in any country or culture must be willing to do so. That seems to be one of the great things about sci-fi and fantasy how they can do this challenging.

    • Subculture works, in general, have the ability to challenge society norms. Science fiction and fantasy are the biggest ones and their ability to dip into mainstream thought — the film Arrival making headlines in places like The New Yorker is unthinkable years ago — can show how much an impact they can be.

      There is a novel I will probably review on Mimidoshima titled Samaki Kishiki Last Resort (左巻キ式ラストリゾート). It sees escapism as more than a way to run away from reality; it is a challenge to the nihilism that comes alongside facing the music. Subcultures are created to let people be sane and tolerate the status quo. To buy figurines, watch anime, read manga — that kind of consumerism won’t make society shape and form us into typical depressed salarymen. This thinking lets us think what might be better for society and so on.

  3. Your comments about GAGAGA is interesting. I found myself drawn to their titles above and beyond the other publishers and wondered what’s the difference between them.

    Unfortunately they also seem to be hyper conservative when it comes to ebook publishing and as far as I know still haven’t made their JP eBooks available for purchase outside of Japan, whereas most of the other publishers now sell without restrictions.

    Thanks for your insights and I look forward to your future posts!

    • That actually doesn’t apply to all GAGAGA books. I’ve just bought KenToma a few days ago. It seems that Amazon would randomly have books region-locked; I’ve encountered problems with other publishers. Basically, you should buy a region-locked book on VPN and then Amazon “remembers” you that you are from Japan. It’s pretty annoying and it seems to happen monthly. But corporations are just outdated entities when it comes to technology…

      • Thanks for the tip. I was actually referring to BookWalker.jp. I can’t use Amazon from my country.

        I have not gotten into the VPN scene as I’m not trying to catch Netflix or other region locked content, but I’ll keep that in mind.

  4. I have a question for Kastel and Frog-kun, sorry for my poor english but I’m from Italy, than… I’m writing a LN (currently at Vol6) and I think that my novel is innovative because it contains video animations and sound effects as well as the usual images. You can also print on paper and still see the video af the novel using a smartphone and a QR code reader. The question is: if a manage to translate a short promo of the novel, how to show it at an japanese editor? PS anyway the novel is here (in italian) https://yuukisachilightnovelita.wordpress.com/mind-powers/

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