It looks cute. It looks like a normal light novel with a mysterious transfer student à la Suzumiya Haruhi. And it looks like a short read you can take on a bus ride home. You might be a bit skeptical over the title, Run Over; that sounds like it is referring to roadkill or something like that. But English titles for Japanese books are always weird, so you pick it up and give it a go.
What you don’t expect is you are the one being run over. You are the roadkill.
Run Over by Inaniwa Jun is where blood, violence, and words have an orgy that looks like a kind of madness.
A kind of madness that appears in the form of a cute girl named Minato. She may look like it, but she is no Haruhi. She is a manipulative woman who wants to overcome the school caste, a hierarchy of students in a classroom. She may look at you with puppy eyes, but she has a mission to throw down school castes into chaos and cause a bloody revolution in the inside. Her best friend killed herself because of the school caste and it is her responsibility to wipe out school castes forever.
But how important is her mission? If we look into what a school caste actually means, it is the culmination of imaginary privileges and rights owned by the elites in the classroom. These students look down at whom they believe are the inferior castes, the outcasts if you will. The elites have the right to throw buckets of water at the inferior students and the latter cannot ask for help. It is part of the “law”. There is no written word, only force and strength. Bully or be bullied.
As a result, school castes have destroyed many students’ lives, and teachers and parents are powerless to stop the bullying. To them, the school caste is part of high school. It cannot be taken out; it is a parasite that festers forever on the body and mind of students. And the effects can be long-lasting as students may be psychologically scarred and unable to join the workforce or society itself. No matter how many teachers and educators acknowledge the existence of school castes, there seems to be no hope to save the students who need their help the most.
That’s why novels like Run Over explore what-if situations. What if Minato takes the problem into her own hands? She can’t wipe out the systematic problem from the outside, but she can do it in the inside.
Because of this, the book becomes a chaotic ruse of school life. It is not every day you read a book with a cute dating scene at the movies and then you flip to the next page; you’re reading about the same characters blackmailing a teacher and student with photos of sex. Izono, a blank slate of a protagonist like Kyon, is drawn in by the allure of Minato who finds ways to spread photos of their classmates having blowjobs across the internet. He wants to know more and finds himself falling in love with her, even if he knows she is destined to destroy the school and everything that he considers part of his life. Why? Because he wants more of her. So we flip to the next page. He sleeps with her, though no sex is involved. We flip the page further. He wants to be with her till the end of time. And we too don’t stop till the end of the book.
What is it about this twisted romance of violence and manipulation that makes it so engaging? Is it the destruction of the school caste and thus the school that makes it cathartic?
I doubt that because there’s nothing “satisfactory” about the ending. Arguably, the book’s best parts are not the story but the events and climaxes within it. As a school caste novel, it is not a particularly serious treatment and does not have many meaningful observations about how school castes work.
So in that case, is it because the novel is so completely ridiculous and entertaining that you just want to read more?
Maybe that answer can be found in the chapter titles all named after songs by The Pixies, a band that goes all out with its violent songs and sexual lyrics. One of their album covers features a nude torso and labels like “disturbing” and “not safe for work” aren’t enough to describe the band. Run Over has “Something Against You” as a reader because it finds shock extremely amusing and finds ways to raise the stakes. It sees itself as a “Debaser” of what is good and cute. It searches for the wild and violent parts of humanity; “Break My Body”, it says — because then it can take itself apart and show us how hilarious it is. It makes no pretensions to being a light novel or a serious work of literature; it is just an entertaining novel because it is — the same way how a “Brick is Red” and nothing else.
That’s probably why it is so charming. Like a film with a purpose to entertain and make money, the book has no qualms in making it big. It just wants to be violent and fun. What remains is a form of entertainment that is unedited and true to the writer’s vision: pure, chaotic, and bloodthirsty like the Pixies songs that inspire this work.
And this puts many readers in a quandary over what this novel is supposed to be. It isn’t a “light novel” (even the writer jokes as much in the afterword when he says that this is totally a light novel like Haruhi), nor is it actually a deep look into the problems of school castes. It’s just entertaining. And “entertaining” is not a useful descriptor in terms of markets.
When this came out in 2011, people felt betrayed and confused expecting it to be one or the other. You can find Amazon and Bookmeter reviews and impressions that read more like death threats than fair and balanced reviews.
But I find it to be a refreshing take on what light novels are all about, or at least what attracted me to the subculture in the first place. It is a field of pure entertainment, and what better way to write for one than to create something like a Quentin Tarantino version of a school caste story? It is no Inglorious Bastards or Pulp Fiction, but it does remind us we pick these books to be entertained once in a while. There’s nothing entertaining about reading a book that makes us feel comfy and safe in the inside. Nor do we want to read books that are grave and somber forever. Entertainment is the twists and turns that torture us and make us want to read more, even though we know it’s going to run us down.
And in that way, as an excuse for shock and horror for the sake of it, Run Over could be one of the best examples of what a light novel could and should be.
Kastel’s Rating: Recommended.