For general information on this series: Ao Oni entry
This review is for the first volume of Ao Oni by Kenji Kuroda (with art by Karin Suzuragi). It is based on the Japanese indie game by noprops. This book was released by J-Novel Club in January 2018. So far there are three volumes available in English, and from what I can tell there are six volumes total for this series in Japan (Note: one of the listings in the link there is for a comic anthology).
The Ao Oni novels are loosely based on a simple freeware video game of the same name, in which a giant blue monster chases some high school kids around in an old abandoned mansion. In the game, the goal is to solve puzzles to find a way to escape the building you’re trapped in–but at random times the monster will suddenly appear and try to catch you (accompanied by music reminiscent of the shower scene from Psycho). You don’t have any means of defending yourself, so if the “ao oni” (“blue demonic ogre”) gets you, it’s game over.
The first rendition of the game released in 2008, but improved versions would follow over the next several years. This was right when “creepypasta” was a big thing on the internet (the most famous story probably being “Slender Man”). Many creepypastas also involved tales of old-school games glitching out in horrific ways, so I think Ao Oni could be considered a game that released at just the right time to catch a lot of people’s attention. To be honest I never felt too impressed with the game–it feels awkward and clumsy, the presentation lacks polish, the puzzles are pretty ridiculous… And, well, I’m not sure I’d even call the ao oni that scary. I mean, I guess I’d run away too if I saw that in real life, but an Anpanman showing up in real life would probably freak me out just as much.
Ao Oni would eventually get a couple (bad) live-action films, some (bad) anime gag shorts and (bad) anime film, and a couple sequel games (which I have not checked out yet). And, of course, it got some light novels too. Which I’m happy to say are not bad! In fact, I’d have to say I was pleasantly surprised by this opening volume. Whether you have played the game or not (really, it doesn’t matter either way), if you’re a fan of horror at all then this is a series that’s well-worth checking out.
This volume is largely devoted to setting things up for the four characters from the game (Hiroshi, Takuro, Mika, and Takeshi), plus two new characters (Shun and Anna). The story follows Shun, a transfer student who creates a video game (…it’s Ao Oni… it’s meta) based on the town’s urban legend of a monster that lives in a creepy isolated European-style mansion. Shun is unfortunately being bullied mercilessly in secret by the sadistic Takuro, who maintains a public image as the school’s most popular student. To get through the rest of the cast briefly here… Mika and Takeshi are friends of Takuro (though he would probably just call them “pawns”), Anna is the class president who is concerned about Shun (but holds some dark secrets of her own), and Hiroshi is the anti-social brainiac of the class who takes an interest in Shun’s game.
The story moves along at a brisk pace. Soon enough the characters end up trapped in the mansion, and you don’t have to wait long before the ao oni starts pursuing them. Those familiar with horror fiction will feel right at home with this one, and those new to the horror genre will get a good taste for what these sorts of “slasher film” stories entail. The author manages to pull off an appropriately foreboding atmosphere in the mansion, and provides a steady trickle of unsettling imagery and moments of gruesome violence. It’s far from the goriest horror fiction you can find out there, but it doesn’t shy away from the blood and guts of the well-established stalk-and-murder formula either.
The characters for the most part don’t get too much depth in this one, and the final act is definitely rushed (skipping over much of the actual mansion-escaping the original game is known for). But the book did manage to provide a strong enough hook for me to want to read more in the series, which in subsequent volumes does manage to delve much more into the characters and provide more substance to the mysteries of the mansion and its star monster. For volume 1 specifically though, I did really like how Shun’s character was handled (providing a startlingly harsh portrayal of the misery of bullying), and I did appreciate the author’s clever take on Hiroshi (which deviates from the “blank slate protagonist” portrayal in the original game, but in a way that fits for him perfectly). I liked how the story gave us two characters (Hiroshi and Takuro) who essentially have an antisocial personality disorder, but they end up interacting with others and living their lives in completely different ways. Aspects of the plot such as this made the Ao Oni novel a lot more engaging than I expected it to be.
Also worth mentioning, the prose of the story stands out, which to some degree I feel has to be thanks to a strong effort on the translator’s part. The artwork is also very good, handled by one of the artists for the manga adaptation of Higurashi (which I would actually offer as a series to compare this one to, in terms of how its overarching mystery and other certain elements are handled). Along with the typical LN illustrations, the volume includes a short “teaser” manga at the beginning. All in all I’d have to say Ao Oni is the hidden gem of the J-Novel Club lineup, and so long as you have at least some interest in horror, you ought to check it out this Halloween season!
Cho’s Rating: Recommended
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