Review: The Empty Box and Zeroth Maria (Vol 1)

March 2 should just be another school day for Kazuki Hoshino. Surrounded by his friends, classmates and the girl he’s in love with, he’s not expecting the unexpected late arrival of a new transfer student, Aya Otonashi, to change his life. But when she ends her self-introduction with “—Kazuki Hoshino, I’m here to break you.” he realizes that things aren’t quite as they should be. Soon Aya Otonashi, or “Maria”, reveals that she’s transferred to the class thousands of times—March 2 repeating ad nauseum thanks to the power of a mysterious ‘box’ trying to fulfill someone’s wish.

The Empty Box and Zeroth Maria is written by Eiji Mikage, with illustrations done by Tetsuo (credited here as 415). The series is a mystery thriller with a (somewhat) supernatural twist. Released in English by Yen On in October 2017 with translation provided by Luke Baker. The first volume was released in Japan in 2009, and the series is complete in seven volumes.

Zeroth Maria is a title where it’s reputation proceeds it. Immensely popular within the light novel community, the story is lauded as one of the best within the medium. As a long awaited and beloved title for fans, I can only expect the English license was an expected one.

Kazuki Hoshino is having a regular morning in class before his friend and class president, Daiya Oomine, tells him about a new transfer student. As there is only a few weeks before the end of the school year, the girl, Aya Otonashi, draws everyone’s curiosity—especially when she shares her intent to wage war with Hoshino in her introduction to the class. Aside from her oddball behavior, the rest of the day goes pretty much as normal: Daiya and Kokone bicker; Haruaki confesses to, and is swiftly rejected by, the beautiful new transfer student; and Hoshino has the amazing opportunity to rest his head on his crush Mogi’s lap during PE. Everything is totally normal in his every day life, until the accident. Again and again and again.

For what Hoshino doesn’t realize (but sometimes does) is that his daily life has been caught in a time loop. His entire class has been reliving March 2, with only one person remembering it all—mysterious transfer student Aya Otonashi. It is also her reasoning that the person behind the loops is Hoshino himself. The only thing she knows is that sometimes he remembers her as “Maria”, a remnant of a loop long-passed. She thinks he made a wish to the mysterious figure O on a ‘box’, and the time loops are the way that wish is being realized. He can (sometimes) remember disjointed fragments of a meeting where he may have met this O, but has no idea what his wish might have been—and he doesn’t retain his memory of the repeating either, so nothing seems out of place for him even when reliving the same events. After eons of repetition Otonashi has avowed to destroy his box and his wish, hopeful to end the endless loop.

The story is well done in how it continues to build the tension throughout each loop. Although our protagonist doesn’t have the omniscient knowledge of the repetition, the audience is only slightly more informed. We don’t learn about disappearing classmates until Hoshino struggles to remember friends he’s known for years—the students who have been rejected from this repeating classroom over the course of thousands of March 2s. As the days turn to weeks turn to years, the classroom of the current loop changes drastically from the classroom of the first. Not only with his missing peers, but the attitude Otonashi applies to Hoshino in her efforts to break the cycle too. The monotony, futility and hopelessness of living the same day for longer than your own lifespan so far is enough to break even the strongest of wills, yet Maria has endured. This is a mystery with plenty of misdirection and subtlety, and when it finally reaches its crescendo it’s with a bang.

Unfortunately, because of the repetition (and memory loss) we never really learn much about any of these characters outside of their main personality traits—including our protagonist. Compared to other similar light novels with this plot (All You Need is Kill comes to mind), there is no real evolution of character from Hoshino as a (somewhat) clueless bystander. At least when Kyon and co. were stuck in their own loop during The Rampage of Haruhi Suzumiya it was contained to a short story, and encapsulated the last eight days of the summer break—hopefully the pay-off of this first novel for Otonashi is utilized as well, and with as much impact, as it was for Yuuki in The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya.

With the final events of the book, it gives this story the potential it needed for the story to continue past this point. This novel is fine to be contained to the repeating, rejecting classroom, but that premise was never going to be able to work across an entire series—instead, it works as a hook to the larger mystery of O and the boxes; the ability to grant wishes and how those wishes can be twisted. For fans of mystery this is a solid foundation to build from, and I am hopeful for the future of the mystery-solving duo of Otonashi and Hoshino going forward. If you’re looking for a solid mystery series and don’t mind the high school setting or somewhat supernatural element, give this one a shot.

Gee’s Rating: Recommended

You can purchase this book online via sites like Amazon (available in paperback or as an ebook) and Book Depository (which offers free worldwide shipping). These are affiliate links, so a small percentage of sales goes toward this site.

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