Today’s guest post is by JD Cowan, writer of Grey Cat Blues, who offers a survey of one of Japan’s influential light novel magazines.
For pulp fans, the light novel is a Japanese evolution from the pulps, often targeting the young adult market by adding illustrations and younger protagonists to the classic pulp formulas. These stories not only are source material for popular anime, but just as manga influenced cyberpunk, light novels are a key influence in today’s litRPG genre.
Entertainment is in a weird place these days. It feels as if there has been a major disconnect between the past and present in regards to storytelling that has never existed before. I’ve been curious if that trend was a worldwide issue or purely relegated to the west. Since Japan has had a problem appealing to the worldwide audience since the mid-00s there had to be a problem there that no one was talking about. But finding anything out about the recent history of Japan’s animation or manga industry is quite difficult.
So I decided to look into some of the more longer lasting enterprises which contributed to the worldwide boom of anime and manga. I only found things that supported my theory. You probably won’t be surprised with the results.
Now, not everything has changed all that much. Weekly Shonen Jump still runs action adventure stories for kids and teenagers, just as Weekly Shonen Sunday, and Weekly Shonen Magazine do. There is a higher acceptance of overt sexuality than there used to be, but the link between old series and new are not all that different, content-wise. When it comes to the bigger magazines and anthologies (the ones that still sell), nothing has changed all that much.
But there is one magazine that has taken the hardest hit, and it is very evident when looking over its pedigree that things have undoubtedly changed. Looking over what I could, the only conclusion one can come to is that the cultural shift in Japan has slowly changed everything. And not for the better. This magazine is quite representative of a lot of the problems the industry is currently facing right now.
That would be Fujimi Shobo’s Dragon Magazine.
Dragon Magazine was a monthly magazine that started in 1988 (changed to bi-monthly in 2008) that ran fantasy and science fiction light novels and manga in its pages. They also included RPG information between new chapters of manga and their light novels. Dragon was a magazine for genre fiction. It was extremely popular when it came out, running some of the most popular series, but has fallen off hard in recent years. The change to bi-monthly is reflective of this as that was about the time they began to shed their old identity. Kadokawa’s official website doesn’t even include Dragon in their history though they included the creation of their fantasy line of light novels. It’s as if they are more interested in sweeping aside their past than embracing it.
It is incredibly hard to get information about the magazine’s full history since there is no real information about it in English, but let’s just say that it had a very clear goal from the start. All you would have to look at is what they ran. Specific genre magazines like this were not altogether common, especially now. Most magazines in Japan are segregated by age and sex, and rarely by genre. Shonen and Seinen magazines run fantasy, science fiction, and romance, sometimes all in the same story. But Dragon was very dedicated to genre to the point that it was its entire identity. You bought Dragon Magazine because you were a genre fan.
Fujimi Shobo created the magazine when they were still part of the Kadokawa Shoten, a major Japanese publisher. They became a subsidiary in 1991, mostly in charge of the Dragon Magazine brand. They were merged back into Kadokawa Shoten in 2013 when they shed the “Shoten” part of the name and became Kadokawa. All the subsidiaries merged as well. Now they no longer exist.
Fujimi Shobo had three basic pillars for their brand, all three of which are still running today.
Fujimi Dragon Book was a magazine on RPGs, Fujimi Fantasia Bunkocentered on genre light novels, and Fujimi Mystery Bunko focused on mystery light novels. They had six other publishing brands, all of which fell off as the years went on. They run different RPGs in Fujimi Dragon Book including Sword World, Double Cross, Arianrhod, and a translated version of GURPS, some of which spill over into Dragon Magazine‘s pages. Aside from the magazines, they also had three different card games centered on fantasy worlds.
Fantasia Bunko, their light novel brand, was mostly established off the back of Dragon Magazine and includes everything that ran in its pages, and includes series that did not. This includes non-Dragon series such as Full Metal Panic!, Lost Universe, and spin-offs of other media like Granblue Fantasy. As far as I can ascertain this is still the most popular division of the former Fujimi Shobo brand. Their other non-specified labels all went defunct over the decades, but their fantasy line remains. RPGs and genre fiction were their bread and butter.
They eventually began running Dragon Age Magazine in 2003 (and a limited special magazine which ran between 2006-2009) which was centered solely on manga, and was, honestly, characterless. It is no longer a magazine for genre.
And that was the problem.
Dragon Magazine suffered from two problems later in its life. The first was the declining readership due to the advent of the internet and the slow move to adopt digital formats from most Japanese publishers. The second was that Dragon eventually lost its identity and became just another light novel and manga magazine like everything else out there. The former is a problem still affecting the print world in Japan, the second is a problem veteran magazines shouldn’t be having, and yet undoubtedly are. Dragon Magazine should be bigger than ever, but it’s not.
To stand out in Japan’s market you need a strong brand identity and be associated heavily with what the reader cannot get elsewhere. Every successful brand in Japan lives and dies by this. Dragon, unfortunately, lost that identity around 20 years into its run. A tie with genre fiction and RPG gaming was undoubtedly its strongest feature and is one it no longer has. As it is, the magazine is really just a former shell of its peak days.
But the best way to prove Dragon’s unique flavor would be to talk about what it ran in its pages. Those that were around in the ’90s anime boom would do well to recognize many here. A lot of these series are the reason anime got so big outside Japan in the first place. The connection between genre fiction and anime is important.
Thanks to a variety of wikis for the concise descriptions.
Description: Slayers follows the adventures of teenage sorceress Lina Inverse and her companions as they journey through their world. Using powerful magic and swordsmanship they battle overreaching wizards, demons seeking to destroy the world, and an occasional hapless gang of bandits.
Does Slayers really need any introduction? The primary fantasy series released over here, Slayers ran in one form or another from near the magazines start in 1989 to its downgrade to bi-monthly in 2008. Part comedy and part action, Slayers was a massive hit and is responsible for a lot of the industry’s growth over here. Chances are if you’re reading this blog and like anime then you know this series. If anything, it doesn’t get the credit it deserves these days.
Description: In the near future, robots called “Labors” are employed in heavy construction work. The Tokyo Metropolitan Police has its own fleet of Patrol Labors or Patlabors to combat crimes/terrorism and deal with accidents involving Labors. This series is about one such group of officers.
Weekly Shonen Sunday ran the original manga series, but it was Dragon Magazine that ran the light novels. Patlabor is a rarity in being one of the few classic anime franchises that broke out big here but has left so much material untranslated for release. This material from Dragon, like many light novels from Dragon’s pages, sits unreleased overseas. This is rather unfortunate. Patlabor is as funny as it is exciting even to this day* and remains a staple for classic anime fans. I couldn’t tell you exactly what those novels covered due to, again, lack of information, but Patlabor was running in Dragon from the start.
*This is an aside, but does anyone else miss those old “wacky cops take on crazy criminals” comedy action series Japan used to put out? Man, those were fun.
Description: The story follows Mink, a half human /half dragon teenage girl on a quest for a potion which will turn her into a full human so that she can win the love of the legendary dragon slayer Dick Saucer. In the manga, in order to get the potion, she must slay Azetodeth, the greatest demon in the land.
The OVA anime for this series was fairly big back in the day, but did you know that it was based on a manga series? That’s right, Dragon Half ran from 1988 to 1994 and finished with a seven volume run. This is one of those examples of Japan’s early ’90s zany fantasy series. However, the manga goes even further into the story due to the OVA being cut short at two episodes. The series isn’t well known by modern fans, but it was big at the time. The manga was licensedjust this year by Seven Seas Entertainment and is due to release the seven volumes in three omnibus editions. Suffice to say, I’ll be in line for those.
Description: Hyper Police is set in a period in the far future, in which humanity is almost extinct and most of the population are monsters. It is mostly set in the offices of a private police company and focuses on the life of Natsuki Sasahara, a young catgirl, and her co-workers: Foxgirl Sakura Bokuseiinmonzeninari, werewolf Batanen Fujioka and his cousin Tomy Fujioka.
It’s fairly obvious just watching the show once how heavily it has been ripped off. Hyper Police was fairly popular back in the day, and is notable for being one of the few properties listed here that had its print version released overseas. That said, it was released by Tokyo Pop, so good luck finding it. Hyper Police is primarily a science fiction comedy, complete with a lot of furry bait, but still manages to stand out from the pack it created, which tends to sacrifice story and characters for titillation. The anime ran in 1997, but the manga itself ran from 1993 up to the beginning of the modern moe age in 2004. It represents its era quite well. There’s really no chance that something like this would run now without being heavily modified.
Description: The series was created by Ryo Mizuno and takes place on the continent of Alecrast on the world called Forcelia, and is related to the novel, anime, and manga series Sword World. It is a sibling series to Record of Lodoss War (which is also directed by Mizuno), taking place on a continent north of Lodoss Island.
Yes, Dragon even had its fingers in the Record of Lodoss War pie. Rune Soldier was written by the creator of Lodoss War and takes place in the same world. Rune Soldier lasted longer than that seminal series, starting in 1997 and only ending in 2012, but it was a bit more lighthearted than the core Lodoss War brand and as such might not have garnered quite the same level of fame over here. Though its anime series certainly helped carry that load as, of course, the original light novels have not been released overseas. Still, it is more fantasy goodness. That said, Rune Soldier was quite popular, and deservedly so.
Description: Saber Marionette is a science fiction humor/adventure series featuring android girls. That’s the short and easy description.
It’s hard to imagine now, so far removed from its original release, just how absurdly huge this franchise was. The releases and franchise history is really hard to go through in a small description so let’s just say that Dragon ran a short story, light novels, and manga of a few of the different series in its pages. It is difficult to say which series have even been brought over here for release. As I said, it’s messy to sort through. But the most popular series has always been Saber Marionette J, which Dragon ran all twelve light novels of in its pages. If you like your android girls, you’ll definitely get them in this series.
Description: The Weathering Continent centers on three travelers – the delicately handsome sorcerer Tieh, the burly and reticent warrior Bois, and the spritely young Lakshi – as they trek though the shattered wastelands of the ancient continent of Atlantis.
I’m not sure how to say anything about this series since it’s never been translated and the divisive movie is the only animation it has ever had. But it ran for a long time in Dragon from 1990 through 2006, the real start of the moe era. The series is a high seller and remains popular, and is very reflective of Dragon Magazine‘s brand. I’m not very certain we’ll ever get this series here, unfortunately. Like most of Dragon’s influential material, it remains unreleased overseas. Still, it was one of their pillars for the majority of its run.
Description: During a war called the Hong Kong Crusade, an Old Blood, Jiro Mochizuki, a.k.a. the Silver Blade (Gintō), fought and defeated the Kowloon King and most of the Kowloon Children. Ten years later, Jiro heads to Hong Kong with his little brother, Kotaro Mochizuki, in hopes of reaching The Special Zone, a thriving secret city where Vampires live. That’s as succinct as it can get.
This was more recent, an 11 volume light novel series which ran a 12 episode anime in 2006. It was one of Dragon’s last hits, especially one of its last to hit over here, just before the magazine went to bi-monthly. It was also one of the last pure fantasy series they ran. An action series, BBB is tight and sharp and highly worth watching. Unfortunately, it’s doubtful that the light novels will ever see release over here.
Description: Set in New York during the 1920s, Chrono Crusade follows the story of Rosette Christopher, and her demon partner Chrono. As members of the Magdalene Order, they travel around the country eliminating demonic threats to society, while Rosette searches for her lost brother Joshua.
I can’t even pretend to talk about this one as I’ve never seen it. But it was extremely popular. The anime, specifically was big both in Japan and over here. The manga ran from 1998 to 2004 in 8 volumes, easily becoming one of Dragon’s most popular series. You might also notice a pattern with many of the release years on this list. I swear I’m not doing it on purpose. This really is the way it is.
Description: Orphen is a magician who is grumpy in the morning and likes money. He has an apprentice named Magic and a wanna-be apprentice girl Cleao who won’t leave him alone. At first they just see Orphen as a source of fun, but as time goes by they keep getting into trouble and pick up things about Orphen’s past. One thing in particular that haunts him is memories of when he was a member of the Tower of Fang; an incident involving Azalie, a brilliant magician, a girl who was like an older sister to him. I wish I could sum it up better than that.
A franchise that ran in many forms from 1998 to 2003, SSO is the type of series you don’t see coming out of Japan much these days. It is one of those lighthearted action comedies that gets darker and more exciting as it goes. Needless to say, it was also a fairly big hit for its time. Even without a TV run, it was decently popular overseas showing the strength of that Dragon Magazinebrand. But there’s nothing like it in the magazine now. At this point you might be wondering just what Dragon actually runs these days. Well, I’ll get to that soon.
Description: The story takes place in what appears to be a fantasy world and revolves around a girl named Pacifica Casull, the sister in a pair of twins born to the royal family of a kingdom called Leinwan. Pacifica is abandoned at birth. The 5111th Grendel Prophecy predicts that she is the “poison that will destroy the world” if she reaches her sixteenth birthday. To prevent this, she is dropped off a cliff as an infant. Pacifica is rescued by a court wizard and adopted by the commoner Casull family, and that is where the story begins.
The reason this is so low is because I don’t really like this series. It starts off with an interesting idea that it ultimately does nothing with as it relies on flat one-note antagonists, useless allies, and characters doing stupid things to achieve drama. The plot also gets aggressively up its own rear as it goes along. But I can’t deny its popularity. It ran from 1999 to 2005 and is famed for having the famous Bones production team behind its anime. Chances are you probably remember the buzz this anime created when it came out. Scrapped Princess was touted as the next big thing. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the last series from Dragon to elicit any kind of response from fans.
Description: Ryner Lute is a lazy student of the Roland Empire Royal Magician’s Academy. One day, the Roland Empire goes to war against their neighboring country Estabul, and Ryner loses his classmates in the war. After the war, Ryner sets out on a journey to search the relics of a “Legendary Hero” at King Sion Astal’s command and finds out that a deadly curse is spreading throughout the continent.
This is the last series here because it is the only one that is still running in Dragon to this day. Starting in 2002, it’s one of the few Dragon series that has maintained its high popularity since it began. You can take or leave the redundant title (I personally think it’s hilarious) but it’s traditional old school fantasy in a way you never see coming out of Japan these days. There was an anime, but I don’t believe it was all too popular. This series is the only remainder of what Dragon used to be that still runs in its pages.
Okay, now that you know 12 of the more popular franchises to come out of Dragon, you might be wondering why, if the magazine is still running, that there is nothing listed here except one series that ran past 2008 when it went bi-monthly. Doesn’t that seem odd? If Dragon’s still running, shouldn’t it still be getting quality material to run?
No, actually. In the mid-00s, Japan as previously mentioned went a little overboard in dealing with the rise of online piracy. Instead of creating series catering to wider audiences like they used to, they turned inward and began to focus on hardcore otaku with series that were meant only to titillate and make those hardcore sections of the fanbase buy merchandise. Unfortunately, Dragon was no different from the rest of them.
Like everyone else at the time, Dragon Magazine shed its identity to pander. And pander it did!
This is the current most popular thing in the magazine today:
And that’s the toned down version. Now you tell me if that is in tone with anything listed earlier.
Other series include a gender-flipped version of Nobunaga’s Ambition, a young adult vampire story, a harem story about a passive guy, another harem story about a magical school, and a straight up harem manga. Oh and there’s Tokyo Ravens, your average shonen manga. It’s the only halfway popular thing they have, but it really doesn’t offer much of note.
What was once the premiere genre magazine no longer sets the trends but copies them. This is all they are now.
In an attempt to milk a hardcore fanbase that has no demographic future, Dragon, like many other entertainment companies in Japan, began to shrink in everything from audience to profits to variety and breadth of content. There’s a very obvious reason Dragon’s audience shrank to the point that they had to go bi-monthly in 2008, and it wasn’t because of piracy. It took Japan a long time to realize this, but it was their own doing. It was because the material they put out no longer reflected what the majority of customers actually wanted.
And that is why we are where we are today.
Now it’s not like Dragon Magazine was flawless. I think Scrapped Princess is a self-indulgent mess, and there are one or two other series I didn’t bother listing here, but they all still tried to fit some sort of framework. They tried to be genre stories. They were about the story before everything else. Imagination was key.
The current Dragon Magazine has no character at all, nothing to help it stand out from the crowd. It’s just like everything else Japan spits out. There’s no more sense of wonder, no more big ideas, no more fun, and no more excitement. It’s all about titillation and genre cliches.
What happened? Did Slayers ending leave Dragon to forget what its goal was? The light novel industry in Japan is in its nadir right now of video game fantasy stories featuring a harem of girls and your common Japanese nerd as the protagonist with long and cumbersome titles like I Fell Into A Fantasy World And Now Girls Actually Want To Date Me! or something even more ridiculous. As bad as we might think anime or manga is, light novels are ten times worse off. Dragon could be a beacon in the darkness of the modern genre market, but they’re not even trying. To go from any of the top series above to what is being made now is disappointing. The fans deserves better. Well, whatever fans are left at this point anyway.
It’s easy to lament the problems we have about a lack of strong male characters, hatred of real romance, and obsession with genre segregation, but Japan might have it almost as bad in a different way. If one of the former leading purveyors of the medium like Dragon Magazine has fallen this far, no wonder everyone else has. It’s surprising that so many put up with it over there.
Light novels were a source of much of Japan’s pop culture appeal overseas. Japan had Slayers, Full Metal Panic, Record of Lodoss War, Boogiepop, Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Vampire Hunter D, Irresponsible Captain Tylor, Guin Saga, Crusher Joe, the other series listed above, and so many others that we’ll never see released here. And what do they have now? Glorified harems in video game fantasy worlds. Is this really a contest?
It’s not just about changing tastes. It is about sterilizing everything to be one and the same. This seems to be a hobby of the modern world, and it isn’t just affecting Japan. It isn’t that things were better back in the day, it’s that there was more ambition, more variety, and a sense there was more than sex to look forward to in life. All that seems to be gone. What happened to that sense of hoping for more to life?
If anything needs to come back, it’s that.
His works include Grey Cat Blues, the young adult novel Knights of the End, and short stories in Superheroes: The Crossover Alliance Volume 3 by the Crossover Alliance, the PulpRev Sampler, and Paragons by Silver Empire.