5 Good Anime Based on Light Novels

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Anime shows based on light novels – or, if we’re being totally honest here, light novels themselves – don’t exactly have a glowing reputation among much of the anime fan community. Particularly after some of the more recent adaptations (Pilot’s Love Song, Irregular at Magic High School, Black Bullet, etc.), it feels like a great many titles lately have been labelled “light novel trash” before they’ve even seen the light of day.

However, while I’m forced to agree that there’s an awful lot of crap out there, I also think it’s good practice not to paint a whole category with the same brush. So rather than sound off about all the light novel adaptations in existence that I personally think are terrible, I wanted to take the opportunity to instead write about some light novel-based anime that I think are actually really good.

Note that I’m deliberately leaving Baccano!, Durarara!!, and Toradora! out of this post. I like all these shows – in fact, the latter two have earned their respective spots in my personal top 20 anime list – but I’ve talked about them plenty of times before, and they’ve certainly never suffered from lack of attention elsewhere. I’m therefore putting them aside for the purposes of this particular article in order to make room for other titles.

Kino’s Journey

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Kino’s Journey is considered an anime classic, and for good reason – the late Nakamura Ryutaro, who also directed Serial Experiments Lain, did a fantastic job with this. The largely episodic piece is perhaps best known for its exploration of beauty in dark places; the show feels a bit like a warped fairy-tale that seems charming, albeit just a little off, in some areas and yet is surprisingly brutal in others. I say ‘surprisingly’ because there’s very little on-screen violence depicted here, and whenever tragedy or cruelty strikes, it does so while juxtaposed against a relatively calm and relaxed slice-of-life mood, complete with muted colour palette and an easygoing soundtrack. There may be only two main characters – the polite but generally impartial Kino and a talking motorcycle named Hermes – but these two end up being more than enough to make for a fascinating and extremely well-executed series that really knows how to deliver impact when it counts.

Read or Die

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Preceded by an also very good OVA, the excellent Read or Die TV series is one of the best modern-day fantasy anime out there. Unique and stylish, it combines a bit of everything, from mystery-adventure to comedy-drama, with some nice action sequences and a bit of awkwardly sweet romance for good measure. There are one or two pacing issues, but Read or Die is overall a pleasure to watch, with an oddball cast of characters and a very cool plot. Given that so much of what goes on seems centered around notions of family, it’s a good thing that so much love was so obviously put into this show. Whether you watch this before or after the OVA (either is fine, though the series is set five years after the events of the OVA), Read or Die is refreshing, imaginative, and a lot of fun all-round.

Scrapped Princess

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Another fantasy anime (one of the best known and most respected of the early 2000s, in fact), but this time set in what initially seems to be a Middle Age-style alternate universe, Scrapped Princess in an ambitious take on the genre. Definitely not all it appears at first glance, many viewers have commended the series for its solid main protagonists, genuinely interesting antagonists, and a storyline that at first just about screams “classic fantasy cliché” but is actually pretty well thought out and fully realised in scope. Better yet, the blend of action and drama is fun but usually fairly believable, and very rarely falls prey to either melodrama or fanservice. That said, there’s more than enough there to get the audience emotionally invested in what’s going on (personally speaking, Fulle’s storyline was the one that really hit home). If you’re looking for a high fantasy anime with class and decent visuals and haven’t tried Scrapped Princess yet, you’re missing out on one of the best.

Twelve Kingdoms

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Oh snap, yet more fantasy – oops. Still, Twelve Kingdoms is large enough and epic enough that it easily manages to stand out from the crowd – and I say that as someone who didn’t think much of the show at first (largely thanks to Youko, who thankfully undergoes some enormous and brilliant character development later on). Unlike the previous titles on this list, Twelve Kingdoms has a very classical Chinese feel about it, and is also highly politically-charged. Each country represented in the rich tapestry of the setting has its own distinct history and culture – it’s as much an intricate historical drama as it is a fantasy, and as such unfolds very slowly and deliberately. While the pacing may well put some off, the rewards are well worth it; the only major downside is that the anime, while technically complete, leaves a lot of things hanging, so viewers are forced to read the novels in order to find out what happens in the long run.

Katanagatari

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For a chanbara anime, this is one heavily dialogue-driven show. Then again, Katanagatari does very little by the book – a swordsman who fights without a sword, a collection of blades that are sometimes not actually blades, a romance that involves hardly any blushing… even the artwork is more than a little unconventional. A lot of people really don’t like this series, and I’ll accept that it’s certainly not for everyone, but I honestly believe Katanagatari to be incredibly well-written. The characters aren’t necessarily likeable in the typical sense – well, there’s really nothing typical about Katanagatari to begin with – but the way in which they’re portrayed is smart, and my original skepticism had completely given way to admiration by the time I was through. However, since the anime really isn’t one that’s easily explained in words, I’ll simply finish up by saying that the experience gave me a newfound feeling of respect for the medium – one that also provides vibrantly crisp character and background designs, a great soundtrack (composer Iwasaki Taku, who incidentally was also responsible for the music in Read or Die, does excellent work as always), and a highly memorable vibe.

Question of the post: Do you think that light-novel based anime are deserving of such a bad name? Do you have any favourites of your own?

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42 thoughts on “5 Good Anime Based on Light Novels

  1. I have recently received a Kindle and the first book I read, just to check the thing out, was a fan-translated first volume of Mayo Chiki. It had an anime, that I liked – it was a harem, but with a twist, where the main girl is a cross-dresser, so only she and her ojousama that knows about her true gender long for the main character’s penis, the other three haremettes want the main girl’s “dick” (that they don’t know she doesn’t have any). It was nothing special, but a nice entertainment.
    And, let me tell you something: the book was shite. The style, the descriptions, everything – the most fun moment was when they referenced Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure (one of the characters was reading it), because yay, Jojo. All these chapters were following exactly the same events as the first episodes of anime, but they were terrible.
    So, I believe that there are good light novels, because they produced Kino, Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita and a bunch of others that Scamp from The Cart Driver once tweeted at me, to cure me from my ignorance, because I utterly hated light novel adaptations then. But, unfortunately, most of them are crap, like in any other medium. But those wish-fulfillment harem turds tend to be more popular, and more in spotlight due to all these anime adaptations. So, when I make a season preview for my blog and see that a light novel was a source material, I am very skeptical, and, unfortunately, I am almost always right with it, as they are not so painfully awful at most. That’s sad, but it’s how the market works.
    That’s why we get series like Mahouka or Vanadis, but no next season of Twelve Kingdoms 😐

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    • Point well made. And I tend to agree – while of course there are and will always be exceptions, most light novels themselves feature primarily bad writing and are stuffed with wish-fulfilment tropes – and anime based on that kind of thing aren’t likely to shine. Like you, I’m therefore usually skeptical when I see an anime that I know has a light novel(s) as its source material. Thankfully, I’ve also been proved wrong before, so I try not to judge an anime too harshly before I’ve been able to see for my own eyes what it’s like despite my skepticism.

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      • I now finally understand why nobody in Lucky Star treated Kagami as more mature than Konata, despite her claims that books are better than manga. Because light novels aren’t xD (Althought I also have some fantranslations recommended by friends that apparently are good, they’re waiting in line.)
        However, I used to be “most VN adaptations are shit and ALL LN adaptations are shit!!11” unless Scamp proved me wrong.
        I just wish there were more fantranslations of the better stuff as well, because currently I see all those harem things on Baka Tsuki, and Jinrui had only one chapter translated on TLwiki, back in 2010.

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  2. Yay! Glad to see Scrapped Princess on the list! It really is a good anime, one I genuinely enjoyed watching and was pleased to find was very solid. It’s an adventure from start to finish, the characters (as you’ve noted) are well-constructed, and BONES (of course) did a really nice job on the production side of things, especially with the facial expressions.

    The obvious note to make here is the last season’s Hitsugi no Chaika was written by the author of ScraPri, and shares a lot of the same characteristics, while also incorporating a healthy amount of modern moe.

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    • I’m afraid I didn’t care at all for Hitsugi no Chaika (although I only watched the first 2 episodes, so admittedly I’m not really in a position to judge). The moe put me off. A lot. I’m happy enough to give Hitsugi no Chaika the benefit of the doubt if a lot of other anime bloggers who I respect are saying it’s a good show, but it’s just not my cup of tea.

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      • Honestly, the show was so derpy in the middle section that I couldn’t help but fall in love with it. It was almost like watching myself get turned into an anime haha.

        …..I guess that means you wouldn’t like me irl…

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        • I have this sudden image of iblessall as a moe girl.

          No wonder those users on Crunchyroll were shipping you left, right and center lol. (And also killing you violently, because clearly they’ve seen Higurashi and they know how it’s done.)

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    • To be honest, I’m not a fan of Spice and Wolf. I know it’s a really popular show and I don’t actively dislike it, but I also don’t love it. For the most part, I found myself politely bored by the anime.

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  3. My own experience with adaptions has been mostly good, but there have been a few titles that I thought were badly done. A common gripe I’ve read is the lack of detail in the adaption of LNs, which is always easier to deliver in novel form. Having not read that many LNs myself it’s difficult to comment as I’m guessing most of the complaints come about from people who’ve liked and read the novels, only to feel they were poorly adapted.

    I think it’s safe to say that if the quality and content of the novels themselves is solid, unless the studio adapting them botches it, that quality should carry into the animation itself.
    I agree completely about the adaptions you’ve mentioned, and Read or Die and Scrapped Princess are now on my ‘to watch’ list.

    Apart from ones you’ve mentioned, my personal favorites of LN adaptions are from the same author as Katanagatari – the Monogatari series – of which I’ve enjoyed all the adaptions to date. There’s also Fate/Zero, Kara no Kyoukai, Shinsekai Yori (though an actual novel) and SAO. Great post!

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    • I haven’t read all that many light novels either – and the few I have read don’t exactly endear me to the medium. Writing issues aside though, I just prefer longer reads – light novels are generally not in-depth and meaty enough for my taste in books.

      I haven’t seen any of the Monogatari series yet, although that’s been on my to-watch list for some time. I do genuinely like SAO, but that’s a bit of a contentious pick, so I decided not to talk about it here. I didn’t enjoy what I saw of Fate/Zero or Kara no Kyoukai I’m afraid – although the latter sure is pretty, and of course has a gorgeous soundtrack, so I still have a healthy dose of respect for it. And Shin Sekai Yori is indeed excellent, although as you say, adapted from a full novel as opposed to a light novel. Maybe I’ll get around to reading it at some point.

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  4. As we’ve talked about before, Katanagatari is one of my favorite anime of the last few years, but I haven’t been paying enough attention to know that it came from a light novel. You’re absolutely right about how much it relies on dialogue, though when I introduce it to people who I think might have it fit their tastes, I always preface by saying it’s the worst offender ever for villain monologues. I almost quite after the first episode just because of this, but thankfully I stuck with it–it’s one that takes a little time to understand the flow and style of, but once you get it they tend to do greater and greater things with it.

    How would you define the difference between a light novel and normal novel? I believe Saiun Monogatari (which my blog title looks suspiciously close to, now that I think about it) and Seirei no Moribito were also based off of novels, and I was surprised not to see Moribito on your list–maybe because it’s one that easily comes up in other lists? Furthermore, I had always pictured light novels as something you could easily read on your mobile phone screen–easily digestable and usually romantic-fantasy based little tidbits at a time as opposed to pages and pages of heavy dialogue.

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    • It took me a little bit to get into Katanagatari as well – though like you, I’m really glad I stuck with it. I like what it does with some of the stereotypes of the sword-fighting genre, and the visual style really grew on me.

      You’re right about Saiunkoku Monogatari being based on a series of light novels, and it was a serious contender for this list. For article length purposes I was limiting myself to 5 titles though, and so it didn’t quite manage to make the cut. I think the Moribito anime is based on normal novels as opposed to light novels though? But I could be wrong there, I’ll have to check later.

      Light novels are normally considerably shorter than many regular novels – something like novellas, I suppose. They’re illustrated too, which most regular novels aren’t. The vast majority of light novels are targeted primarily towards teenagers and sold fairly cheaply in paperback form (often after being serialised in magazines). So yes – more easily digestible than straight novels and (I assume) much easier to read on phone screens. I sometimes see my kids reading them during breaks in-between classes. 🙂

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      • Because I saw the anime first, that will forever have my heart but the light novels are good.

        I’ve got three volumes and they are in Japanese so I’m translating them. The books run along same lines as the anime although the episodes are rearranged – thankfully, Kino’s backstory is kept until near the end.

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  5. I don’t know very much about light novel adaptations but after reading this post, I’m excited to add a few of these to my backlog. Given the disproportionate representation of fantasy, I wonder if there’s something about the genre that lends itself to a good adaptation? (or a good story even, though this is a pretty vague question). Of course, there are a lot of very bad fantasy light novel adaptations floating around recently so I may be barking up the wrong tree on this…thoughts?

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    • I think there’s just a lot of light novels that also happen to be fantastical in nature. Light novels are primarily targeted towards teens after all, and that demographic has always lended itself to the fantasy genre in particular.

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  6. I’ll answer your question first – Do I think LN-based anime are deserving of their bad name? Yes and no, as usual 😉

    Just like when we call something “a shounen anime” and we often mean “Shounen battler”, rather than any anime aimed at the shounen demographic, these days when we call something “LN trash” we don’t mean that all LNs are trash, we’re talking about the subset of LNs that are hyper-tropy and don’t actually add much to the table and/or the wish-fulfillment (harem, action, often both) sub-variety.

    Let’s say we find out 10% of the LN-based anime are good, and 90% are shit, the genre still deserves to be considered mostly bad, because, well, it is mostly bad.

    And it seems in recent years the focus on the “bad” or “samey” is not only continuing, but growing. Note I’m not talking about LNs here, but “LN-based anime”, just as you yourself did. It’s possible that the LNs are better than their anime adaptations, or vice versa, and it’s also possible a lot of really good LNs just aren’t getting adapted. Perhaps some of them work much better in a book format than in a show format (Kino’s Journey probably falls under that heading, as more episodic stories often do).

    And it’s probably not surprising there’s only one anime here from the past 5 years, whereas most of them are from the start of the 2000s, a wholly different generation of LNs and anime.

    I’ll also make this case, I’ve recently read up to the 5th novel of Spice and Wolf, which covers the first two seasons plus a story that’d been cut. I really liked the anime, but the novels weren’t that good. They weren’t bad, but they just didn’t flow that well, and the story/relationship didn’t feel as good as they did in the anime. Sure, some of it is probably due to the translation (I’ve read the official Yen Press translation), but it’s not all about that. LNs are pretty sophomoric. It wasn’t trash, it was a far cry from trash, in either style or substance, but it was mediocre. And then much of what people complain about isn’t mediocre, it’s flat-out bad, or tired, if you’ve read such stuff for a while.

    Now, about these series. I’ve watched or plan to watch each and every singe one of them, and for the most part liked them. Up to episode 4 in Kino, I like it, but I’m not “wowed” yet, definitely not emotionally. Juuni Kokki’s early episodes are weird. Scrapped Princess is definitely on the list, and the R.O.D. OVA is one of my favourite steampunk “movies”. I really should watch the TV series.

    Yeah, LNs are a genre, and there are plenty of solid ones. LN-based anime as well. And yet, they still earned their reputation, but churning out drivel. That not all is drivel doesn’t mean everything’s good. Just as good books do not excuse bad books, and bad books do not excuse good books. But yeah, the reputation is enhanced recently, when less and less of the adaptations seem to be good stuff, and more and more is shite.

    Of course, some of that is that we are more likely to hear about the good stuff from a decade ago, but when we watch anime as it airs we also come across quite a bit of shite that no one will remember in a decade’s time 😉

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    • I tend to agree that the majority of light novel-based anime aren’t particularly good – even if they’re not ‘trash’, they’re often mediocre at best. I’ve definitely seen people write off all and any anime without watching a single episode of it though, for no other reason than it being based on a light novel series. Regardless of whether light novel-based anime has earned its rather damning reputation or not, it still seems unfair to critisise an anime for its source material alone… particularly if said anime hasn’t even aired yet. And particularly in recent seasons, I’ve seen that happen a lot, hence this article. 🙂

      Incidentally, I thoroughly recommend the ROD TV series since you liked the OVA. I really enjoyed the OVA as well, but in my opinion the series is even better.

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      • Good to know, I’ll definitely watch it!

        Yeah, I don’t really judge an anime based on its source, though anime-originals do excite me more, or if I know the source material finished its run, cause it makes it likelier I’d actually get a complete story… though that’s a different issue.

        And sure, if there’s source material, I care less whether it’s an LN or manga, and would rather ask people familiar with it what they thought of it, which again, isn’t always indicative of the end result.

        I do sometimes discount LN/manga adaptations that appear tropey to me, and sometimes I even mix whether they’re LN or manga based, cause it’s not the part that matters. But I usually keep an open ear and am almost always willing to pick stuff up if people say it’s good, for reasons I appreciate.

        Though I won’t lie, hearing an anime is based on an actual book is going to make me want to check it out more. Most such anime are noticeably better, in my experience.

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  7. As a new blog reader, I enjoyed your posts on Japanese social culture and fashion trends,and look forward to seeing more similar posts in the future! Keep up the good work!ヽ(^。^)丿

    From what I’ve heard, I think the greatest problem with a good number of currently written light novels & their anime adaptations is that they’re usually badly-written, full of otaku-pandering themes and written as author wish fulfillment. I recall a translated interview with Kawahara Reki, Sword Art Online’s author, who admitted he wrote the main character, Kirito, as a idealized, more confident version of himself. It also doesn’t help that publishers and otaku themselves feed this cycle by endorsing and buying said bad fiction.

    That said, I hear some of them have interesting core ideas, making one wonder if it would be possible to make a loose LN adaptation that keeps/enhances the good stuff, and cuts out the bad stuff entirely.
    But, I also hear otaku there tend to be sticklers for fidelity and would strongly oppose such changes. For example, despite the flak Irregular at Magical High gets in the foreign fandom, sources speculate its very good Blurays and DVD sales in Japan are due to strong support from a loyal fanbase rewarding the animators for its faithfulness to the (questionable-writing-quality) source novels. What are your opinions on this?

    Finally, interesting that you mentioned Scrapped Princess, since its author, Sakaki Ichirou, is currently writing another series, Chaika the Coffin Princess (Hitsugi no Chaika).
    I’ve watched the anime’s Season 1, and I can say the overall mystery behind Chaika’s existence and her (unknown) links to a greater behind-the-scenes conspiracy has been the greatest draw for me to the series. The LN series will end in tandem with Season 2 this Autumn season, so there’ll be a proper conclusion for the anime then. If you haven’t seen it yet, I’d highly recommend it!!(^ _ ^)/

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    • Thank you for saying so. 🙂 My next article will in fact be on another facet of Japanese street fashion, so hopefully you’ll enjoy it. I know that the majority of my readers are much more interested in anime than most other forms of Japanese pop culture though, so as a result, my articles on fashion or music get nowhere near as many hits/comments as my anime-centric articles do. Not that this particularly bothers me – as long as I enjoy writing, I intend to put out there whatever strikes my fancy at the time.

      I largely agree with what you pointed out in your second and third paragraph there. A lot of light novel-based anime tend to be bad because a lot of the light novels themselves tend to be bad – poorly-written, chock-full of cliches and stereotypes, and ultimately wish fulfilment in cheap paperback form. (That said, it’s not as though I can say anything better about many of the young adult books coming out in the West, so maybe that’s simply the literary norm these days rather than the exception.)

      I admit, I thought very little of Hitsugi no Chaika (the anime, that is – I haven’t read the light novels). I’ve only seen the first two episodes, so I’m not about to judge the whole series on that, but I could tell right away that the show just wasn’t going to be my thing. Way too moe for my tastes, I’m afraid.

      Oh, and about Valvrave – thanks for your opinion on that. 🙂 I actually already have the music for it despite still not having seen anything at all of the series. I probably won’t be watching it, but I guess you never know.

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  8. PS. Noticed you were making queries on watching Valvrave in some previous posts.
    I watched Seasons 1 and 2, and I can say it’s not bad, but it left a LOT of mystery hooks and plot points hanging at the end.
    In summary, the whole show thrives on soap-opera style plot twists; their producers admitted they wanted to make a totally fun show that didn’t follow normal storytelling conventions.
    You might dislike Valvrave if you cannot tolerate:
    1) Plot twists pulled out of thin air
    2) Most plot and character development being unexpected plot twists
    3) Characters acting over-the-top like in soap-dramas
    4) Characters suddenly behaving out-of-place; to create unexpected developments
    5) Weekly cliffhangers

    That said, positive points include Season 1 and 2’s opening songs, Preserved Roses and Kakumei Dualism, both duets by J-pop stars TM Revolution and Mizuki Nana. Both songs were mainstream mega-hits in Japan, and appeared on the highly-ranked Kohaku Uta Gassen music show.
    It also has excellent character designs, courtesy of manga artist Katsura Hoshino (creator of the D-Gray Man manga). Flashy uniform designs coupled with scifi additions helped create a distinctive look for characters.

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    • I admit that I didn’t think much of Twelve Kingdoms when I first started watching, but it grew on me a lot. If when you first start watching you think to yourself that you hate the main character and that the story’s way too slow-moving, hang in there; there’s some amazing character development later on, and all that world-building really pays off.

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  9. I noticed you didn’t include titles like OreGairu or Monogatari, which, difference in tastes aside, are two titles I will definitely consider adding to mine if I were to make a Top 5 light novel-based anime. Or perhaps you just don’t like them :p

    One thing about light novels is that, most typical light novels very blatantly sell their archetypes, and I assume some of the light novel’s extremely lengthy titles are one of their archetypes marketing technique. This is one reason why I just treat anime like Strike the Blood or Black Bullet seriously, even though both the anime’s supposed to be, well, serious. I definitely know for a fact that they are an exception – one light novel I recently read, All I Need is Kill (no anime adaption sadly, though there’s a film adaption), doesn’t limit itself to traditional archetypes, and I assume some of these anime you mentioned here are the same. Perhaps it’s just the ones I watched which tend to be… >_>

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    • Actually, it’s just that I haven’t yet gotten around to watching either OreGairu or Monogatari yet. I have a feeling that the former probably wouldn’t be to my taste, but the latter is definitely on my (ever-increasing) to-watch list.

      I tend to agree with what you point out in the second part of your comment about light novels blatantly selling their archetypes. I expect that for many people, that’s the whole point/main appeal to begin with.

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