By NISIOISIN and Hikaru Nakamura. Released in Japan by Shueisha. Released in North America by Viz Media. Translated by Nathan A. Collins.
I wasn’t sure what to make of this when I first heard of it, and now that I’ve finished it, I’m still not quite sure. It was written two years ago, and the anime is just coming out now, so it seems like it wasn’t written solely to be a TV tie-in (Nisio has done those before, writing books in the Death Note and xxxHOLIC franchises). But honestly, it doesn’t have the same strong authorial voice that I’ve grown used to from the Monogatari and Zaregoto series – if nothing else, it has far fewer puns. If I’m going to be honest it feels like it’s a book that was written because a bit of cash was needed, and someone said “can you write us a battle royale-style book that we could potentially use later?”. Even Nakamura’s illustrations are a bit disappointing, as they’re basically just character design – if you’ve seen the cover, you’ve seen the illustrations.
That said, this isn’t that bad a book, and it gets better as it goes along. As I mentioned, the plot is essentially a Battle Royale, as 12 fighters of various types and backgrounds, all seemingly connected with the Chinese Zodiac, have been brought together to fight each other to the death, with the last one standing getting anything they wish. At first it seems like the morality discussions we get, both via internal monologue and external dialogue, are merely padding while we wait for the battles, but as the book goes on it becomes clearer that the battles are padding for the morality discussion. This should not be a surprise, given this author – even in this book, which does not feature too many incredibly talkative people, there’s still a lot of discussion about the nature of good and evil, and what it means to be a good person.
The nature of the series means that even talking about what a character says towards the end of the book can be spoiling, given it’s a ‘kill someone off every chapter’ sort of book. I will say that it’s exactly as advertised – the start of the book said 11 of the 12 would end up dead, and sure enough, that’s what happens. This includes the worst of the bad guys and the most sympathetic of the good guys. It does seem to indicate that, while wars are bad, pacifism is not necessarily the best ideal you can strive for – one of the characters, Monkey, reminds me an awful lot of Tsubasa Hanekawa, and that may be intentional. My favorite chapters were towards the end, as two of the better fleshed-out fighters discuss doing the right thing, and it’s the only time in the book you actually want to see more than one person survive – for the most part, these aren’t nice people.
Watchers of the anime will likely get even more out of this series – Nisio gave each fighter a one-page “biography” in the book, but the anime is expanding said biography to give a lot more backstory to everyone. Likewise, there’s a sequel manga running at the moment in Jump, which I believe Viz has also licensed. And they just announced a sequel novel to this book, with (presumably) a new cast. So in the end maybe this was meant to be work-for-hire to create a franchise. Still, it’s not without interest.