Utsuro no Hako to Zero no Maria (or The Empty Box and Zeroth Maria), a novel series by Mikage Eiji has been gaining notoriety among western nerds of Japanese popculture since at least a few years ago thanks to its amateur translation. I’m guessing an official, printed release of it has been heavily requested because just recently its first volume had its proper release thanks to Yen On. Since I maintain a policy of not reading amateur translations of novels, I decided this is a good opportunity to check out what all the fuss is about, since I’d had only a very vague idea of what kind of book HakoMari v1 is. That was a decision I do not regret in the slightest. The blurb might lead you into believing it’s another piece of school action-drama with mysterious transfer students and never-present parents. But, HakoMari is a loop-mono, one trying to differentiate itself from other examples of the subgenre. But that’s not all it is.
The person at the centre of the time loop, the one who retains all memory of all its iterations is not the protagonist, but the female lead, Otonashi Aya. The protag, dull highschooler Hoshino Kazuki becomes another person aware of the loop’s existence at the beginning of the novel, and so begins his grand quest for breaking out of it. Otonashi, thinking that Hoshino is the “protagonist” of the story and the cause of this cosmic mess, declares him her enemy and plots to somehow force him to let her out. Or at least that’s how it all begins. Before they’re free, a long journey awaits the two time travellers. One that involves tens of thousands of spins in the time loop, plenty of dead bodies and a metaphysical entity granting people’s wishes to catastrophic results.
For at least a decade, a specific way of telling a story has been frequently achieving success in works of popculture on both sides of the Pacific. A story relying entirely on the twisting and winding of the plot, the rest be damned. Remember Code Geass R2, with its “end every episode on a cliffhanger, multiple gamechanging reveals an episode” kind of tactics? That’s what I’m talking about. See, HakoMari v1 seems like it pushed this mode of storytelling to its absolute limits. It’s 200 pages long, but incredibly dense and pretty much every next page of it is supposed to blow your mind. The reader is constantly being
attacked by shocking truths meant to wow him and change his perception of what’s going on. The characters not only have to slowly piece together the rules of the game, they also can’t be too certain they got them right. People turn out to not be what they seem to be: allies become enemies and vice versa. The identity of the last boss who has the key to breaking out of the loop changes several times. Throwaway lines about snacks turn out to have great significance to the plot. Supposedly certain knowledge gets degraded into red herrings, while the reader is *sweating* from the overload of information and the need to process it all. HakoMari blurs the line between a “story” and a “puzzle”. It’s insanely convoluted, and the twists are often not very believable, but overall, Mikage Eiji did a fine job at constructing a fairly coherent, well explained and foreshadowed whole.
I think your enjoyment of HakoMari depends entirely on whether you accept this kind of storytelling as valid or not. There are people who don’t. I say it’s just one of many acceptable ways of constructing a novel. I treat this book as an experiment of sorts – whether you acknowledge it or not is all up to you, but I don’t think anyone would refuse to call it entertaining. Give it a go. I loved it.