On Kyakuhonka no Serifu

The cover.

One way you can tell whether an anime watcher is only a casual dabbler or a stupefyingly engaged turbonerd is: the number of names he associates with a given project. Your usual moviegoer, if he bothers to remember any names of the people involved in the works he watches, will be able to tell you who the director is, and who played the lead role. The faces of the movie. Maybe he can recognize some other actors, but… He probably won’t know the name of that one person who contributes a lot to the film’s success, but usually remains unseen and unrecognized. The screenwriter. It seems to me that as time passes and the anime business grows, interest in commonly neglected creators involved in anime production is on the rise. And that includes scenario writers. How many of them do you know?

Somewhere around March, I learned from Twitter that Gagaga Bunko, everybody’s favorite LN label specialized in books at the boundary between pop-lit and high literature is putting out a light novel centered around this noble profession – Kyakuhonka no Serifu by Masumoto Takuya, a screenwriter. The news piqued my curiosity enough for me to buy the book. A shame that I’m writing about it this late, though. If you consider that recently every season has its one (?) trademark production disaster, discussed and mocked to death on the internet, it seems there was no better moment for this novel to come out. The book has inevitably gathered the attention of Japanese news blogs – but, more on that later. Who is Mr Masumoto? He has quite some experience with writing scenarios for live action TV series, but has done some anime as well. He’s written Kemono Friends 2 – the sequel to a surprise hit, veiled in shitstormy clouds to this day, and several episodes of Zombie Land Saga. Also, turns out the book this blogpost will be about wasn’t his debut in print – he’s written a short series called “Midas Touch“. Anyway, let’s see what serifu this kyakuhonka has to say.

Takeda Kumota, a grumpy and unlikeable nerd had started his career with a bang. Together with his late childhood friend Chikao, a strict mentor figure and a director, he created an award-winning anime screenplay. However, at least if you believe the internet, his later works are, quoting, “shit”. Of course, Takeda has an excuse for every failure – he mentions his screenplay had once been changed without his approval only because animators couldn’t be bothered to draw stuff. I wonder if things like that actually happen. And now, his agent pressures Takeda to undertake a new project. As a B-class artist, he can’t really say no. His next job will be a big one, but the writer can’t help but have a bad feeling about it. He’ll be in charge of the script for an animated movie – a sequel to a successful murder mystery-themed TV anime, Maerchen Tantei no Jikenroku.

Takeda’s unease proves to be justified: the first meeting devoted to the script becomes dominated by other staffers, a rather unpleasant bunch. The original novel’s author refuses to participate (or so we’re told), so his editor comes to represent him – she’s an “original novel fundamentalist” who won’t tolerate any compromises. Then there’s the producer representing the film distribution company – a carefree, confident idiot whose only contribution is adding his stupid ideas to the script. The others have to waste time convincing him he’s a moron (or they actually agree with him). And, last but not least – Tsujibone, an old acquaintance. A wannabe gangster and a gigantic asshole – the producer from the animation company’s side. He reaches out to Takeda and then not only behaves like he’s reluctantly doing him a favor by letting him work on MaerTan the Movie, he also seems to actively work against the sake of his own project for petty reasons. And since Takeda is such a glum nerd, he just sits there and has all kinds of demands pushed onto him. He’ll now have to write a first draft in an inhumanly short time…

See the cutie on the novel’s cover? The one who looks like Yashajin Ai? That’s Kadomatsu Sae, Chikao’s little sister who visits Takeda and says she won’t leave until he “returns her brother’s money”. She’s been following the career of Chikao’s former partner and now she decides that what Kumota’s done with her bro’s legacy was disastrous and she needs to intervene. She’ll be living in Takeda’s room now, being tsundere and keeping an eye on the young writer. She’s a smart girl who proves able to see through the adults’ bullshit. For most of the novel, Takeda’s life looks like this: he attends a meeting where he gets burdened with some reckless demands and then gets told it’s his damn job to figure out how to satisfy his employers. He’s a sad mess for a while, but then, with a little help from his friends, he manages to think outside the box and finds an astonishing solution to his seemingly impossible problem. Full of himself, he writes a script. Then he attends another meeting, where… he’s told to change up a bunch of stuff for dubious reasons and gets a new list of orders which will force him to bend backwards for his bosses. By accompanying her brother’s protege, Sae, eager to stand in line with smug nerds from the internet in calling Takeda’s works “shitty”, will slowly realize that being a scenario writer is a tough, mentally exhausting job. The deeper into the story, the less remorse the production commitee will have in treating their writer like the go-to pushover, there to be tormented. They all have an excuse – they’re doing it for the sake of their job, after all. Tsujibone makes sure to use this excuse to the fullest to make his writer’s life miserable. At a point, even Sae asks Takeda if he’s not being bullied (and then joins the bullies for a while).

The story goes through this cycle several times, making me think this novel isn’t particularly interesting. And then chapter twelve happens and the twist ending drops. A particularly cruel one – Takeda, who’s finished writing and is sure of his creations’s future success, gets told he is being pushed off the project. He fell for Tsujibone’s trap who told him to add a porny hot spring scene to the story. Turns out this villain of a producer has wanted to steal the script off of Takeda this way from the very beginning. It’s a shocking twist, but one that was properly foreshadowed and is theoretically predictable if you think about it for a minute. Thankfully, justice prevails in the end: “deus ex machina” is mentioned as a storytelling device several times in the story, so Sae manages to bring onto the scene a “god” who will force this story to have a happy ending. And in the context of anime production, “god” means “gensakusha“. The author of the novels. The Big Bad is defeated. The gensakuchuu, who allied herself with Tsujibone, gets humiliated for thinking she knows better than the original author. And as for the protagonist – he will get paid and be credited. Because in this 21st century, this much is considered a grand victory worthy of serving as an ending to a novel.

As the promotional materials for the novel say, Kyakuhonka no Serifu is “ほぼフィクションです。ほぼ。”. Which seems like the polar opposite of what all those matome blogs were trying to shelve Kyakuhonka no Serifu as. People expected the writer responsible for Kemono Friends 2 to write an autobiographical story exposing the hidden darkness of that specific project and the profession that is screenwriting in general. And, their expectations were betrayed. That’s one of the reasons why this novel is getting bad reviews. It’s a wet firework. Not half spicy enough. The question of “what was it written for?” naturally comes to mind, and the answer I can come up with now that I’m done with the book is an unlikely one. It’s mildly entertaining, doesn’t teach you anything specific and is only a bit scandalous – the real reason why it was written down is: to get you to know what it’s like to be a screenwriter, and maybe interest you in pursuing the trade. If the internet is an indication, people could use some empathy for artists working in the showbiz. And, they could use some empathy, period.

Kyakuhonka no Serifu is only mildly interesting. I couldn’t force myself to care too much about what was happening, frankly. I wasn’t following the events of the fictional story inside the story – MaerTan too closely, so I can’t really say if it made sense. All I get is that it’s a murder mystery. The novel does read very fast and easy. Each chapter goes by super fast – it feels like even if you’re not used to reading, you’ll get through more than one chapter a day. Then again, maybe it reads *too* easy. I dunno, I’m used to novels that try to give the reader a harder time getting through them. Meh. Whether you read it or not, it won’t make a big difference.

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