Boku no Imouto wa Kanji ga Yomeru (My Little Sister can Read Kanji; 僕の妹は漢字が読める) is a light novel first released last year on July 1st. Written by Takashi Kaiji and illustrated by Halki Miramura (pixiv id 6098 – a super early member!), then novel went on to win silver at the 5th HJ Bunko Taisho.
Mentioned several months back by a close friend of mine, I chanced upon the official Taiwanese version of it several weeks back at a Kinokuniya sale, and decided to buy it since my friend had recommended it so vehemently.
The story, as you would expect from a light novel with such a screwed up title (they seem to be all the rage these days), is rather out there. The protagonist is the only son (adopted, too!) of a 23rd century Japanese family. In said 23rd century, all kanji (you know, those hard Chinese characters that always make studying Japanese too hard) has been phased out, replaced entirely with katakana and hiragana. Moe has become the new mass culture, with the epitome of highbrow literature being a book detailing how a little sister wishes to have children with her non-blood-related brother, amid a smorgasbord of bathroom walk-ins and panty flashes galore.
What caught my interest right from the start was how different the book felt from other light novels I’ve read so far. Partly for being set in the 23rd century, but mostly because the author actually seemed to care about the state of literature in the modern Japanese context. There is no doubt that the prevalence of moe culture (or, referring to the global movement as a whole, pop culture) is dealing quite a blow to the world of literature – or, rather, steadily eroding its base, providing otherwise well-read people a quick-fix-fantasy spun on shallow foundations for shallow entertainment. The author’s writing portrayed this, no doubt through the veil of a translation, but I could still feel that emotion coming through.
Or, at least, I thought I could.
The subsequent parts of the story steadily degraded into the same quick-fix-fantasy that I had thought the author had been trying to subvert before. He proceeded to massacre two possible endings, one where the protagonist was forcefully separated from his love interest, and one where they were reunited again, instead choosing to continue the story on a tired path. Instead of ending the story with two climaxes, he proceeded to add a third one – one that the story would have been many times stronger without.
Boku no Imouto wa Kanji ga Yomeru is in no means a bad novel; it far exceeds Oreimo in terms of plot, and I dare say even in terms of writing. The twists in the plot are interesting, and the author even seems to have been onto something at the starting of the novel, raising my hope that this might have been a story that actually means something. Alas, bogged down by one-dimensional characters and a steady loss of focus toward the end, the novel meanders down a darkened path, leaving a shadow of what could have been.
I would still recommend this novel; the illuminating start is fantastic, and even though I lament its problems, it is still one of the better-written light novels I’ve seen, and it’s great if you’re looking for something entertaining to read. It’s just that it could have been so much more.