Mii Mimura is a Japanese SFF/light novel critic. The term she uses for secondary world fantasy is 異世界 [isekai], which seems to have taken on somewhat different connotations in the contemporary web/light novel scene (“portal fantasy” would probably be the closer approximation when it comes to current web novel trends, but the literal translation is just “other world”).
Also, I have never seen a particularly good definition for “light novels” in English, especially now that they arguably have a heavier association with the anime/manga subcultures than with their original genre roots, as this essay describes, but I think they’re probably best thought of as the Japanese/East Asian equivalent to the pulp fiction tradition, which more or less died out in English-language publishing but continues going strong elsewhere.
As always, this translation is subject to tweaking.
In August 1986, the first volume of The Heroic Legend of Arslan was published as a part of Kadokawa Bunko’s “Fantasy Fair” project for showcasing new releases. This latest work of Yoshiki Tanaka, whose Legend of the Galactic Heroes had catapulted him to bestsellerdom at the time, was not the prelude to another space opera, but, incredibly, a secondary world fantasy staged in a fictional Persia.
Up until then, it was of course not unusual to see the word “fantasy” used in various contexts by publications or games, but at the time, these had yet to reach much further beyond a limited segment of readers. For example, even that inaugural Kadokawa Fantasy Fair barely included anything that could be classified under the fantasy genre. It was into these conditions that the distinctive flair of Tanaka’s The Heroic Legend of Arslan was unleashed, with wide-ranging significance.
Within the field of fantasy, those set especially in secondary worlds had until then been introduced to readers only through translations of two categories, juvenile literature and science fiction. However, in juvenile literature, though there was access to high quality works such as those of George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, or J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, domestically, aside from fantastic fairy tales aimed at young children, works describing exotic other worlds did not really exist but for a mere handful like Toshiko Kanzawa‘s The Land of Silver Flames [銀のほのおの国, Gin no Honoo no Kuni] (1972).
Science fiction publishing, on the other hand, as if inspired by the flourishing of writers like Michael Moorcock and Andre Norton as well as the launch of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy imprint in the 1960s, responded with the 1971 release of Aritsune Toyota‘s Yamato Takeru [ヤマトタケル] series, based on Japanese mythology; and Kouji Tanaka‘s Ash Saga [アッシュ・サーガ, heroic fantasy + space opera hybrid] began serializing from the very first issue of the magazine Kisou Tengai (Kisou Tengai-sha, 1976-1981 [T/N: initially launched 1974 under a different publisher]), alongside Michio Tsuzuki‘s The Legend of the Scattered [翔び去りしものの伝説, Tobisarishi Mono no Densetsu; title loosely translated]. Then, in the late 70s, from America came whispers of a so-called “fantasy glut” [T/N: literally “fantasy contamination”, does anyone know if was there an actual phrase like this in US fandom?] and the beginnings of a fierce fantasy boom; at around the same time, Haruka Takachiho‘s Beautiful Beast [美獣, Bijuu] series received its first printing in the January 1979 issue of Hayakawa’s S-F Magazine, followed by Kaoru Kurimoto‘s Guin Saga series in the May issue. Translation-wise, Hayakawa FT Bunko [T/N: Hayakawa Shobo’s foreign fantasy imprint] was also first established that year.
Guin Saga‘s appearance on the scene completely altered the course of secondary world fantasy. Right from the start it was established as a massive epic, but the grandeur of the cast, the complex web of political intrigue, the humanistic generational drama, and the burden of destiny borne by Guin all played critical roles in overcoming the genre barrier of SF to attain a broader appeal.
And so, in the early 80s, from the ripples of Guin Saga arose a steady stream of fantasies like Fumio Tanaka‘s Demon World [大魔界, Dai Makai] series (1981-1989) and Hideyuki Kikuchi‘s Vampire Hunter D (1983-present), soon becoming hugely influential in their own right.
However, these works were probably still not widespread among the general readership beyond the college student populace.
Teenagers’ interest in secondary world fantasy was initially piqued by gamebooks. The Warlock of Firetop Mountain by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, released towards the end of 1984 [in Japan], became a bestseller in the blink of an eye. Aided in part by their cheap costs, text adventure games, where anyone could choose their own destiny via the toss of a die and journey through strange new worlds, were considered the very heart of fantasy gaming before the Famicom became an essential household item.
It was into this well-primed environment for fantasy that The Heroic Legend of Arslan made its gallant entrance. Here was a fantastic world of swords and sorcery, with a youthful protagonist facing his destiny head on, featuring plenty of physically attractive characters, both male and female. And yet they were not perfect superheroes, they were terrible at art, they had a weakness for women: they possessed a very human charm. A cast of utterly relatable heroes had arrived on the scene, challenging an exotic world in the readers’ place. The Heroic Legend of Arslan was surely the story everyone had been eagerly waiting for.
Now, when The Heroic Legend of Arslan was published in 1986, Dragon Quest had just been released on the Famicom as well (though at this time, the popularity of “DraQue” was still relatively subdued; it would not be until the release of DraQue III in early 1988 before it became such a cultural phenomenon that people were taking days off from school and work just to get their hands on DraQue). And so, at this point in time, the circumstances around fantasy publishing had also drastically changed. From that first Kadokawa “Fantasy Fair” where Arslan was issued, a number of Fairs were held repeatedly until the launch of the Sneaker Bunko imprint in 1988. In 1987, Weis and Hickman’s Dragonlance series was launched under the [now defunct] Fujimi Dragon Novels label; around the same time, tabletop RPGs rapidly began to permeate the scene. In the midst of all this, coinciding more or less with Sneaker Bunko came the start of a rush of new imprints and publications, prime among them Dragon Magazine, Fantasia Bunko, and Tairiku‘s Novels and Neo Fantasy lines; fantasy authors like Ryo Mizuno, Reiko Hikawa [Efera & Jiliora, Gude Crest], and Tamako Maeda [破妖の剣/Hayou no Tsurugi/The Demonsbane Sword] debuted one after another. This was the rise of a grand domestic Japanese fantasy boom.
However, to date, Tanaka’s brand of secondary world fantasy remained somehow different from all these works, whether it was the heroic fantasies, or the Tolkienesque fantasies, or the subsequent RPG-influenced fantasies initiated by Ryo Mizuno.
At first glance, it seemed like a bildungsroman starring Arslan, a young hero trifled with by fate; however, from the outset, as in his previous Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Tanaka envisioned a vast drama illustrating the many lives of those embroiled in a tumultuous age. Positing a world in which time flows at a pace far slower than that of our present or future, it was as if he had, just like in Bulfinch’s Mythology: The Age of Chivalry, dreamed up the adventures of heroes otherwise consigned to the margins of history books.
Tanaka’s works often come hand in hand with aspects of historical fiction. His is a drama of history in the making, of the people caught up in its backlash. That approach is somewhat different from other secondary world fantasies, where the main focus is to expound upon the world itself.
Advancing the story through the perspectives of people living in a different, fantastic time and place, while smoothly interspersing the narrative with annals recorded by future generations; painting a spectacular picture of the wonders and horrors of a different culture and an atmospheric past running rampant with monsters and demons, while at the same time keeping things reasonable enough for a more modern, skeptical sensibility. Perhaps “fictitious history” really is the most apt description for this.
After this, Tanaka continued to pen works eschewing the magical fantasy element altogether, such as The Chronicles of Mavar [マヴァール年代記, Mavaaru Nendaiki] (1988-1989), based on medieval Hungary; Zephyrosia Saga [西風の戦記 <ゼピュロシア・サーガ>] (1988), a fictitious history modeled on the Byzantine Empire; and The Tale of Apfelland [アップフェルラント物語, Apfelland Monogatari] (1993), an adventure story set in a fictional early 20th century European kingdom much like the Ruritania of Anthony Hope‘s The Prisoner of Zenda.
However, among all these series by Yoshiki Tanaka, one suspects the reason The Heroic Legend of Arslan has and continues to receive such overwhelming support is due to the brilliance of his technique in incorporating, according to his discretion, both the magic and mystery of a fantasy setting alongside elements of historical fiction.
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