Any dedicated fan of Japanese pop culture knows that every medium does not get equal representation internationally: Most anime get official English-language releases, a good portion of video games do, a less proportionate handful of manga, and relatively few tokusatsu make it over in a legitimately-translated capacity. Tokusatsu isn’t the worst-represented format stateside (that would probably be audio dramas, for obvious reasons), but it’s probably along a similar level of niche as another popular-in-Japan-yet-underrated-abroad format: the light novel.
The general set of characteristics comprising “light” novels revolve around making them easily digestible: these narrative books (often collections of chapters previously serialized in magazines) are generally of a prosaic reading level, are split into volumes of roughly 200 pages, and frequently feature illustrations, distinguishing them from loftier forms of literature in the same way that YA and pulp fiction do in English taxonomy (note: light novels are also a separate term from “visual novels”, which I see used interchangeably far too often). Due to selective exposure in the west, light novels have become a bit of a joke amongst modern-day English-speaking critics, but I assure you they’re not all bad; many of them don’t even involve a teenage protagonist getting stuck in an MMORPG, believe it or not!
Of course, the features that distinguish tokusatsu as a medium, such as monster suits, pyrotechnics, and miniatures, don’t exist on the written page, but conversely the story elements that they’re meant to convey can be presented in prose without budgetary limitations, as ambitiously as the author’s imagination permits. Look no further than the science fiction section of your local bookstore or library: blockbuster special effects films like Star Wars generate hundreds of spin-off novels, while books like Planet of the Apes, Conan the Barbarian, Harry Potter, and Jurassic Park got turned into Hollywood spectacle once the effects technology permitted.
While in said hypothetical SF literature section, you may have noticed an interesting trend: There’s a lot of pseudo-Japanese stuff coming out lately. Sure, there was a push for Godzilla novels by Random House in the mid 1990s (including a novel series by Mark Cerasini and YA series by Scott Ciencin, both illustrated by Bob Eggleton in true light novel fashion), but since the release of Pacific Rim (whose novelization won a Scribe award for best screenplay adaptation, might I add), the market for “kaiju thrillers” has exploded (Jeremy Robinson’s Project Nemesis series leads the pack), and the novelization of the 2014 Godzilla was a New York Times bestseller. There are also a handful of English-language-original yokai adventures (such as Richard Parks’ Yamada Monogatari series), and American-produced ninja content is so pervasive that it’s been lampooned by the Japanese Ninja Slayer novels by “Bradley Bond” and “Philip ‘Ninj@’ Morzez” (Yu Honda and Leika Sugi). There’s clearly a market for this stuff, so my question is then “why aren’t we seeing more authentic Japanese prose about Japanese genres?” Well, it turns out there actually are a fair number of English-translated works for tokusatsu fans to read if they choose to seek them out:
- All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, the basis for the Hollywood scifi film Edge of Tomorrow
- Another by Yukito Ayatsuji, adapted into the 2011 horror movie and anime
- Attack on Titan novels: Before the Fall and Kuklo Unbound by Ryo Suzukaze, The Harsh Mistress of the City by Ryo Kawakami, and Lost Girls by Hiroshi Seko, all of which are tying into Hajime Isayama’s original post-apocalyptic kaiju manga more than to Shinji Higuchi’s films and miniseries.
- Blood: The Last Vampire by Mamoru Oshii isn’t quite as action-packed as the American/Korean live-action adaptation is, but has its own pretentiously artsy appeal.
- Death Note: L Change the WorLd is a novelization of Hideo Nagata’s film, but since that movie was dreadful, I’d suggest checking out Nisioisin’s prequel Death Note: The Los Angeles BB Murder Cases instead.
- The Fiend with 20 Faces by Ranpo Edogawa, introduces Japan’s first supervillain, inspiration for K-20 and more.
- Japan Sinks by Sakyo Komatsu, basis for the 1973 and 2006 disaster films and 1975 TV series. Komatsu’s Virus was also made into a disaster film.
- Ju-On by Kei Ohishi, a novelization which blends the various Ju-On and Grudge installments into a single narrative
- The Kouga Ninja Scrolls by Futaro Yamada, basis for Shinobi: Heart Under Blade
- MM9 by Hiroshi Yamamoto (more on that in a bit)
- Parasite Eve by Hideaki Sena, on which Masayuki Ochiai’s 1997 movie was based (also inspiring the more popular video game franchise)
- Ring, Spiral, Loop, and Birthday by Koji Suzuki, basis for the juggernaut horror film franchise. Unfortunately S, which was the source material for the most effects-heavy entry (Sadako 3D), remains elusive in translation. Suzuki fans should also check out Dark Water, which has a couple film adapations as well.
- Ten Nights’ Dreams by Natsume Soseki, basis for the 2006 film Ten Nights of Dreams
- The Wicked City series by Hideyuki Kikuchi, which served as inspiration for a 1993 Hong Kong action/horror movie (3 of 6 novels translated)
- Wolfcrest by Kazumasa Hirai, basis for the 1973 Toho film, though the two volumes that got English editions are really out of print (I’m still hunting ‘em myself!)
The obvious reasons for why we haven’t seen a flood of such releases (say, on par with the publication rate for manga) are licensing and translation costs (skilled translators for text-based media are far more essential than for visual media like manga or film), but to some extent it’s also a lack of demand. Naturally, people won’t demand something that they’re not aware of, and thus we get to the point of this article: making you aware.
What follows is an overview of some Japanese-language, mostly-light novels with a significant tokusatsu connection that I personally think sound neat and ought to get some sort of English release. Keep in mind, though, it’s a subjective wishlist scrapped together largely from second-or-third-hand accounts, and by no means comprehensive. So, if I’m recommending something you’ve actually read, please leave a comment about how it was, good or bad. Also leave a comment if you think that I really should have included something I didn’t, and you’re mad that I dared to snub the Space Sheriff Gavan or Ultraseven X novels, for example.
Without further ado, let’s talk about books:
- The original novellas on which Toho’s tokusatsu were based
It’s common knowledge that the kaiju genre hit the big scene with the movie Godzilla on November 3, 1954, but less common knowledge that Godzilla himself predates this film in publication. You see, after Tomoyuki Tanaka had the idea to rip off The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms make a monster movie, Toho hired the hot novelist Shigeru Kayama to write up a treatment. This was in turn developed into the script for the movie and radio play versions, and after the radio play finished airing in September, Kayama’s Monster Godzilla novel was released in either October or November of 1954 (I’ve seen conflicting accounts of whether or not it actually beat the movie to publication). Toho employed this strategy a lot, so a savvy fan can score themselves the original novel versions of Godzilla and Anguirus (the basis for Godzilla Raids Again by Kayama), Half Human (Kayama again), Birth of Rodan (Ken Kuronuma), Matango (Masami Fukushima), Giant Monster Mothra (Makoto Yoshida) and its earlier version The Luminous Fairies and Mothra (Shinichiro Nakamura, Takehiko Fukunaga, and Yoshie Hotta), Godzilla vs. Biollante (Shinichiro Kobayashi), and more. These generally get reprinted as multiple-stories-per-volume collections, and while the content may not necessarily seem that original (being roughly the same as the movies and all), as a Godzilla completionist I’m obliged to mention begin this list with them.
- The later MM9 novels by Hiroshi Yamamoto
MM9 (Monster Magnitude 9) is quite possibly the single best kaiju novel ever to be made available in English, courtesy of Viz’s Haikasoru imprint. Despite this, it seems that the novel’s flown under the radar, since neither the sequel novels, MM9 Invasion and MM9 Destruction, nor Yamamoto’s MM9-related anthology Twilight Tales have been picked up for an English language release yet. I could go on about the first novel for a while (and have in a few places), so I’m really keen on finding out more about the later exploits of the Monsterological Measures Department team of kaiju meteorologists. The first novel also served as the inspiration for a 2010 TV series of the same with effects by Shinji Higuchi. It also has not been translated.
This anthology series, with volumes released in 2013 and 2014, features short stories and essays from the likes of Hideyuki Kikuchi, Shinji Higuchi, Hiroshi Yamamoto, Chiaki J. Konaka, Shiro Sano, Baku Yumemakura, and Sion Sono. The second volume has a more noteworthy pedigree of creators involved, but the first has more illustrations, so either one should delight the literary kaiju fan. As a side note, I’ve got to wonder if Shiroh Kuro’s story “Kaiju Jigoku” had any influence on IDW’s comic miniseries Godzilla in Hell.
- The as-of-yet-untitled Ultra Kaiju Personification Project novel
Now, this is sort of unfair, seeing as how the prose form of this marketing phenomenon was only announced at WonderFest on February 7, 2016, but with Monster Musume being a bestselling manga stateside and countless other monster-girl books on the shelves (e.g. Rosario Vampire, A Centaur’s Life, Nurse Hitomi’s Monster Infirmary, My Monster Secret, 12 Beast, Princess Resurrection, Franken Fran, etc), I’ve got to wonder if there would be a decently-sized market for moé girls of the Tsuburaya persuasion. The line does have a couple manga, figurines, hug pillows, keychains, shirts, and more in Japan, so I guess it’s going strong over there. Your best bet is likely to pester Crunchyroll into picking up the anime version when it starts this fall, though.
- Back to Tatara Island: An Ultra Kaiju Anthology
This anthology is a collection of stories featuring Tsuburaya’s monsters that originally ran in SF Magazine. The title story of the compilation is by Hiroshi Yamamoto, and fans should recognize it as a callback to the “Monster Lawless Zone” episode of Ultraman. Other stories range from Ultra Q to Ultraseven/Ultraman Max to Ultraman Ginga S, by authors Yusaku Kitano (Ashita wa Kitto), Yasumi Kobayashi (Gangu Shurisha), Shinzou Mitsuda (Peeping Eye), Shingo Fujisaki, Hirofumi Tanaka (Death Water), and Denpoh Torishima. Not super familiar with these authors because of the general dearth of Japanese novel translations, but it looks like most are award-winners in the genre.
- Daimajin Adventure by Hirofumi Tanaka
Fans of kaiju and Cthulhu mythos could do well to check out the Lairs of the Hidden Gods anthology series that Kurodahan Press has been releasing in English. One volume, Straight to Darkness, starts with an essay comparing Toho’s and Lovecraft’s monster canons, has a story about scientists creating a monstrous anti-Cthulhu weapon, and also includes a fictionalized telling (written by actor Shiro Sano) of the making of Chiaki Konaka’s Shadow over Innsmouth movie. The standout short story in the volume, however, is Hirofumi Tanaka’s “The Secret Memoir of the Missionary”, a historical horror piece dealing with Francis Xavier, under the influence of an ancient seagoing giant deity, spreading “Christianity” across Japan, brainwashing, assimilating, and cannibalizing the populace and officials, before being chased away by the Yagyū clan.
Tanaka expressed interest in expanding the story into a full novel, and a decade later he did in an unexpected way: he tied it in with Daimajin. As if the prospect of the iconic Japanese guardian god battling Lovecraftian invaders weren’t enticing enough, the novel also includes several historical characters familiar to readers of Futaro Yamada’s Makai Tensho: Jubei Yagyū, Musashi Miyamoto, and Shirō Amakusa. Not only does it make sense for them to be front-&-center of a religious (cult) conflict, but it also makes my inner Samurai Shodown fan positively giddy.
- Gamera vs Phoenix by Nisan Takahashi
When Gamera was brought back in 1995, it could have gone quite differently. Takahashi, author of the original Showa Gamera screenplays, wrote a treatment for a proposed ninth feature film for the titanic turtle, this time with him squaring off against a giant phoenix. Obviously, Daiei went in a different direction, but Takahashi, under the rationale that he was the rightful owner of the Gamera IP, went ahead and published the story as a novel. As I’ve previously stated, I don’t have a lot of details on plot specifics, but as a fan of Showa Gamera the prospect of an entirely original adventure out there is not something to be missed.
There’s also a list here of 67 more Japanese kaiju novels. I really can’t speak much about most of these (save Shigeru Kayama’s Godzilla stuff, obviously), but it looks like Junichi Tomonari’s books have the most intriguing cover art.
- Chôjin Sentai Jetman by Toshiki Inoue
This novelization of the 15th Super Sentai season is a three-volume retelling written by original creator Inoue and gorgeously illustrated by director/designer Keita Amemiya. This version, completely unrestricted by TV standards and practices (which were already rather lax for Jetman by modern criteria), is notorious for mature content (at least three sex scenes!). Thankfully there is a fan translation of the first book available, but beyond that access is limited.
- Heisei Kamen Rider novels
Did you know that Inoue also wrote novels for Kamen Rider Ryuki and Kamen Rider 555? Every Rider of the Heisei era has had a novel, generally from one of the head writers of their respective shows. They may be side-stories, retellings, sequels, but considering the popularity of the franchise, clamor for these in English ought to be a no-brainer. (Click here for Henshin Justice’s summary of the Kamen Rider Decade novel!)
- Kamen Rider by Masaaki Wachi
If Masked Rider the First didn’t suit your fancy but you still crave a modern spin on the original karate grasshopper, consider this 2002 novelization. It’s a very different take by nature of jettisoning elements of the TV series (sorry, Hayato), but I totally dig the idea of a more monstrous Hongo, something about which feels fundamentally Ishinomori. It generally sounds awesome, and also makes me wonder about Wachi’s Gatchaman novelization that came out with that series’ tokusatsu movie, though I don’t know if an anime writing track record of Burst Angel, GI Joe Sigma 6, and Garo: Crimson Moon is much to write home about.
- Masked Rider Eve: Masked Rider Gaia by Masato Hayase
A sequel to the Kamen Rider manga planned by Shotaro Ishinomori himself, this return to Showa-era aesthetics ought to appeal to the same base as Kamen Rider Spirits, only in this case it’s relatively self-contained at two volumes.
Along similar lines is the photobook Kikaider 00, which tells some of Ishinomori’s planned-but-scrapped machinations for Kikaider, also written by Hayase but accompanied by shots of his SIC sculpts rather than traditional illustration. Normally I’d say this wouldn’t have a shot for an English release, but if there’s a single tokusatsu franchise that unexpectedly thrives in America, it’s Kikaider.
Speaking of which….
- Android Kikaider: The Novel by Keisuke Matsuoka
Simply put, Americans (mostly Hawaiians) love the red & blue guy, which is why we’ve seen the same story as a manga, a TV tokusatsu, a TV anime, another manga, and a tokusatsu movie all get official US releases (not to mention Skull Man and Mechanical Violator Hakaider!). I mean, at this point, we might as well complete the set, right? Author Matsuoka hasn’t had any work directly published in English, but the movie The Hypnotist that ADV put out back in the day was based on one of his novels, and he generally seems to do good work.
- The Spirits of Tsuburaya Production World: Another Genesis by Junichiroh Ashigi
Published in Dengeki Hobby magazine, Another Genesis is sort of a kindred soul with Evangelion Anima; both are lavishly-illustrated and offer very different takes on their respective series. The story follows Blast, a human soldier with a shard of the Land of Light embedded within his body, roaming space and gradually becoming more Ultra-like, all while encountering various Tsuburaya heroes. The novel still hasn’t been collected even in Japan, so tracking down all of the individual chapters can be quite a drag, but with the recent push for Ultraman internationally one can certainly hope to see this show up elsewhere. I mean, just look at these paintings!
- Ultraman Dual by Koji Mishima
This is another recent Ultraman novel, and like Another Genesis it was illustrated by Masayuki Goto (Daikaiju Rush, Dark Soldier D). This one shows the Earth in an oddly neutral position in a conflict between the UItras and Vendalister aliens (hey, I guess you want to make a good impression if you might get conquered), which is stretched thin when an Ultra saint/holy woman crash lands outside Tokyo. As some humans side with the Ultra against the wishes of the government (whose official stance is that she too is an alien invader), the being from M78 actually annexes a chunk of planet Earth, sort of proving their point. With humans renouncing their national citizenships to go pledge allegiance to the Land of the Light enclave, this sounds like an interesting geopolitical take on the Ultraman mythos.
- Ultraman F by Yasumi Kobayashi
Another work illustrated by Masayuki Goto, this one is penned by Yasumi Kobayashi, best known in western kaiju lit circles for “C-City”, a short revolving around a mecha-Cthulhu. Like Shimoguchi and Shimizu’s 2011 manga, Ultraman F revolves around the SSSP in a post-episode 39 world, and details the fallout and arms races resulting from Ultraman leaving Earth. Also like that manga, there’s the development of Ultraman-ish armor and elements taken from subsequent Ultra series, but it also does its own thing, including the titular giant heroine.
- Akio Jissoji’s Ultra novels
Akio Jissoji is the director responsible for some of the most formative episodes of Ultraman and Ultraseven; his experimental, surreal sequences became iconic moments that elevated the franchise in the popular consciousness. In 1993 (the year Ultraman takes place, according to Jissoji’s episode “The Earth is My Home”), before returning to the franchise for guest direction on Ultraman Tiga, Dyna, and Max, he wrote two novels, one for each of the OG Ultramen. Details on Ultraman: Gold Rush Strategy and Ultraseven: The Targeted Planet are sparse, but they seem like they were well-received (as one would expect from the master), and they do tie in a little to some of the later Showa Ultra shows. The biggest complaint I’ve heard is that each is labeled “Vol. 1” yet there were never any later ones.
- Ultraman Sisters by Yuji Kobayashi
Somewhere between the feminist desire for a female primary Ultra host and the chauvinist desire for moé stories about older brothers taking care of their kid sisters is this compromise: the younger sister is an Ultra host. Not sure what to make of this, but I’m always up for a different spin on the Ultraman franchise, and this still seems more on-point than the Ultra Kaiju Personification Project. Kobayashi is a versatile writer, having done everything from Smile Pretty Cure (“Glitter Force” for you Netflix folks) to the first season of Garo, speaking of which….
- The Garo novels by Yuji Kobayashi
As we’ve mentioned before when discussing the franchise, Garo’s got an amazing sense of continuity, and earns its nerd cred every time the TV series references back to an event that happened in a different season, movie, pachinko game, etc. Naturally this extends to the written page as well, as the original series composer has written two novels: the anthology Dark Makai Knight Saga (Ankoku Makai Kishi Hen) and Mystic Red Trap (Yohseki no Wana); the latter one introduces the Sabak tournament and Yaiba, the notorious transsexual Makai Knight. Both books also include illustrations by series creator Keita Amemiya.
There’s currently a fan translation of Roar of Steel (Hagane no Hokou), the novella in which Raiga Saejima is first introduced, and the same blog was also working through the two novels proper, but it’d still be awesome to see a professional English version. Of course, even the tokusatsu hasn’t gotten that yet…
- Cutie Honey Boys by Michiru Suwayama
Go Nagai’s original magical girl was conceived as a spin on Toho’s tokusatsu hero Rainbowman, reimagining the hero as a heroine. Thus, it’s only fitting that Honey herself would eventually be gender-flipped, and that’s exactly what happened in Suwayama’s 2004 novel interpretation. Much like Devilman Lady is a particularly sexually-charged version of Devilman, Cutie Honey Boys cranks up the eroticism of the already pretty lewd Cutie Honey, so if you’re only familiar with Cutie Honey the Live or the Hideaki Anno tokusatsu movie, prepare to be scandalized. However, if you’re a long-term fan of the franchise, or just appreciate the idea of a yaoi take to balance with Honey’s traditional female objectification, this may be worth checking out. (Insert snarky comment about Cutie Honey Tears here.)
Kaidan and Yokai
- Matango: The Final Counterattack by Tatsuya Yoshimura
One of Ishiro Honda’s strongest films and alleged inspiration for both The Last of Us and Gilligan’s Island, the 1963 film Matango was based off of the short story A Voice in the Night by William Hope Hodgson. Because of this, it’s only fitting that it return to prose format eventually, and there was a Toho-licensed sequel novel written in 2008. I’m sort of shocked that there hasn’t been more fuss made about it in the fandom, but for one I’m quite keen for more adventures of the island of mutated people and the most delicious mushrooms.
- Sakuya Yokaiden: Legend of the Wandering Dutch Ship by Kimiaki Mitsumasu
Tomoo Haraguchi’s 2000 film about the teenage Slayer of Demons only covered the events of the first Sakuya novel. It sounds as though the second one throws a little more European influence into the yokai samurai story, and I’m curious to see how the characters continue from the last one.
- Gakkou no Kaidan by Tohru Tsunemitsu
Not to be confused with Takaaki Kaima’s light novel series (which has the same title with different kanji because the Japanese love puns), Gakkou no Kaidan or “School of Ghosts” is a long-running light novel series (24 books so far) with lots and lots of live-action adaptations. In America the franchise is probably known best for the segments “Katasumi” (In a Corner) and “4444444444” in Gakkou no Kaidan G, which were later remade as Ju-On, and eventually The Grudge, or the anime adaptation that ADV gave a punched-up parody dub (under the title Ghost Stories), however the core of the series remains unavailable in either its light novel or tokusatsu movie incarnations. Granted, these are largely horror books targeted at elementary-school children, but speaking as a member of the Goosebumps generation, kids eat that stuff up.
- Teito Monogatari by Hiroshi Aramata
The book series that popularized Japanese urban fantasy, Teito Monogatari brought thousand-year-old onmyou magic into a modern context and inspired countless later titles from Onmyouji to Tokyo Babylon to Street Fighter II, and big name artists like Shigeru Mizuki and Yoshitaka Amano have done cover art. It’s a multi-generational epic, spanning several emperors’ reigns, weaving together historical events and real people with mythology and the books’ own narrative, so a deluxe version with proper annotations would be quite welcome. (There have been off-and-on fan efforts to translate them, but they’ve largely been squashed.) The tokusatsu connection is most obviously the multiple movie adaptations (Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis (from director Akio Jissoji), Tokyo: The Last War (Takashige Ichise), Tokyo Dragon (Hiroshi Kataoka), Teito Monogatari Gaiden (Izo Hashimoto)), but also that the series’ antagonist appeared as the big bad in 2006’s Takashi Miike flick The Great Yokai War.
Thus concludes this tokusatsu-adjacent Japanese novel wish-list; if you think one of these titles is intriguing, I implore you: let the publishers know. If Viz, Dark Horse, Yen Press, Vertical, and like hear enough demand, they’re much more likely to look at tokusatsu-related material when selecting their next literary project to localize.
One of my most common theses is that people should really branch out more and explore other facets of their favorite stories; never glibly dismiss something just because it’s a fifth sequel film or TV spinoff or OVA (the exception, of course, being pachinko. All pachinko is terrible.), and naturally this extends to the written word. Sometimes a literary expanded universe can be as good as its source material or better, and frequently a novel will exceed a film based upon it. So, at the risk of sounding like a condescending schmuck: Go read a book!