What Happens When a Light Novel Protagonist is Popular? A Translated Interview with Hiromu
When the 2021 “Kono Light Novel ga Sugoi!” awards went live this past November, there was one series that stuck out to me as particularly surprising: Chitose-kun wa Ramune Bin no Naka (ChiRamune). It was only 19th place in the 2020 awards, and the name was strange enough that I didn’t think much of it when I walked past the display case in the book store. However, the series appears to be riding a wave of support from light novel enthusiasts in Japan right now, with many comparing it to rom-com stalwarts My Youth Romantic Comedy Is Wrong, As I Expected and Bottom-tier Character Tomozaki. To celebrate ChiRamune’s success, author Hiromu sat down for an extensive interview with “Kono Light Novel ga Sugoi!” to talk about his thoughts about the series. This article contains the first part of that interview, translated into English for the first time. For part two, click the link below:
The Origins of a Popular Protagonist: “I wanted to write a series about being young.”
Interviewer: How did you feel when you found out that your series had won 1st place in the bunkobon category of the “Kono Light Novel ga Sugoi! 2021” ranking list?
Hiromu: I was honestly really happy. Last year, only the first volume of the series was published in time to be considered for the ranking, and that got 19th place. This year, the second and third volumes were also up for consideration. I don’t think I won by simply sneakily upending everyone’s expectations with a “popular kid” protagonist. I feel that the story I truly wanted to write from the second volume onwards, or in other words, my personal take on the high school romantic comedy genre, resonated strongly with my readers. I personally consider the first volume as a sort of episode zero for the series.
Interviewer: A lot of people are praising this series as the “new era” of light novels thanks to its popular kid protagonist. How did you come up with the concept for the story?
Hiromu: First off, I didn’t really consider having a popular kid protagonist as being revolutionary or catchy. I didn’t envision Saku Chitose as a new style of protagonist at all. In all honesty, when the newcomer’s award judges described my work as having a “refreshing setting,” I didn’t really get it. I had intended to write the series as a straightforward, middle-of-the-road take on the high school rom-com genre. All I wanted was to write a story that would leave readers thinking, “Wow, they’re really living out their youth.”
Interviewer: He’s not really much of a rebellious protagonist, is he?
Hiromu: When you have a protagonist who is a loner or otaku-type of guy, you have to go out of your way to create a reason for them to meet the story’s heroines. Maybe he gets involved with a weird club, or the characters all get sucked into some sort of supernatural phenomenon, or perhaps they find out that they all share the same unusual hobby. But I thought that kind of scenario would result in a story different from the type of rom-com that I wanted to write. Also, when you have that kind of protagonist, it takes some time to get the story to have actual romantic development. I thought that would be pretty dull (laughs).
Interviewer: In other words, the process of getting to the actual romantic relationship ends up becoming the main story.
Hiromu: In my mind, the goal was to skip over the prologue and main route of a dating sim and get straight to the individual character routes (laughs). I thought that if the protagonist started out as a popular, attractive guy surrounded by pretty girls, I wouldn’t need to create any ridiculous scenario and we could jump straight to the romantic relationship part. Making the protagonist one of the popular kids seemed like the natural choice for this type of story. Thus, Saku was born.
In order to build a light novel-style flow and set up the protagonist properly, I spend the first volume setting up a contrast between the popular and loner characters. I thought that the first thing I had to do was get the readers to accept Saku Chitose. In contrast to the introductory volume, the terms “popular kid” and “loner” don’t even really come up much at all from the second volume onwards.
Interviewer: What ideas and beliefs form the base of the protagonist, Saku Chitose?
Hiromu: It’s very simple. I’m a big fan of cool protagonists, particularly characters like Lupin the Third and Ryo Saeba. They’re both funny guys who mess around a lot, but when they want, they can switch gears instantly and be really cool. Those are the kind of protagonists that I like. Also, although this might be a bit old-fashioned of me, I really like guys who have a sort of hard-boiled aesthetic. It probably doesn’t fit the current era, but I think manly men are cool. The basic model for Saku Chitose is a combination of these traits.
Interviewer: Up until now, light novel protagonists tended to be very conscious of what was normal or ordinary, which helped make them easy for readers to sympathize with. But Saku is a different kind of hero, isn’t he?
Hiromu: Within the high school romantic comedy genre of light novels, there are already several series that have sympathetic characters, such as My Youth Romantic Comedy Is Wrong, As I Expected and Bottom-tier Character Tomozaki. I didn’t feel that it was necessary for me to write something similar. Having a protagonist that readers can sympathize with is important, but there are also protagonists that aim to be more aspirational. Since a young age, I’ve found many aspirational figures that I look up to, from characters in books and movies to real-life musicians. They’re the kind of people that made me go, “I want to become a cool guy like him.” And so I thought that surely light novel protagonists like that could be well-received, too.
Interviewer: So your goal for the protagonist is for him to be “aspirational.” He’s also surrounded by several beautiful girls, right? Could you tell me more about their appeal, as well?
Hiromu: Tell you about the characters’ appeal, huh? To be honest, I’m not particularly good at this… First, there’s Yuko. She’s the kind of person that is very upfront and can get along with anyone. She treats everyone equally and even tries to reach a mutual understanding with Kenta. Yua… all I can really say about her for now is that she is very open-minded. I’m not sure that this is an appropriate expression in this day and age, but she’s sort of an old-fashioned ideal Japanese woman. She’s the kind of girl who takes a step back from the action so that she can watch and protect everyone else. I wrote about Haru in the fourth volume, but she is very straightforward and passionate girl. She’s not just a jock who insists on using brute force of will to overcome all obstacles. She truly believes in her friends. Yuzuki is super se… I mean, she is the character most similar to Saku (laughs). She’s very much aware of her own attractiveness and is actually very cool and calculating. Asuka (“Asu-nee”) is a bit difficult. From the outside, she’s Saku’s ideal image of an upperclassman. She loves reading and listening to old J-Pop and seems a bit detached from the outside world. However, I think that you will find that initial impression changes if you read volume three.
Interviewer: Much like Saku, all the heroine characters have their own cool points, huh.
Hiromu: That’s because I love cool heroines! I don’t write heroines that just need to be rescued; I prefer female characters who actively fight their own battles, as well.
Interviewer: All the characters in the series feel very multi-faceted. None of them really fit into a basic archetype.
Hiromu: I honestly haven’t really thought about that at all. Like I said before, I’m really bad about talking about the appealing points of my characters, but even more importantly, I don’t really see them as characters I created. They’re more like independent humans living out their own lives freely in my mind. After all, there aren’t any people in real life who are actually archetypal characters. It would be a bit frightening if every time you met someone they used the same expressions and acted the exact same as before (laughs). Humans compartmentalize and react differently depending on the time, situation, and person they are talking to, and even minor things can affect them greatly. I think that if characters act like actual humans, they naturally become multi-faceted. I, the author, am just following in their footsteps. When a problem presents itself, they decide how to deal with it and I just watch. I don’t feel like I am controlling or guiding them.
Interviewer: The characters move on their own.
Hiromu: Because of this, I’m not deliberately setting up any foreshadowing. Rather, I’m not doing anything at all and only notice the hints at the same time as the readers themselves (laughs). There are times where I am working on the series and I will write a line that makes no sense, even to me. And then just like in real life when your relationship with someone changes and you get to know them better, I’ll later realize, “Ah ha, so that’s why you said that back then.”
Moreover, my priority as a writer is to sincerely convey my characters’ stories as I witness them. I absorb their struggles, sorrows, and joys and assemble them delicately into the written word in hopes of those emotions reaching my readers. ChiRamune has comparatively more descriptions of scenery than other light novels. I am very particular in my usage of scenic depictions and metaphor. I turn characters’ emotions into literary expressions that make use of metaphor and the surrounding environs when they cannot be conveyed simply by dialogue. Because of this, I would greatly appreciate it if readers don’t simply take the conversation between characters at face value but also pay attention to the meaning conveyed in these other expressions.
Depicting the Bright Side of Youth through a Realistic High School Hero
Interviewer: Your teenage fans seem particularly passionate about this series. The developments and club activities that comprise the themes for each volume are all things that people at that age are certain to encounter, aren’t they?
Hiromu: I thought to myself that if I am going to write a completely standard high school romantic comedy, I should definitely stick to a simple approach. I wanted to write about events that any high schooler would experience without using any drastic organizational tricks. Their problems are very common, but to Saku and his friends, they are major issues. As an author and an adult looking at things objectively, I find the characters’ behavior to be very immature and illogical. They are trying too hard to keep up appearances. But youth is all about being both passionate and also embarrassingly lame. Perhaps one of the things I really want to convey in this series is that it is actually cool to live life enthusiastically.
Interviewer: I think that the straightforwardness and immaturity of the high schoolers in your story is the appealing point that resonates so heavily with your readers.
Hiromu: If Oregairu says, “Youth is a lie,” ChiRamune’s goal is to illustrate the brilliance of youth (laughs). I want to convey the bright side of youth and romance in this series.
Interviewer: My understanding is that the homeroom teacher Mr. Kura (“Kura-sen”) provides the adult perspective in the book. What was your goal when writing this character?
Hiromu: I really just like cool old guys (laughs). All adults have at some point experienced being young themselves. But over time, they grow older and become able to make their own judgements about what is right and wrong. Kura-sen is a bit bitter, but none of what the adults say in the story is necessarily wrong, per se. What I want readers to understand is that what is the past for adults is still the present for teenagers. It’s their entire world. I want people to appreciate that these young people are facing these challenges with their best efforts. I’m specifically thinking of a conflict in the third volume here. In that situation, the adults aren’t completely wrong, but their arguments aren’t completely refuted, either. However, I think that it is ultimately up to the kids to decide whether to push forward with what they want, regardless of (adult) opposition.
Interviewer: I feel that particularly in the third and fourth volumes the conflict between dreams and ideals, the challenge of reaching for the top of the top in club activities, and those sorts of realistic issues take center stage in the story. Are these connected to your own personal experiences?
Hiromu: I’m consciously making an effort to write more and more about realistic concerns that young people frequently face as the series progresses. Even Saku, who starts out in the beginning as a “popular kid hero,” is just another high school student. As the story advances, he becomes more and more a character that feels within reach for many readers. I definitely think that I put my own experiences into Saku and his friends’ story. The whole “don’t give up on your dream” idea without a doubt comes from my own experience of not giving up on my dream and becoming a writer. But there’s also a part of me that wishes I had lived out my youth as intensely as Saku. I think I’m entrusting my own ideal, my “this is how I wish I was,” to him as well. I hope that these feelings reach my readers through Saku Chitose and inspire them to bring about change in their own lives. I’m always really happy when I receive fan letters that tell me that ChiRamune inspired them to take action.
Interviewer: That makes sense given that Saku’s efforts affect the people and events that take place around him. [ChiRamune] feels like a story that has the power to inspire readers to take action in their own lives.
Hiromu: I’ve seen this trend even on social media. It’s like that saying, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” where someone messes something up and everyone uses that as an opportunity to take out their own stress on that person. I wrote about this a bit in my story, as well. For example, people who give even a little bit of extra effort are teased for being “overly anxious about appearances” and whatnot. I want to encourage my young readers in particular to choose a different path and instead take steps to help others and make life easier for everyone.
Interviewer: The fourth volume was particularly emotionally moving for me. Your depictions of preemptively preparing oneself for failure and searching for reasons not to do something really hit home.
Hiromu: I think that’s a weakness that just about everyone has within them. I know that not everyone can become like Saku Chitose and Haru Aomi. On the other hand, with the right attitude or occasion, it might be possible to become like them. And I’m not talking about outward appearance, I’m specifically referring to their way of life. Whether you give up from the very beginning without even trying or run frantically towards new challenges, much like with Kenta in the first volume, I think it’s entirely up to you.
Interviewer: You wrote about after school club activities in the fourth volume, and the entire book focused on sports. I know that you didn’t initially plan to write about Saku’s history with the baseball club, but at the same time I feel like this volume was where it really became clear what you wanted to talk about in this series.
Hiromu: The fourth volume is very simply about “natural ability versus effort.” Successful people work hard and put in long hours of intense training behind the scenes, so I think that theme is pretty universal. No one can really say for certain whether Saku and Haru’s abilities come from long term effort or their innate talent. However, regardless of how much natural ability they have, people who face struggles head-on and make every effort in their own lives are really cool. I think I was able to clearly illustrate this idea in the fourth volume through the lens of club activities.
Interviewer: Light novel series tend to avoid the sports genre, but I feel that as long as it is used as a single arc within a larger story, it can work well in a love comedy series.
Hiromu: Yeah, because the sports aren’t the actual main focus. I also think that it succeeded in my case because ChiRamune works well with such a story arc. Protagonists with trauma connected to sports are kind of rare in light novels, right? But in reality, a lot of people have those negative experiences. I think there are a lot of people who say something along the lines of, “I played sports in elementary/middle school, but not anymore.” This makes school sports a surprisingly universal subject. I was able to write a 400-page light novel all about a popular kid protagonist playing sports, and I was like, “Wow, you can write about anything in light novels! This is awesome.” (laughs)
This is the first part of a three-part series about the up-and-coming light novel series Chitose-kun wa Ramune Bin no Naka. Stay tuned for the rest of the interview and my thoughts on the first volume in parts two and three!
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