Novel Reaction: Utsuro no Hako to Zero no Maria

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While on vacations this year, I had the pleasure of reading this amazing light novel called Utsuro no Hako to Zero no Maria, or HakoMari (which is what I’ll be using from now on). I actually was meant to have read it much earlier on, but unfortunately due to my problems with reading fiction without any audio or visual support I only gathered the motivation to start it recently. Now, I most certainly did NOT expect it to become my new favorite work of fiction, nor did I expect it to impress me in so many different ways. But the fact is, it did. I’ll proceed to explain why I find this novel to be amazing, as well as the change in my thoughts regarding the main selling point of the novel, then discussing the main characters a bit and wrapping it up with and an overall impression of the work.

Let’s start with my first impressions. Now HakoMari does one thing really well from the very start: it’s very easy to get hooked to the story. Why? Because it starts off with a really good volume that serves not only as build-up for future volumes, but also manages to be incredibly good as a standalone. Right from the start I thought that it had a lot of potential to be an incredible mystery series, because it managed to thrill me so much in the first 100 pages, in a similar fashion to how Death Note’s first episodes impressed me so much in that same regard. Granted, at that point I thought that HakoMari’s main selling point was its ability to thrill its readers and constantly keep them guessing about what’s happening. While those thoughts perished from volume 3 on (as the main selling point of the novel is completely different), it was what kept me reading the first two volumes, and it’s the reason why I never even thought of dropping it at any point. Yes, it does a great job with building up the events that will happen from volume 3 on, as well as setting up the characters, introducing their personalities and giving a bit of exposition, but what made me not want to put it down at the time was just how much I kept getting impressed with… well, almost with every page. After all, the build-up only paid off later, and I had no way of knowing how important it was at the time. The fact that the boxes had a drawback, since they could only grant a single wish and that wish will almost always be distorted in some way due to humans inherently not being able to believe in magic so easily, added to the depth of the situations, and I liked how it wasn’t so convenient as to grant any wish for free. I love seeing drawbacks in the magic systems of fiction works and I feel like many of them could use some limits, otherwise it will feel like the author can just ass-pull something at any time. The first volume alone was enough to convince me that HakoMari was, in fact, a book I could read despite the lack of anything except for the text (and the few illustrations at the beginning of each volume), and also that, unfortunately, an anime adaptation would easily butcher the source material due to the nature of the story, and the many iterations the characters went through. It’s something that fully utilizes the novel medium’s advantage in comparison with visual mediums, and the author was quite smart to have written it like that. Then the second volume, while definitely a decent addition to the novel, felt more like a side-story, and it’s the first of the two “downs” that this novel has. I found it to be a bit less thrilling than the first one, but having the knowledge I have today of what follows, I can safely say that this volume plays a pivotal role in the main story, despite feeling almost like filler at first. This is because of how it sets up the relationship between Kazu and Maria. How they start to get close to each other, how they perceive each other, how the events inside the Rejecting Classroom affected that relationship, as well as showing that Kazu does depend on Maria a lot.

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All of this knowledge started to pay off immediately when the third volume hit the scene. Unlike the other ones, where the box was explained as the volume went on, in this one the nature of the box, as well as its reason for existing, are explained right away. The reason why I think this makes the most sense is because the Game of Idleness arc is where my thoughts on HakoMari took a sharp turn. Instead of looking at HakoMari as a Death Note type of work, I started to look at it as a character study, so there was no need to keep the entire mystery going, instead just hiding who the true owner of the box was, while giving hints here and there. This arc features several instances that made me change my mind regarding the main selling point of HakoMari, in specific Kazu’s past being revealed, his reasoning for defending the everyday life he keeps preaching about, Kazu realizing how he depends too much on Maria, as well as Maria’s insecurities regarding her relationship with Kazu, as she tries to convince herself that she’s only with him so she can meet O, with Kazu thinking that’s also her goal. This arc is also the first where we see Daiya’s ‘real self’, someone who despises those he calls “thoughtless people” who can only follow others’ opinions and don’t think for themselves. Daiya and Kazu start their confrontation in the Game of Idleness and this battle of wits would only end much later on, so there was a lot of time to explore both characters, as well as their goals, in between. This arc established the change in Kazu that would haunt him until the end of the story, as he finally understood that his wish to protect his everyday life is just a convenient excuse to forget about his first love, whom he had ‘betrayed’. Once he fully realized that, he also understood that he wanted to be with Maria, and that he would do anything to achieve that goal, including going against Maria’s own wish if it came to that. So not only was the Game of Idleness arc extremely interesting to read through, it’s where Kazu and Maria, as well as their relationship, truly start to shine.

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Now, I remember giving a truly high score to the Game of Idleness arc, and even now I don’t regret it, but if only I knew that the best was still to come… that’s when the Shadow of Sin and Punishment arc started. This arc MADE the novel the amazing work that it is. This is where it suddenly takes a sharp turn and starts exploring themes that you’d see in a work like Death Note, except that here the characters are being developed at the same time. It’s a brilliant example of a work that can take plot and characters and deal with both in a stunning way that will leave few indifferent. The antagonist in this arc is none other than Daiya, who finally used his own box to get rid of the “thoughtless people”. Daiya’s ideology might seem like the usual ‘edgy teenager syndrome’ at first, until you start to piece things together about his mentality, the reasoning behind that mentality existing in the first place, and the reason why he chooses to act in the way he does. I’ll go much more in depth about this in a later paragraph. This is also where the side characters became incredibly relevant, specifically Haruaki and Kokone, and that’s another great point about HakoMari: not a single character can be described with a one-liner regardless of how irrelevant they might seem at first glance. The main theme being discussed involves criminals, and the people who don’t think about their actions, preferring instead to remain ignorant. Are these people really worth saving? Should they live in this world despite the obvious problem that their existence raises? Shouldn’t we be better off if we got rid of them, or at least made society shun all of these people by creating a phenomenon that transforms people into a sub-human species without intelligence and making people fear transforming into these if they commit crimes? Wouldn’t the world be a better place that way, much more gentle and just if that happened? This is where the main confrontation between Kazu’s ideology and those who follow Daiya, specifically Iroha, starts, as Kazu thinks that even though those people are scum, killing them is not right, whereas Daiya and his subordinates think that the world is better off without them. Kazu’s discussion with Iroha regarding this matter made me realize just how great these two points are explained, as they’re actually exposed in a way that even if you have a clear opinion on the matter, it WILL make you reconsider everything, due to listening to arguments from both sides. It didn’t change my opinion that the criminal scum should be killed, but it made me think about the other side’s arguments as well, which is something that Death Note could have done much better. The build-up for the confrontation between Daiya and Kazu that started in Volume 3 finally pays off REALLY well once they finally meet each other inside the cinema. It’s extremely thrilling to finally see those two face-to-face after all that happened since the start of this arc, considering how it was all about the battle of wits between them, and who could stay one step ahead of their opponent. With really interesting themes being explored in a neat way, the characters’ mentalities, relationships and backgrounds fully explored and a thrilling conclusion, the Shadow of Sin and Punishment is the best arc of the novel, and it’s what made me consider HakoMari as my #1 fictional work.

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Finally, every story needs a conclusion to its main plot, and HakoMari is no exception. The final volume is where the second and final “down” of the novel happens, as 200 pages were spent on showing Kazu’s resolve transformed into pure insanity in order to be with Maria, which by that point was a need that needed to be fulfilled as much as hunger or thirst for a normal person. Now I liked the content a lot, I thought that it was a very good way of making them reunite with each other, showing Maria finally realize the truth about her sister, as well as both Kazu and Maria realizing how important they truly are to each other. But I do think that it should have been done in WAY less pages and it would still have the same effect, as a lot of time was spent on showing Kazu killing himself or others in different ways. It could have been half the length easily and still worked out as well, or maybe even better. Fortunately that feeling only lasted for half of its duration, as the second half of the final volume per se (excluding the epilogue) with Maria as the ‘main character’ was much, much better. The author essentially promised that Maria would have to get rid of the Flawed Bliss by herself, and that’s exactly what happened, I’m glad that Kazu didn’t just destroy it against Maria’s will, but that his tireless efforts resulted in Maria changing her views on her own life, as well as on her sister, which led her to finally get rid of that accursed box that was binding her to a wish that wasn’t even her own, and thus Kazu’s wish to save the zeroth (original) Maria, the one before she knew about the boxes, was finally realized, at great cost though. Finally the epilogue happens, and THAT’S the main reason why the seventh volume was so good. It was written so that it shows what happens to EVERY single character without exception, and it was written in a way where it presents Maria’s announcement of marrying with Kazu, even though he’s completely broken, as well as her apologizing for everything that happened. This announcement of her, plus her words to each character in particular, was what saved many of the characters from breaking at the end, specifically Haruaki, who had lost all of his friends to the events of the previous arc, as well as Kokone, who began having suicidal thoughts due to thinking that Daiya would not wake up. The epilogue shows all the characters finally obtaining their peace of mind after everything they went through, and looking towards a bright future, all while showing Kazu’s process of recovery from his pitiful state that he was left in after facing the Flawed Bliss. It was a masterful epilogue that is very hard to put into words, as someone who was as invested into the work and its characters as I was, can fully appreciate seeing the characters finally in a peaceful environment, instead of constantly being thrown into despair, finding their own happiness. And that finally takes us to the main message of HakoMari. Now, granted it’s subject to interpretation, like everything, but to me, that message is: “Live for your own happiness, not for someone else’s. Living for a happiness that isn’t your own is fake and undesirable”. This was especially shown with Maria and Daiya’s characters, and their mentalities of putting the world above them, not caring about their happiness of even about their own lives. But at the very end, both of them finally embraced their own happiness. Maria taking care of Kazu for her own happiness, and not for his, and Daiya being with Kokone, not with the mentality of “I’d do everything for her sake, even killing myself” but with the mentality of simply loving her. And with that message, the work finally ended, and one of the biggest voids I’ve gone through started.

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Now that I hopefully made clear why I think so highly about the work itself, I want to go a bit in depth about three characters in particular, the characters that made the novel so much better, and that most readers probably got invested into.

Starting off with the protagonist Kazuki, he starts off as this generic protagonist who just wants to keep his everyday life safe, reaching the conclusion that to do that, he needs to destroy the boxes that threat that everyday life with their supernatural, unpredictable powers. At first that’s all there is to it, until he eventually realizes that what truly matters to him… is none other than Maria. It’s then that the big change in Kazu occurs, when he starts to view Maria not as just someone he loves, but as someone he needs. His feelings towards her are clearly abnormal, and the author had no qualms in explaining that either, since she became a necessity to him just like food is to a regular living being. At first all that Kazu showed was resolve, saying the generic “I will kill everyone if it allows me to be with you, even sacrifice my own humanity” lines over and over again… until you realize that he’s DEAD serious. Indeed, from the sixth volume on, he acts on those words. He is willing to go insane and sacrifice his friends’ relationships if it means rescuing Maria, and he even admits that when he asks for their help. I remember him saying that he would always put Maria first before the rest of them quite directly, which shows just how true his resolve was. Heck, he even went as far as to crush Maria’s own wish due to knowing it was a fake from the start, so he was essentially opposing the person he wanted to rescue in the first place. The change in Kazu is very noticeable and the best thing about it is that you get to see every step of the day, due to it being really gradual. At the end of the day he lost his sanity, ability to speak and even think, but his goal was fulfilled and the zeroth Maria saved. Fortunately for him, his feelings reached Maria who dedicated the following years of her life to help Kazu regain his humanity, which gradually happened, and by the end he’s at least able to form enough words to tell Maria that they’re getting married, as well as seeming to have recovered most of his ability to form rational thoughts. Kazu’s relationship with Maria, as well as his abnormal ‘obsession’ for her is, in my opinion, the best aspect that the novel has to offer, as well as its main selling point. It’s what the author spent pages and pages developing from the very start, and the culmination of that build-up was splendid. What I also like about that relationship is that the author didn’t try to sell the idea that the kind of obsession that Kazu had for Maria was normal, or even desirable, but actually he clearly stated that it was undesirable because living for the sake of another means denying your own happiness, something most of the characters in HakoMari were doing to some extent. Kazu put himself through a ton of suffering, especially in the final volume, where you gradually see what’s left of his sanity fade away. He did admit in the previous volume that he maybe was already insane, and considering the methods he used to defeat Daiya, one can most definitely agree with that statement. His amazing tenacity was what made him such a great character, and he complemented Maria really well, making him one of those really good protagonists in fiction that you don’t run into that often.

Next up is Daiya, who you can call the antagonist of the fifth and sixth volumes, though his confrontations with Kazuki started before of those. Right from the bat I saw a lot of potential on his character because of how he comes off as someone who is too much of a realist and is not afraid to speak his mind even if he gets looked at with bad eyes. In the second volume his relationship with Kokone is heavily foreshadowed when the fake Kazuki confesses to Kokone, which results in Daiya beating him up. When the Game of Idleness arc starts, he reveals he’s an owner, and calls Kazuki someone who can only destroy other people’s wishes, even if he himself, at the time, wasn’t aware of just how true that statement was. He also sees Kazuki as someone who looks at situations as if he were a higher being, which is why he says he seems to be ‘floating’. Daiya regards him as an enemy that would threaten his ultimate goal and has no qualms with making that clear either. He ends up revealing his desire to get rid of the ‘thoughtless people’ who he considers to be scum not deserving of their lives, and used the knowledge he got from Kamiuchi’s box to make a wish that would allow him to master the box even if he is a realist, which makes use of asking for a means to accomplish the wish instead of just wishing directly for it to happen. Daiya eventually shows just how much he’s willing to sacrifice for this goal when he kills Kamiuchi, an event that actually represents his biggest sin, and that would haunt him for the rest of the novel. For the sake of his ideal, he messed up many people’s lives by torturing them with their sins and making them submit to him, constantly suffering as he has to experience the pain of his target’s sins before being able to control them, and we get to see first-hand just how this pain affected him, both physically and psychologically. However, much to my surprise, Daiya was NOT defined by this ideal, by this hatred for what’s probably the majority of people. Instead, even that distorted ideal… was created all for the sake of his loved one, Kokone. And that’s what separates Daiya from the likes of Light. The human elements that Daiya possesses, and define him much better than his ideal. It’s through the events of his past that he developed what could be called almost a hatred towards the world, for what Kokone went through, and how it messed their perfect relationship, as Kokone became a shell of her former self, “completely broken” like Haruaki described, and Daiya even started using piercings, which he despises, almost as a way to mutilate his body, as he keeps mentioning he needs to “open more holes in his body”, suggesting he is torturing himself for what he thinks he was unable to do: saving Kokone. His self-hatred goes as far as him saying that he doesn’t mind if he dies hated by everyone and considered to be scum, as long as someone exists that can carry on his wish. However Daiya had to deny all of his feelings for Kokone and the rest of his past, he had to deny that Kokone was always at the core of his wish and ideal, because otherwise he would not have been able to resist the sins that he absorbed, he’d have been eaten alive by them, so he chose to blind himself, almost as if it was a self-defense mechanism, and threw Kokone to the back of his mind. However that self-deception ended when Kazuki brought both Kokone and Haruaki, the two people who represent his accursed past, and he was forced to sit through not only several of the most tragic and painful scenes from his past, but also through Haruaki and Kokone’s speeches that appealed to his emotions, and since we got to see what was on his mind all the way, thanks to the amazing use of monologues, we could see just how much they were affecting him. After all, Daiya’s real happiness lies with them, not with making the world a better place. After it was all done with and Daiya confronted his true feelings, he felt the need to atone for his sins, which led him to being stabbed and put in a comma that lasted a lot of time. Interestingly, the fact that he was in a comma was what made him and Kokone to regain what they had lost: their ability to be together. At the end we see that he managed to wake up and plans on regaining his normal life, this time being together with Kokone, which is an amazing way of wrapping up his character. Some can say that he deserved to die for all of what he did, but I strongly disagree because his motives weren’t selfish, nor do I consider them to be necessarily wrong. It was all for Kokone’s sake, even if he acknowledged that his relationship with her was already a lost case, he didn’t want what happened to her to happen to other people, hence the drive that managed to take him so far. I could spend hours writing about Daiya because he’s such an interesting and compelling character to read about, and he’s definitely my new favorite fictional character. I tend to love characters I can write entire essays about and never run out of things to mention, and Daiya definitely falls in that category. He’s my dream character come true: a character with an ideology similar to Light Yagami but with a background, tons of development, human elements and true emotional relationships.

Finally we have Maria. Now Maria is introduced as a generic light novel main heroine: she has a mysterious aura surrounding her, she’s quite anti-social, and she’s not what she appears to be at first glance. But the thought that she’s just a generic heroine is destroyed as soon as her relationship with Kazuki starts getting interesting, and a lot of her personality, flaws and ideals are revealed. Maria is similar to Daiya in that she also wants to give up her happiness for other people’s happiness, and she does not even consider herself to be a human anymore, instead referring to her as a box, showing her lack of love for herself. It’s obvious that she loves Kazu from very early on but she will do anything in her power to deny it, instead choosing to rationalize the whole situation by claiming she’s only with Kazu so that she is able to find O, which Kazu also seems to agree with at first, until the change in him that I mentioned before happens. Maria despises killing and considers it to be the ultimate evil, arguing that when someone kills, whatever their reason is, they are in the wrong. She goes as far as cursing herself for letting Kazu die on purpose, without any sort of interference by her part, when she thought that he was the owner for being in despair about not being able to leave the Rejecting Classroom. That’s what leads her to cut her ties with Kazu at the end of the fifth volume, when he attempts to kill Iroha after she threaten to have Maria raped, only to reveal it was Daiya’s plan all along to show Kazu’s treason to Maria. It was really convenient for Maria that it happened like that, since her fake wish of granting wishes, which one could call her Aya Otonashi personality, could be accomplished if Kazu wasn’t there with her, so she ‘gladly’ ended her relationship with him using that as an excuse in order to focus on her wish, once again rationalizing the whole thing.What’s so good about Maria is that everything she is in the present, it’s all well explained in her background, which the author dedicates quite a bit of time to. In reality Maria had a sister called… Aya Otonashi, someone who was as human as her but that she felt the need to deify due to not being able to accept her loss. She mistook Aya’s desire to prove that she deserved to be born for god-like powers, and Aya’s desire to see Maria also prove that she’s more than what her family makes her out to be, as they consider her to have accomplished her goal already just because she was born. Due to thinking that Aya set everything up so that Maria would become her after her death, she embraced this fake desire of granting people’s wishes and abandoned her original self, the zeroth Maria. It was, once again, a convenient way of denying the reality that Aya had died a normal death. That way she can claim Aya lives through her, and that, as she says, “she’s just using her body now”. Eventually after Kazuki’s struggles inside the Flawed Bliss and confronting her own feelings for Aya, Maria realizes that her true wish has nothing to do with other people, but with herself: she just wants to be with Kazuki. It took her a long time but she finally acknowledged that, and embraced her zeroth self after promising to keep smiling when she’s happy, crying when she’s sad, and overall living for her own happiness, which she does. One could claim her choice to take care of a broken Kazuki was for his sake, but that’s not true at all, Maria did it for her own happiness this time, and that’s the change in her character that I wanted to see. Her relationship with Kazuki was so strong that she believed without a doubt that he’d regain his sanity eventually, and her strong belief was a source of inspiration for Kokone, who had lost all hope of Daiya ever waking up from his comma. Maria is an inspirational character, and an example of a character that distorted her own memories of the past in order to deny the reality that the sister she loved so much was gone, and at the end she got what she truly wanted, along with Kazuki: for them to be together.

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Overall, HakoMari is a thrilling, thought-provoking and very well written story. It manages to handle the consistency in quality of the story, never failing to surprise its readers with a new revelation, while at the same time give all the characters their time to shine. It’s very rare to see a work of fiction that manages to do both at the same time, and they usually sacrifice one for the other, but HakoMari doesn’t. Usually when I read or watch a fiction work I am left wondering what the author was thinking when writing it, and fortunately with this one, thanks to the notes the author left at the end of each volume, we always knew what was going on his mind when writing it, and he never failed to come off as a really cheerful guy in those notes. It’s something that adds to the overall experience, and it’s those little details that separate amazing works from masterpieces, and HakoMari sure has a lot of those. It does have its downs, like I mentioned before, those parts of the story that aren’t consistent with the amazing ups that it managed to achieve, but nevertheless my immersion was never broken at all by those, nor do I find them to be bad enough to deduct points from my final score, which is a clear 10/10. Whether it’s how it manages to keep you at the edge of your seat, how it presents the flaws of its character, how it explores their relationships, or how it develops its themes, I think anyone can find something to love about this work, as it’s very easy to pick up and read as long as you like stories that focus more on the characters than on anything else. And it’s sad to see that despite it being very appreciated in the West, from what its MAL score suggests anyway, it seems to be really obscure in Japan. While that’s good, since that way we will never get an anime that would most likely butcher the work, I find it sad that people prefer certain works with no depth to these kinds of character studies, which I appreciate way more, since I can write long-ass essays about them any day and not feel tired or run out of stuff to talk about. I think that the chance of me re-reading some, if not all of the volumes of HakoMari in the future is very high, as it does seem to have a high re-readability value since you might always realize something you didn’t before. In the end, I am very glad that I gave this work a shot; otherwise I’d have missed out big time.

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Thanks for reading!

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