--This review is intended for those who plan to read the novel therefore, it is free of spoilers--
"Kazuki Hoshino. I’m here to break you. This is my 13,118th 'School Transfer'. Even I can't help but get annoyed after so many. So for a change, I'll proclaim war." Those are the words that Aya Otonashi proclaims to our dumbfounded protagonist in the start of the series, and surely, this line not only perplexes the characters in the story, but us as well.
The simple setting of a 13,118th school transfer is enough to pique your interest as this is something that is obviously uncommon. Fortunately, the first sections of the novel hints of an intricate plot in contrast to the introduction that usually leaves a first impression of a clichéd rom-com act(It turns out to be anything but). The plot would gradually unravel the underlying dark theme that is behind something that is seemingly bright.
Hakomari’s narrative starts by introducing our protagonist Kazuki Hoshino, a rather typical student with an anomalous attachment to his ‘everyday life’. Our protagonist is in the belief that there is no difficulty that cannot be solved by the continuity of everyday life. A belief he later finds to be challenged by no other than the transfer student of phenomenal beauty, Aya Otonashi, who with every school transfer throws the class of 1-6 into confusion and chaos through her stunning looks and resolute personality, and her introductions and statements that unerringly leave the class flabbergasted.
The manner in which the first volume is narrated is somewhat unique. It tells the context of the plot by gradually unravelling the events in the story through an experimental anachronistic manner. (This experimental manner of telling the story would be one of the best aspects to be found not only in this volume, but the others as well, but is most eminent in this volume) It is this manner of narration that I would describe as the glue of the entire novel. The author would always follow a constant perfect pace in character and plot exposition, unveiling his well-thought and complex plot that infallibly leaves the reader impressed.
Plot-wise, the story is narrated in a way that resembles a detective novel and is somewhat reminiscent of Death Note. This is no other than due to the fact that the novel is partly mystery. It sets the pace of the novel by pre-emptively unveiling a mystery that drags the reader to its pace and leaves the reader glued to figuring out the happenings. What’s amazing is, Hakomari is not a detective novel yet it surprisingly does it better than most detective novels and would even rival the acclaimed Death Note in terms of complexity. It has become somewhat of a detective novel because the reader would constantly engage his mind in thinking, constantly trying to figure out the reasons of the events, constantly analyzing the statements and dialogues of each character while evaluating if they hold water, only to find their conjectures more or less wrong as the author unravels his grand scheme. This only serves as a testament that the plot is well-thought and effective because the deception is reflected not only on the characters, but also on the readers – you cannot help but get fooled into thinking what the characters were thinking.
One might even call this novel a quasi-detective novel if not for its disparate focus.
With regards to the supernatural aspect of the novel, the narrative first reveals of the existence of supernatural wish-granting machines called ‘boxes’. These boxes are what sets our novel into perpetual motion. It introduces boxes as something that grants our wishes to the extent and limited by how much we believe in the wish, in other words, a 'box' grants wishes exactly as the person pictures it, that means whatever doubts you have in mind would also be brought to fruition. The idea of a box granting a wish distorted by one’s own beliefs is already enough to catch one’s interest, what’s more interesting though is the possibilities that come along with it that become more or less the core of each volume. In other words what gives this series its spice is not the idea of a flawed wishing machine, but the realization that such a premise has the potential to achieve unique and entertaining plot lines. These said boxes are the complete antithesis of our protagonist’s ideal ‘everyday life’ for which he would constantly seek help in order to neutralize and return to a semblance of his everyday life, even to the point of cooperating with his antagonistic rival – Aya Otonashi.
A bonus that comes off from the nature of the boxes is it becomes well-defined. (Death Note for example has its rules written down for the viewers.) This limits the author to reason out the happenings in the plot unlike most series which involve the supernatural that leave explanations to plot convenience. To add to that, despite having a well-defined set of premises, the author still managed to make a very entertaining, unique and outstandingly dramatic story out of it, which I think is very difficult to do. It does the explaining far better and more intricately than say… genie stories where the source of the story’s plot progression is the malign intentions of the genie in granting wishes, where the author can easily manipulate the actions of the genie to fit his mould of the story rather than constructing a logical plot built on well-defined premises. And when I mention ‘genie stories’, I refer not only to genie stories per se, but it extends to all stories that involve the supernatural but altogether fails to construct a coherent plot.
Despite all the praise Hakomari has, all of it would be impossible if not for the well-rounded and well-conceived characters. From the self-sacrificial perfectionist Aya Otonashi, the unbreakable Kazuki Hoshino to various other characters such as the cryptic and intelligent Daiya Oomine. The cast consists of a set of various characters who come along contrastive personalities at times, but in no manner is any character introduced or portrayed as an airhead. The characters all posses a degree of intellectual independence where the absence of which often leads a story to banality since we rarely find high entertainment value in a story where a protagonist’s inherent ineptitude constantly becomes pivotal to a story. In other words we won't be seeing our clichéd and stereotyped males who are inept at everything they do and our unreasonable females whose insights defy all logic and is commonly attributed 'female intuition'. Actually, we get some of this to a certain degree, but they primarily serve as comic relief.
It is also interesting to note our protagonist's character development as he changes his perception of 'everyday life', some may find it as progressive and some may find it loathsome.
The characters and their respective actions are certainly well-thought that we could sympathize with despite them being fictional. They portray reality very accurately that we can’t help but think that the actions they take bear semblance to what we would. This accurate portrayal of reality would inevitably make others feel that the story bears more semblance of reality and mystery rather than supernatural despite it being the main element of the novel, an aspect that makes the reader attached to it like he is with reality, despite the fact that the story is fantasy/supernatural. To evoke attachment to supernatural fantasies is something rarely achieved in the history of (supernatural) literature as they usually feel ‘distant’.
The author (Eiji Mikage) is able to truly manifest his skills in writing in this novel. He manages to display versatility in sub-genres throughout the volumes by shifting from mystery to commonplace mundane themes and even to engaging in light existential and ontological allusions which he usually integrates to his plot. He blends several elements such as psychological, tragedy and even slice-of-life (as some may perceive it) uniquely in each arc resulting in the readers having mixed feelings. He would also insert his timely scenes of comic relief. Exercising the skill of stacking multi-layered plots through each volume, he would further surprise his readers by unveiling a bigger picture that could have only have been written coherently if the author already has the story conceptualized and laid out in his mind, and only has to fill in the details.
With all of that said, Hakomari is one of the best of stories that has surfaced into the literature repertoire. It is a must read recommended for almost anyone as it explores different genres that reach and appeal to people of different tastes. It always leaves the reader impressed through its outstanding narrative and convoluted plot that would always leave the reader with a satisfying explanation, and always urges you to want to read more through other volumes. And despite this being a novel, where music and animation are absent, I would say that it delivers far more entertainment value than most series (including animations) because it exercises your imagination through its rich narrative that would at times border between metaphorical and literal statements, and unveils a plot that barely falls short of perfect.
That being said though, I wouldn't recommend this to the typical elitist who finds that anything involving teenagers and a school setting is abhorrent and would rather stick to his deliberately ambiguous impossible-to-decipher ultra-philosophical anime. Nor would I recommend it to people who find critical thinking to be a chore.