Review: Ballad of a Shinigami (better late than never)

A month and a bit ago, Seven Seas was giving away books in exchange for reviews to various anime blogging personalities. I signed up on a whim, but didn’t expect much out of it, given I’ve been quite vocal about my displeasure with Seven Seas in the past. Yet, upon coming back from my spring break, I found a little book in my mailbox. Yes, I was one of the ten lucky, lucky men to get Ballad of a Shinigami. Reviews had to be in by March 31st. It is now April 12th. I was too busy watching Kodomo no Jikan DVD rips, sorry. Anyways, review time.

Ballad of a Shinigami focuses around an adorable loli called Momo. If you haven’t already guessed, she’s a shinigami (aka god of death.) Accompanying her is a wise-cracking servant demon called Daniel who is really just a cat with bat wings. The book is sectioned off into four standalone stories that all have something to do with death. Each story has its own set of characters, and Momo and Daniel usually take a backseat to most of the action. Story 1 brightens our lives by getting us acquainted with a talented high school painter who stands in the shadow of his overbearing father who just happens to be a famous artist himself. Story 2 shows us what happens when two young love-struck kids, one with a horrible case of asthma, try to care for a kitten in secret. Story 3 is about curry, child abuse and ESP. Lastly, story 4 centers around a little girl stuck in a room filled with stuffed toys. Momo, being a “meddler” usually ends up interacting with some of these characters. However, such behaviour is against Shinigami rules, which drives Daniel into fits of rage since these actions result in a good yelling at from their superiors.

I was first introduced to Ballad of a Shinigami by way of the 6-episode anime adaptation that aired some years ago. I liked that well enough, so I figured I’d give the book a spin. I won’t necessarily say the book suffers from being a book, but reading this reminds me of just how dependent the cartoon was on atmosphere. Use of music, creative storyboarding and voice acting is really what sold me on it. In book form, all you’re left with is K-Ske Hasegawa’s words to do all that for you. In the afterword Hasegawa admits he’s not the greatest writer, and I’m inclined to agree with him. His writing style “does the job” but when I first cracked this thing open and read the first 10 or so pages I felt as if I was reading a fanfiction. I think he tries too hard to evoke a certain kind of feel, but after a while I either got used to it or he got better at what he was doing. But even when the writing got to that point, it wasn’t especially inspiring or imaginative.

The stories themselves seem to be fresh out of the Visual Art’s/Key Academy for Emotional Manipulation. As I said before, they all tend to revolve around death, and read like your typical anime sob-story, just in book form. Actually, one thing that struck me about this book was how it read like an average anime script. Maybe such qualities are just characteristic of Japanese fiction writing, but then again Yukio Mishima sure didn’t read like this when I read one of his collections of stories, Death in Midsummer, in high school. But I’m getting off track. That said, I think Hasegawa does create some very sympathetic characters, and you do feel pretty bummed when one of them bites it. I teared up a bit at some moments, I’ll admit. I think his stories go a bit overboard with how cruel they are to some of the characters, but it works well in bringing about the tears… like any given Key story.

My favourite story has to be story 3, mostly because it’s the most lighthearted, but at the same time one of the darkest. The same could be said for story 4, which is probably my second favourite. I guess I like how they contrast lightheartedness with heaping helpings of darkness underneath. I prefer that to the first two stories, which are just coated with a thick layer of melancholy– especially the opening number.

Like any good light novel, this one comes with the odd illustration every now and again. A person called Nanakusa does the artwork here, and it’s all very MOEEEE. He doesn’t really know how to do backgrounds, but the characters are all appropriately cute and appealing. I want this artbook now, so that says something.

Seven Seas’ work on this title seems decent enough. I can’t really comment on the translation since unlike Kransom down at Welcome Datacomp, I lack both a JLPT-2 and the original Japanese novel. There were however spots that felt rather awkward to read, and perhaps more effort could have been put in to making the English read more like normal English rather than a fansub-esque translation of Japanese. As far as the quality of the book itself goes, it’s pretty well put together. I carried it around in my pocket a lot, and it managed to survive that with only a very minimal amount damage, so it’s pretty tough. The colour illustrations inside the book look fine, and the black and white ones look ok, too.

Overall Ballad of a Shinigami is a pretty decent read. There were some parts which felt like a chore to get through, but in the end I enjoyed it. Provided K-Ske Hasegawa’s improves in subsequent volumes, I’ll keep reading. Not sure how much re-read value this one volume has, though. I guess we’ll see in time. But anyway, buy this if you want support more light novels coming the US. It’s certianly worth your time, more so than Pita-Ten and, god forbid, Strawberry Panic.

You can also find this review on Culture Junkies