- Beyond the Horizon of the Possible Worlds:A Historical Overview of Japanese Media Franchises
The world’s first virtual-reality, massively multiplayer, online role-playing game starts. The man-machine interface helmet called the Nerve Gear transports the players’ minds into the virtual game world where the players can experience the simulated reality with their avatars. On the first day of the service, the players discover that they are trapped in the game world. The logout option is disabled, and the avatars they created for the game world are initialized to reflect their appearances in the real world. To the players who panic at seeing their real bodies in the virtual world, the game creator Kayaba Akihiko declares that the only possible way out from the game world is to defeat the last boss on the one hundredth floor, that is, to clear the game. “This is no longer a game,” Kayaba adds. When their life bars reach zero in the game world, their bodies in the real world will also die. Ten thousand players are now fated to fight monsters or even their fellow players in order to escape from the virtual game world.
This is the opening of the successful novel series Sword Art Online by Kawahara Reki (Figure 1), which was serialized online on the author’s homepage from November 2002 to July 2008. Once it was republished in paperback by Dengeki Bunko in 2009, the series quickly gained popularity in the mainstream media [End Page 143] and was named number one in the top ten novels chosen by an annual guide-book of light novels Kono raito noberu ga sugoi! (2004-, This light novel is outstanding!) in 2011 and again in 2012. The novel was soon made into a successful television animated series in 2012, followed by manga adaptations by various artists. Sword Art Online became one of the pioneering works of successfully commercialized online novels and triggered a publication boom of online novels, as exemplified by numerous titles that came out soon after, such as Touno Mamare’s Maoyū Maō Yūsha (online 2009; in print 2010-12, Maoyu: archenemy and hero) and Rogu Horaizun (online 2010-; in print 2011-, Log horizon) or Sato Tsutomu’s Mahōka Kōkō no Rettōsei (online 2008-11; in print 2011-, The irregular at magic high school).
In terms of its story setup, Sword Art Online is a variation of a popular genre: the battle royale in a sealed environment pioneered by Takami Koshun’s Battle Royale (1999, Batoru Rowaiaru). It is also not difficult to see in Sword Art Online a common utopian fantasy in young adult fiction, where a boy with average physical abilities becomes an invincible sword fighter in the virtual game world. At the same time, however, Sword Art Online is a twisted relationship between the real world and the virtual world—an imaginary world that irreducibly traps—literary and figuratively—their bodies and minds. Their awareness of belonging to multiple worlds—but not belonging to any one world—exemplifies recent trends in imaginary-world making and echoes the business of cross-media franchise, where media producers exploit characters by transmigrating them into multiple media platforms.
When such cross-media development of a story world becomes the norm in media industry, story becomes self-conscious about its own world making and expansion. Here we see the increased significance of the role of narrative as a binding agent of diversifying story characters and expanding story worlds. The Sword Art Online series is based on novels rather than a more multimedia-friendly format of animation or games, which testifies a curious return in content-delivery media from audio-visual media to older text media. This article aims to examine current trends of imaginary-world making and its relationship to the creation of novel-based characters and stories—in the predigital era, such as Vampire Hunter D (1983, Kyūketsuki hantä D), and in a recent example of the transmedia franchise, The Melancholy of Haruhi [End Page 144]
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