FEATURE: Novel vs Anime - "No Game No Life"

How does the No Game No Life anime compare to the novel?

Hey there, welcome to “Novel vs Anime,” a new feature where I compare anime to their original novel versions. I’ll be doing this feature alongside the weekly Found in Translation column.


As an art, adaptation is a lot like translation—you can’t expect an adaptation to be exactly the same as its source material. Novels can be great at showing introspection and getting into the characters’ heads, while animation has to rely on visual shortcuts in order to get the same point across. Just because an adaptation omits something from the novel doesn’t mean it’s worse off for it. I find it incredibly fascinating to examine the choices anime directors make in order to bring a story to life through a visual medium.


With that preamble out of the way, let’s kick off the first issue by looking at a popular light-novel-turned-anime from 2014: No Game No Life! (This article contains light spoilers for the first four episodes, so be warned.)




No Game No Life follows the story of Sora and Shiro, two young and socially dysfunctional gamers who together make up the unbeatable duo known as “__” (Blank). After they even succeed at defeating a god at chess, they’re drawn into a fantasy world where humanity is in decline and all conflicts are resolved through games.


No Game No Life is an interesting series, not least because of the personalities behind it. In an industry where the average anime director is male and in his forties, Atsuko Ishizuka is up there with Naoko Yamada and Rie Matsumoto as one of the top young female anime directors active today. Surprisingly, she has not watched that much anime before entering the industry; her off-beat directing style can be attributed to her background in graphic art.


As for the author, Yuu Kamiya, he’s a Japanese-Brazilian man who has drawn manga and illustrates his own light novels. The style he chose for No Game No Life is distinctive, to say the least. Characters lack ordinary pupils, giving them a somewhat crazed look, while the color palette is full of sharply contrasting colors. When you combine Kamiya’s edgy illustrations and narrative with Ishizuka’s idiosyncratic directing, “eccentric” is the understatement of the year.


The first thing you’re bound to notice about No Game No Life is the highly vivid and saturated colors that permeate the entire screen at all times. Ishizuka has said before that she prefers animation over live action because what she imagines can only be realized through fantasy and pictures, but in No Game No Life, she takes it a step further with heavy post-processing and filters, giving the visuals a rosy tint. It’s a visual realization of pure fantasy.


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You can see the heavy use of filters in other Ishizuka shows like The Pet Girl of Sakurasou and HaNaYaMaTa, but the saturated color scheme of No Game No Life owes a lot to Kamiya’s original character designs and illustrations. Ishizuka has merely toned down the aggressive, contrasting tones of Kamiya’s illustrations, giving the anime an overall softer look.


As far as I’m concerned, this is the best direction Ishizuka could have taken with the source material, as the novel’s aesthetic and content may be a bit extreme for some. This is especially the case when it comes to the novel’s depiction of sexuality, which is beyond risqué and enters truly exploitative territory. The most frequent victim of sexual harassment is Steph, a kind-hearted though naïve girl who does nothing to deserve the molestations she endures. There is one scene in the first volume of the novel where the protagonist Sora literally equates Steph’s entire existence to pornography. The anime may cut out the worst of this scene, but the moments where Steph is groped and filmed without her consent are nevertheless deeply uncomfortable to watch.  


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On the other hand, toning down the sexual content does dilute the anime’s commentary on media censorship, as well as what it says about the characters’ natures. Sora is an unemployed 18-year-old virgin, as the novel never ceases to remind us. When he coerces Steph to fall in love with him, he never has intercourse because he wants to keep things “wholesome” for his underage sister. But Shiro’s clearly in on the act as well, and frequently participates in the sexual harassment herself. This tells us that the characters are deeply influenced by media that shows ecchi “fanservice” in lieu of healthy sexual relationships, and that attempting to enact “fanservice” situations results in something far more depraved. The novel’s portrayal of Sora and Shiro makes them much more difficult to root for, but perhaps that’s the point. Our protagonists are not “heroes” in the classical sense of the word.


Nevertheless, I can’t help but favor Ishizuka’s gentler approach. One of the themes of the story is that, for all of Sora and Shiro’s dysfunctional traits, they are bastions of humanity’s potential. Because they are weak, they can appreciate strength. The anime includes several extra scenes in the first four episodes which reinforce this theme. In episode 2, Sora confronts Kurami after she bullies Steph, and in episode 3, Steph recollects her gentle grandfather who predicted that one day someone like Sora and Shiro would come along, believing in humanity’s potential. When Steph finally starts believing wholeheartedly in Sora and Shiro’s potential, the warm colors give the scene some genuine heart.


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So in the end, should you read the novels or watch the anime? Both tell a very interesting story, but at the end of the day, I think that the anime is more accessible. The novel’s prose is full of dramatic pauses and idiosyncratic sentence structures, giving it a rather off-beat rhythm that frankly works better in Japanese, which has looser syntax and punctuation rules than English does. The anime also does a fine job distilling the occasionally wordy exposition in the novel with pictures and diagrams, making the flow of the story easy to understand even when the characters speak a hundred miles a minute.


That said, the anime only covers the first three volumes of the story, so if you’d like to find out what happens next in the story, you’ll have to read the novel starting from volume 4. Volume 4 is already available in English via Yen Press, and the fifth volume will be released next month. The upcoming No Game No Life movie is slated to cover volume 6 (which tells a prequel story), so it would be a great idea to get up to speed on the novels before then. Kamiya’s prose may take some getting used to, but the plot is remarkably well-plotted and well-paced, and you’ll find yourself speeding through the volumes in no time flat. No Game No Life has a way of leaving you hungry for more!


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Kim Morrissy is a freelance writer and translator. He writes about anime, light novels, and Japanese culture on his personal blog. You can also follow him on Twitter at @frog_kun.

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