Utsuro no Hako to Zero no Maria: Volume 1
This is a review, therefore it’s fundamentally free of spoilers but has a basic synopsis of the story.
Utsuro no Hako to Zero no Maria is a light novel written by Eiji Mikage and illustrated by Tetsuo, and its English translation can be read on Baka-Tsuki.
About halfway through this week, I came across this light novel. Not in the away I usually do, just clicking random links in Baka-Tsuki and seeing if there’s anything interesting-sounding with a good amount of volumes translated only to give up two links later if I don’t find something. This time I came across it in a thread on myanimelist. It was a Puella Magi Madoka Magica thread, and the user who posted compared both series. As the huge fan of PMMM that I am, I couldn’t help but become interested. And I couldn’t be any more glad that I did. Utsuro no Hako to Zero no Maria hooked me completely and here I am, having finished volume 6 yesterday morning and pursuing the effort of letting more people know about this not-so-well-known series.
The setting of Utsuro no Hako to Zero no Maria (from now on I’ll be referring to it as Hakomari – the official abbreviation) is pretty much what would be modern day Japan, in our world, if not for some supernatural twists. In fact, all of these can be summed up in one only difference: the existence of ‘boxes’ – artifacts that can grant any wishes. In the truest sense of the sentence. In other words, any doubts or limitations attached to such a wish will come true as well, making it a potentially double-edged sword.
In such a world, our protagonist is Kazuki Hoshino, a male high-school student in class 1-6, who’s rather abnormally attached to his everyday life, wanting nothing else than to continue it. Volume 1 shows us the first obstacle to such a wish he has to overcome. As if it weren’t obvious by the chapter titles, the incident corresponds to a time loop of sorts. In other words, every day is March 2nd, and every single morning of this repeating day, a girl of awe-inspiring beauty transfers to Kazuki’s class and introduces herself as Aya Otonashi. Furthermore, she appears to be the only person capable of maintaining her memories throughout all the iterations.
The plot occurs through different iterations, but it’s told in non-chronological order, which in itself was already an appeal to me. Such method of storytelling allows for a slow, intricate and convenient disclosure of the facts, which can only be join as scattered pieces of a puzzle. Through these endless iterations (or ‘School Transfers’ to be more specific), Kazuki gets closer to Aya, who first antagonized him, as she reveals her goal to him and both cooperate in order to find the culprit behind the incident and end the endless recurrences of March 2nd by slipping out of the ‘Rejecting Classroom’. And what an interesting story that turns out to be!
Despite its obvious supernatural elements, Hakomari would be more about mystery than about the supernatural itself. And that stands all the more true for this first volume. Resorting more than anything to the ambiguous and easily misinterpreted placement of accurate clues rather than blatant red herrings, the plot twists this first volume keeps pulling are nothing short of mind-blowing. From leaving me completely confused after being almost certain of understanding all that was going on to having a sudden realization that “the clues were all there – how dumb can I be to have gotten it wrong!”, most of twists never failed to surprise, and made the reading extremely engaging, addicting and entertaining.
As for the characters, let’s just say that while I’d call them a strong point of the series, I think of them as being at their weakest in this volume, thus being its weakest point, specially when compared to such a great plot. The side characters, Kazuki’s classmates, get close to no exposure, and it surely doesn’t help that they’re trapped inside an endless recurrence of time. As such, there’s not opportunity for evolution, so it’s only natural they get very few focus, the basic characterization of their behavior in that specific day being enough to understand their cardboard thin characters inside the ‘Rejecting Classroom’. On the other hand, such focus is free to be accounted to the main characters, Kazuki and Aya, and to the plot. The later apparently having the higher dibs. Since while both Kazuki and Aya do change throughout the volume, Kazuki’s change is too subtle and not all that interesting or understandable, and the clear phases Aya goes through being, in fact, interesting isn’t enough for me to consider the character aspect of this volume as a strength.
Despite this, there’s something I’d love to note about the characters in Hakomari. And that would be that you’ll never be annoyed at their dumbness. Well… at least for the most part. All in all, well developed or not, a fact it’s already clear in this volume: we don’t have a cast of perfect characters, but we have a cast of intelligent characters who are able to ponder their options according to their views and goals, or even from an external point of view, and reach a logical conclusion. And this includes Kazuki. He may not be the most brilliant character around, but he’s certainly a smart individual himself, which is seriously relieving, because it’s always hard to read the events through the eyes of a protagonist you spend the whole time wanting to facepalm at, right? Well, that problem is certainly not present here, and in this sense, I’d say the cast of Hakomari is a well thought one.
Overall, this was a highly entertaining read that made my brain work as entertainment should, from my little point of view. It forced me to reassess the situation countless times to try and figure out what was going one and who had created the situation they were in. It had its little take into ethics, a little nice ontological discussion and some more interesting dialogue and introspection, and some good emotional scenes. Basically… It made me go on a huge reading spree. It’s definitely something I would recommend to almost anyone, so if you’re reading this review without having read Hakomari, I suggest you give it a try!
Note regarding Aya Otonashi: This character is referred to as both Aya and Maria at times. Please be aware. Don’t worry, if you’re confused about any eventual inconsistencies between this review and the ones that follow, then you’re getting the same experience I did while reading. Or something.