Anime and manga are perhaps the two most popular forms of Japanese media, but they are not the country’s only cultural storytelling mediums. Light novels have become increasingly popular due to anime being adapted from them, with visual novels having a similar reception, albeit to a lesser extent. Of course, with their names sounding quite similar, many may wonder if these two mediums are one and the same.
The differences between visual novels and light novels go beyond just the means, as the types of stories they tell and how they tell them further separate the two types of novel. This also makes one of them more likely to become anime than the other, at least in terms of already existing material. Here’s what anime and manga readers should know about visual novels and light novels, some of which have become their favorite series in recent years.
Light novel versus visual novel: what separates the two Japanese mediums?
Light novels are explained quite well by the description of their medium. These book titles are typically around 50,000 words and fairly easy to read, with most of them aimed at middle or high school audiences (although this is not always the case). While they are obviously published in a traditional novel format, many are also serialized in magazines. This makes them analogous to the “pulp magazines” that were once popular in the West. Like novels, stories are conveyed through text, although manga-style illustrations are used for the covers and some other parts of the book. The use of visuals helps make these titles more marketable, especially for anime and manga fans.
Visual novels are something else entirely, with these stories essentially being a type of video game. A form of interactive entertainment, they are all about storytelling and feature very little in the way of actual gameplay as was thought in the West. This makes them similar to and different from point-and-click adventure titles popular on PCs in other countries, as well as the “walking simulators” of modern games. Due to their lack of much interaction beyond dialogue scrolling, these titles are still fairly niche outside of Japan, although there is a huge market for them in their home country.
Light novels and visual novels aren’t exclusive to any particular genre, although there are some notable comfort zones within each medium. For example, light novels can be based on stories from everyday life, with the romantic comedy classic Toradora! showing this. However, fantasy settings are also often featured, such as in the light novel adaptation Slayers and modern isekai light novels such as Reincarnated as a sword. Similarly, visual novels have a lot of genre diversity, even though romance is the most well known of them. Erotic and adult visual novels are also popular, with some of these even seeing anime adaptations.
Light novels are better suited for anime adaptations than visual novels
While both mediums have had a plethora of anime based on them, one of them is slightly better than the other in terms of preparing for an adaptation. Light novels, as mentioned, often have illustrations that coincide with their text. Thus, the character designs are already laid out, cementing the look of the characters in a way that regular novels usually leave to the imagination. This makes it easier for animators to simply replicate said designs for an anime adaptation. Popular light novels are commonly made into manga before becoming anime, giving said anime ample material to adapt and helping to avoid the filler problem.
The same goes for visual novels, but a strength of visual novels is actually sort of a disadvantage in terms of adapting the entire story into an anime series. Visual novels are known for their branching paths, with different endings decided based on the minor actions of the players. This gives them a lot of replayability as games, but makes it difficult to fit all of this into a cohesive whole. Visual novel anime like the heartbreaking Clans “fix” it with additional seasons portraying these alternate paths, but it’s definitely an efficiency issue. That’s not always the case, and great visual novel adaptations like Stein;Gate exist. However, this particular reason is probably why so many light novels have become manga and anime as opposed to visual novels — and with the growing popularity of the isekai genre, that’s unlikely to change any time soon.