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The Empty Box and Zeroth Maria tells the story of Kazuki Hoshino, a normal student who is obsessed with his everyday life. Until one day, a transfer student, Aya Otonashi, moves into his class–for no less than the 13,118th time and declares to “break” him.
Forewarning: What’s most difficult about this particular series is how heavy in spoilers it is if you haven’t read the book. This review will reveal information up to 1/3 of the book (up to 27, 754th Time) but will remain spoiler-free for those who haven’t read it.
Utsuro no Hako to Zero no Maria or The Empty Box and Zeroth Maria or HakoMari (as I will now refer it to) is a school psychological thriller light novel series. Volume 1 of HakoMari covers the introduction of the cast and our main two characters, Kazuki Hoshino and Aya Otonashi, in this very supernatural environment. While the book starts off happy-go-lucky in a normal high school setting, the premise of the plot creates this feeling of tension which then moves the story to a more suspenseful state, as darker elements are introduced.
Kazuki Hoshino is an ordinary high school about to move up to a second-year student. Right before the end of the school year, Aya Otonashi transfers into his classroom and threatens to “break” him after her 13,118th school transfer. She treats Kazuki Hoshino with hostility, even though Kazuki hasn’t met her before. She even correctly predicts his actions and words, giving a very stalker-like personality. But as the story goes on, Kazuki feel uneasy as he remembers meeting Aya Otonashi before, despite not remembering meeting her at all and other strange contradictions. From here, the story moves into full motion as Kazuki stands up against Aya Otonashi and the supernatural for disturbing his everyday life.
I look at transfer student Aya Otonashi, whose name I don’t yet know, standing on the platform.
—Yeah. I somehow already know her name, even though I’ve just heard it for the first time.
The book is structured in a non-sequential order. Chapters are organized as time iterations in the volume. They can as long as a normal light novel chapter or a short as a simple sentence. Regardless, each iteration has very significant meanings in this volume, to hint at personalities of characters or to showcase the passage of time. Some chapters also change perspectives aside from Kazuki’s, and given the role of this particular character, the viewpoint allows us to see their thoughts on the events taking place.
Our main protagonist, Kazuki Hoshino, is very heavily attached to his everyday life. So when he encounters Aya Otonashi and is introduced to the concept of the Rejecting Classroom, he becomes troubled and looks for a way to counteract her. For the first half of the story, we see Kazuki try to piece together this phenomenon in each chapter, as well as seeking solace in the company of his friends, a essential part of his everyday life. I found it very enjoyable to read his thoughts and reactions to the situation he’s been placed in, fighting against his adamant personality. But when those defenses to his ordinary life start to crumble, we can see his distress building up and his mind whittling down. A crucial part of Kazuki for this volume is his relationship with Kasumi Mogi, a fellow classmate. Having romantic feelings for her becomes the prime motivation for his remaining willpower, but even when that is rejected, it becomes the final nail in the coffin for his sanity. And that would have been the end of him…if it wasn’t for Aya Otonashi.
Aya Otonashi is the force opposing Kazuki Hoshino. She has a very resolute personality in addition to her daunting presence. She creates quite an impact on Kazuki, declaring war to him after her 13,118th school transfer. And if that wasn’t enough to frighten him, she’s also able to predict his actions, under the context that “she’s always by his side, no matter how much time passes.” However as the story goes on, Aya begins to warm up to Kazuki, not because she starts to like him romantically, but because they need to cooperate if they want to escape the time-loop oddity, The Rejecting Classroom.
Right off the start, the both of them treat each other as enemies. Aya is suspicious of Kazuki because she thinks he’s the cause of the problem and Kazuki resists Aya’s hostility for accusing him of something he doesn’t know. But just as Kazuki realizes he’s all alone, he reaches towards Aya, the only other person who has retained their memory. Likewise, when Aya’s original theory to escape fails, she reaches towards Kazuki for help. It’s an interesting relationship that makes it fascinating to read as both characters discuss possible logical theories while ridiculing each other.
It’s not just Kazuki and Aya that discuss the phenomenon. Most of the characters openly input their own thoughts into the situation. The side characters gets a small spotlight showing off their intelligence and mindset as they help out Kazuki, and it prevents them from being completely forgettable. As information is gathered from each significant event that takes place, our characters takes this new knowledge and plans out possible theories using previous established facts. It’s this process of deduction that is one of HakoMari’s strong points. The series creates multiple possible solutions for the reader to think about for our characters to take, similarly to a mystery novel. Even if the theory was wrong in the end, the dramatic lead-up to the jaw-dropping conclusion is captivating.
The dramatization is heavy in this volume, having the characters convey emotion strongly. It makes for an interesting read as the writing style throughout the story is imaginative and descriptive, coming from the perspective of the narrator for that time iteration. The style resembles a structured form of stream of consciousness in normal situations, the writing goes full force, having pure raw thoughts during the more extreme situations.
The illustrations were drawn by 415, who now goes by the name Tetsuo. While his most renowned position is the artist for HakoMari series, he has been hired as the illustrator for Sakurako-san no Ashimoto ni wa Shitai ga Umatteiru otherwise known as A Corpse is Buried Under Sakurako’s Feet/Beautiful Bones: Sakurako’s Investigation. His color illustrations shows off a particular situation in the story, creating a darker atmosphere with his color choice. His contrasts between the black and white in the book illustrations are the most noteworthy features. In these pictures, each text displaying the time iterations depict the events that happened in that particular time frame. What’s even more impressive is the way the pictures combining those elements of text and objects together to create the overall image.
HakoMari is thrilling book to read. Each character has a significant role to play in the plot of this book and the way they interact with each other is very interesting. The portrayal of those characters are filled with vivid descriptions of their own mind, creating another level of dramatization in addition to the way the volume builds suspense by having the characters piece together the mystery.
Rating: Highly Recommended
Afterword: HakoMari is one of those light novel series that once I start reading, I just can’t put it down due to how gripping it is.
Author: Eiji Mikage
Illustrator: Tetsuo (415)