Cell Phone Novel Documentary and Interview
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A Brief Overview
Japanese cell phone novel (keitai shousetsu, ケータイ小説, literally keitai = cell phone, shousetsu = novel, sometimes mistakenly called mobile novels) phenomenon began almost 20 years ago and landed in the English-language world in 2008, beginning a new literary movement among thousands of young writers and readers globally first on Textnovel.com and now also on Wattpad. The cell phone novel is a remarkably unique new form of writing, fusing serialized online storytelling with simple haiku-like poetic technique and with prose narrative. Each chapter or page is at most 200 words, but usually averaging around 50-100 words, using white space, line breaks, fragments, free flow poetry, deeply personal thoughts, emotions, and onwards. As it is about the literary culture, form and style, there is no restriction of genres or content.
Cell phone novels originate from Japan almost fifteen years ago, where a young man by the name of Yoshi started writing a novel on his mobile phone consisting of short chapters that fits in a multimedia email message, sent to friends and then forwarded and spread through word of mouth and other makeshift promotional strategies.
Cell phones in Japan were much more advanced than the Western counterparts back then and were capable of 3G internet networks and email messaging and did not have SMS text limitations. With the style and tradition of Japanese blogging which captures the essence of the sparse and ambiguous, context-based casual and personal Japanese language, the story started the style we see in English cell phone novels today.
Since Yoshi’s “Deep Love”, which he financed and made a website for, and birthed a TV series, movies, manga comics and more, publishers have picked up on this trend and created websites and apps where Japanese users can read and post these stories online under pen names and secret identities, inspiring a culture of serial spontaneity and improvisation, a new generation of aspiring and amateur writers – a majority composed of high school students expressing very personal, emotional, existential and controversial topics that are considered taboo to mention openly in Japanese culture, such as identity, subcultures, relationships, rape, bullying, abortion, friendships and betrayals using sparse colloquial conversational language (while in Japanese it isn’t considered to be literature material, it would be however starkly different from “text message lingo” with short forms and abbreviations. It is simply the down to earth, casual, “vulgar”, realistic spoken language of pop culture which we may see used in young adult novels these days)
These books have then accumulated millions of reads and readership, published into print form and made into films, TV drama, anime and manga and so on. The top five bestselling books each year in Japan are often cell phone novels. Some famous examples are: “Koizora” (Love Sky), “Akai Ito” (Red String of Fate), “Kimi No Sei” (It’s Your Fault), “Moshimo Kimi Ga” (If You) and more: http://hakaiya.com/20101204/movie-12945 Anime and manga often mention cell phone novels or cell phone novelists, most clearly in Watashi Ni XX Shinasai where the main character is a cell phone novelist hiding under a secret identity.
The Writing Style
Cell phone novels are designed to be written or read on cell phone screens and screensizes, regardless whether a writer chooses to write on a computer or a mobile device. The concept triggers the combination of poetry and narration, forming short bite sized chapters utilizing white space, line breaks, fragments, poetic devices and concentrated sensory, emotional or dialogue content, many cliffhangers, that capitalizes on actual real life rapid fire happenings and lack of ability to process information in perfect clarity. Each chapter is less than 200 words and averages around 50-100.
The style creates boundaries which actually opens doors to imagination and creativity within a box; it encourages young writers to think deeply on choosing the perfect diction and layout, to think outside the box and deliver the maximum potency in between the lines and in minimalism and the omission of detail. It also encourages a haiku-style sentimental art form and a return to art, careful visual structure, that actually easily allows writers to sound much more sophisticated and literary beyond their age by creating a hyper sensitivity, heightened perception, crystallization of tiny moments in life (or fictional life), because of the sparse form.
It encourages the return to literature and poetry in general, despite content being intimately connected with pop and youth culture. It is a bridge between the old and the new, even hearkening back to ancient Greek poetry and narrative poetry or plays through the ages, up to the verse novels of today. By bringing this onto a technological and social platform, it is widespread and easily accessible by youth worldwide. It is like having the best of all worlds in writing and reading experience.
Because of social media, serialization technology, community and reader interaction, mobile youth culture, like in Japan, the experience is made fresh. Writing or reading in small chapter snippets in between classes, during commutes, in bed and whenever an idea strikes or there is even a minute, encourages a whole new way of looking at reading and writing. A single chapter may capture so much in just a few words and may leave a lasting impression after just a minute.
The English Language Movement
Takatsu, in 2008, pioneered the English cell phone novel and brought over the phenomenon from Japan after watching Japanese television drama like Koizora, Akai Ito and various. Like many fans of Japanese entertainment, he realized they were originally cell phone novels. After research and reading cell phone novels, discovering there were no English cell phone novels and seeing the potential of the literary form, he came across Textnovel.com (the first site in North America to recognize cell phone novels). At the time, it was only a budding concept and there were no actual cell phone novel stories on the site. However, there was a member who had translated a few Japanese cell phone novels into English. The emotional intensity of these in English inspired Takatsu to experiment with his original cell phone novel in the Japanese style, and “Secondhand Memories” became the very first English language cell phone novel in the West and in the world.
After Secondhand Memories, many writers of all ages from all over the world began to take up the mantle and get involved in the community, following this movement. Over the past many years, with Takatsu’s leadership, the form matured and evolved, and writers worldwide have been exploring the possibilities and the limits of the style, becoming more philosophical, artistic and poetic at times, or returning to the very root of the tradition with simple language and focusing on emotions, or even incorporating visual elements like changing fonts and sizes of fonts – all the while working with the short poetic chapter formats that defines cell phone novels. Textnovel became a niche site, a small tight-knit community and hosted the exclusive English speaking cell phone novel community and the largest collection of English cell phone novels in the world for many years. In 2015, the community also expanded as the Wattpad Cell Phone Novel Network.
The goodness of inspiration and connecting from art to heart, one heart to another, one life to another, is epitomized in the cell phone novel form, its deeply personal subculture and spirit, and its globalization.
First written just for fun, Secondhand Memories surprisingly gained popularity with over 70,000 unique hits on Textnovel and 200,000 reads on Wattpad from the support of readers all across the world. Later, Secondhand Memories won various awards including Editor’s Choice and moving through a series of stages in the Textnovel contest 2009, finally winning the Reader’s Choice award and literary agent representation. In 2010, it was featured in a textbook in Japan. The highly anticipated and award-winning Secondhand Memories after completion, was published and released six years later on Feb 14th, 2015 as a 558-page paperback book and ebook form marking the first historic step into the real industry for the English cell phone novel movement. Onwards, it continues to spearhead the physical manifestation of the virtual and web writing form through multimedia expansion into music, animation, illustration, merchandise, collectibles and more, ultimately aspiring to build the platform and open up a new route for cell phone novelists to come.
How do you see the cell phone novel developing further in the West?
As our community continues to grow and expand, we are also hoping and in the works of gathering local members in cities to take it from the virtual world to the concrete metaphoric streets, by introducing clubs to schools, presenting at conventions, and hopefully working with local media and industry related organizations. However, the English speaking world remains a quite different market than the Japanese origins.
Originally in Japan, when cell phone novels started, it was heavily criticized as their text messaging story telling but we have to realize Japan never really had a down to earth casual language in literature (like we do in teen fiction or just contemporary writing these days), or an outlet to express taboos like angst, rebellion, sex, drugs, teen pregnancy, gang violence and so on, and they never had technology before that which serializes online writing and allows readers to access it any time, free. Their culture is also highly driven by young teenagers, particularly, teenage middle and high school girls; they would literally make up the trends and the population density and hype was so powerful, and the confines of structured systems and normalcy forcing grassroots movements to break routine caused the industries to follow their lead. In fact, SMS, micro blogging, mobile novels, and other similar online web novel writing platforms followed the trend of young girls using pagers to compose short messages to friends using number codes such as 0840, which read and abbreviated in Japanese sounds like good morning. Companies saw this and decided to create the technology to make it possible. At the time, when they introduced cell phone novels, all of these things came in all at once; it was a powerful market-changing wave.
However, in the West, due to various factors including some technological limitations, we found that the main reason is that we already have the various things that made the Japanese counterpart successful. We already have very casual down to earth language in writing, eBooks, serialized online writing and reading platforms, such as Wattpad of course, but also even simpler sites like fanfiction.net, and blogging platforms since way back like Live Journal, Xanga, Tumblr, Myspace, Blogger. Japan didn’t have these online establishments when cell phone novels, blogging and other content engines came out all at once. Not to mention, with these mediums, grassroots writers such as Twitter stories, and such as those on Wattpad have been experimenting with various forms, including text message type stories with chat spelling and with multimedia support now, comic books and other graphic based stories. Wattpad alone is often used as blogs, even to run contests, non-fiction information, chain letter posts and other things.
But we do hope to continue to educate the masses on cell phone novels and what’s special about this form of writing that originates from Japan as we go along and learn more about the industry. The cell phone novel movement came from grassroots origins and therefore, didn’t develop as a company or an app or a platform nor had the resources. Not many know about it so far as most of us as young writers and readers have no idea what to do for the marketing/business/growth end of things.
We hope to continue to build enough resources and skillsets and a strong core group of cell phone novelist leaders to educate more people about cell phone novels. We hope to set up a proper independent official cell phone novel writer’s association resource website, blog and directory, and from there spread the movement to the corners of the web, for example to Wattpad. There are also a lot more things planned and we hope that the movement will continue to gain momentum and bring young readers and writers back to such powerful language and art with a new way of using technology. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me!
You explained that the adapting a cell phone novel to an e-book can actually be more difficult than adapting to print.
Other than the characteristics and the specific unique literary form of cell phone novels, the differences also continues in publication, as e-reader devices are in various screen sizes and allow the user to adjust font sizes or format for their comfort and preferences. This changes the text-wrapping of the content, which would of course be detrimental to the cell phone novelist’s effort and intention for each chapter’s visual spacing, cohesion, effect and structure. This would be similar to bringing a book of poetry to an e-book format. Though it is possible and will still likely be done (as Secondhand Memories will be adapted) it might not be as effective nor comparable to eBooks.
How are cell phone novels different from light novels?
Light novels are a major form of young adult or teen fiction in Japan, intimately tied to the anime and manga industry, many of them produced into series such as Log Horizon, Sword Art Online, No Game No Life, Kino no Tabi, and more. Light novels, some also written on the web as web novels, are “full prose” format and do not make use of the same poetry-like short chapters, fragments, line breaks and white space. Typically, they focus on anime-worthy genres, concepts, archetypes, and themes, such as fantasy, sci-fi, rom-com, video games, mecha, and more – not to say cell phone novels can’t have these elements.
Other questions to follow. Please submit your questions to taka[at]stakatsu.com or contact me here!
Cell Phone Novel Samples
Here are some samples from cell phone novels over the years in our communities such as Textnovel to demonstrate the poetics, though for the story, you’ll have to read them!
Chapter 1, Secondhand Memories (2008) by Takatsu
It was July.
She looked at me with a smile on her face.
I smiled back.
It was summer. School was off. I was in complete bliss.
There was nothing better than this.
With her beside me, nothing could go wrong.
“Let’s go.” I heard myself say.
Chapter 307, Secondhand Memories (2008) by TAKATSU
As we stood there, still in an embrace,
all the color slowly returned to the world.
The dark grey clouds above were scattering,
golden sunlight released from Heaven’s gates above.
the grassy field in front of us
lit ablaze with vibrant color.
The grass began to
sway back and forth
counting to a beat,
dancing with the wind.
I stood there,
wide-eyed like a child in awe.
Spring has come.
Life has returned.
Meaningless by fabrication
“I’ve got to go.”
“I’ll call you later.”
The bells on the door
chime as she walks out.
An hour later
I’m still staring at the door.
Swinging as people
and go out.
Chizuru by EllieCue
Birds with the same feathers,
flock together –
I never knew what this adage
why do people group themselves
according to “who” they are?
Why can’t everyone just get along with
Chapter 36, The Luzhang Bridges by Ku
Just looking at the details of your life
gives me such heartache.
It’s the cinema of the smallest things,
of desires that never saw the light,
gradually forgotten, faded away like mist.
One day a little
yellow leaf fell onto your hair.
It was an autumn afternoon,
mysteriously rich in time
The leaf was smooth and cold
when you touched it to your lips,
and it rustled like old silk.
You taped it into your diary
and wrote above it:
Chapter 86, The Fringe of District 24 (2012) by TAKATSU
Even though I held up my katana like I had trained in the dojo with a kendo shinai,
even though I could see the black shapes of the beasts leaping for us,
I forgot to scream
as I fell suddenly
into the ground
that opened up
My heart leapt up
towards my head;
caught in my throat.
Chapter 87, The Fringe of District 24 (2012) by TAKATSU
swallowed by obsidian darkness
blind in the unyielding cold,
flailing with my arms and legs,
crying out for dear life,
air becoming colder,
as my heart climbed into my mouth,
fighting an urge to vomit,
Chapter 88, The Fringe of District 24 (2012) by TAKATSU
Just as suddenly as I fell,
I hit the bottom,
a shockwave of pain
a jolt through
in my skull,
to a halt.
The Silent World’s Disturbed Melody by Opum
It’s time for me to achieve nothingness.
I close my eyes, seeing nothing.
I open them back again, look
at my arm,
bruised and sore.
“I hope she beats her.”
I close my eyes again, seeing
the red sunset before
my world shatters for the first time.
Strawberries and Whip Cream by nashipo
He pulls me back
from my retreat
to my haven
my empty seat waiting for my return
What is it?
My nickname calls me back.
To reality. Or is it not?
Chapter 5, The Luzhang Bridges by Ku
charcoal fires in the streets,
dumplings, rice, cold air,
bright sky —
nobody and nothing.
Who cared and who knew,
who lived here once?
it was all gone, they all suffered for nothing.
They lived and died
here and in a thousand other places,
but it was here that you were born, that you grew up:
a dark eyed little girl, brilliant laugh,
singing in the narrow streets,
I see you dashing down a stone street
swinging your bookbag,
chasing other children through the narrow alleys,
riding in a sleek river boat
covered with a blue awning —
Chapter 5, Idol X Suki by CCShoelaces
grows out from a seedling
into a beautiful flower.
No one knows where does
a seed comes from.
It’s the same thing as how
I fall in love with you
out of the blue.
Sun’s Shadow by Lixia
Does the Sun have a shadow?
The question continues to linger in my mind.
After I quit the sport that allowed me to shine brighter than the sun,
I often ponder whether there is an underside to the bright sun.
Maybe it’s because I couldn’t live up to my name.
Pulse by Cosette
murmur of the drizzle turned into
a scream of despair as thunder
stroke. There was no ending to my tears;
they were just like the downpour outside.
Chapter 2, Secondhand Memories (2008) by Takatsu
The water was cool,
a refreshing touch
dancing up our toes.
I heard a loud splash and felt a wall of cold water swallow me.
I turned to a giggling Uchida Aoi. I smiled roguishly.
Suddenly, I put my hand in the water and gave some right back at her.
She screamed when she was dripping wet too.
In revenge, she unleashed a tsunami at me.
Instead, laughing, I rushed over,
wrapping my wet arms around her
and tackled her into the water.
With a crash we plunged, squealing.
Summer meant no cares in the world.
Summer meant happiness.
That’s what I always thought.
CROSSDRESS by shouMIA
In this life,
there’s many doors.
another one opened.
If all doors closed,
we always have the right to choose
which door we want to get into.
Stretch out our hands,
and twist the doorknob.
will be always waiting for us
Connected by Cosette
His eyes appeared to be empty,
almost emotionless. Even if he was close,
as he was leaning over me,
the black haired boy seemed to be extremely far,
away from my grasp,
difficult to touch and reach. A feeling of pity
swallowed me up. I felt as if he was
watching me from inside a building completely made of
glass, where I had no way of access.”
We Paint Our Own Skies by Ayane Nanami
Promises are always broken.
Coming from a trusted friend or enemy,
They are still broken.
Promises such as ” I’ll always stay by your side.”
Promises such as ” I’ll never leave.”
All are broken, and forgotten.
Then, I ask of you-my friend…
Why make promises which you can’t keep?」
Chapter 4, Move: A Journey of Music (2013) by TAKATSU
Like a lost
I swim through insomniac night
and stumble into
my tiny desolate
dropping my frozen
and with trembling hands,
gently place my guitar
in its usual spot.
A spot with years of wear,
a territorial mark
home sweet home
of the case.
I make a cup of tea.
Only one packet left,
I need to buy more.
Chapter 28-29, Move: A Journey of Music (2013) by TAKATSU
“Thanks for the coffee.”
I’m not the kind of guy to have the girl pay.
And we are much too close to pay separately.
At least I can afford this.
Don’t ask for a five star hotel meal yet.
Or a half or full carat diamond ring.
But I will pay for the coffee.
The peppermint sauce tickles my throat.
I huff out a stream of fresh ice, hot and cold.
“Say,” She pauses.
Looks out the window
at the crowds below,
of heads bobbing,
“Have you ever read Plato’s Ion?”
She leans forward on her elbows,
clutching the cup between her elegant fingers.