Review: The Empty Box and the Zeroth Maria (Vol 1)

(art by Tetsuo)
(art by Tetsuo)

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Volume 1
Volume 1

While working on this website the past few months, I noticed one light novel series being discussed online quite a bit more than most: the curiously-named The Empty Box and the Zeroth Maria (or HakoMari, for it’s Japanese shorthand). My interest was piqued not only by the title, but by just how often the series was being strongly-recommended in “light novel suggestions” posts on various forums and blogs. Just how well the HakoMari is liked by its devoted Western fanbase surprised me in fact, particularly since there is no anime adaptation to introduce people to the story.

HakoMari is considered by many to be an especially unique work, but overall I felt the plot of this first volume treaded very familiar light novel ground. The general premise immediately reminded me of All You Need is Kill (which was still fresh in my mind), as it features a protagonist (in this case an average boy named Kazuki Hoshino) who finds himself caught in a perpetual time loop. He re-lives the same school day over and over, but with only a vague awareness of the phenomenon… until the new transfer student (a blunt girl named Aya “Maria” Otonashi) forces enlightenment upon him–and in no peaceful manner, unfortunately for Kazuki. As the story went along though, specific plot elements reminded me very much of Book Girl (namely its delving into certain characters’ troubled psyche and their struggle for catharsis) as well as Kokoro Connect (with the entire “otherworldly experiment on small group of high school students” setup turning out almost exactly identical to that series).

Parallels to other light novels aside, HakoMari is still an engaging story in its own right. This volume was written in present-tense, which I felt added a sense of urgency to a story that could have easily felt like a slog to get through. But because Kazuki’s memory of the day’s past cycles is generally fuzzy, each chapter forced him and the supporting cast to attempt working out a method of escape from their space-time classroom prison. What ties the helter-skelter narrative together are the questions of the volume’s central mystery: What is the cause of the time loop, and for what purpose was it instigated in the first place? Why are Aya and Kazuki the only ones who seem aware of it? And how are they supposed to break out of the cycle and move on to the next day? Overall I felt the mystery aspect of the story was handled well, as it manages to really push the characters to piece everything together with their own wits.

The characters themselves though, I never felt particularly attached to. There’s a straightforwardness to each one of them that kept me from really caring for them, especially when their predicament itself was the primary force driving the story from beginning to end. That said, the predicament does raise a number of interesting questions to ponder over, and the central characters of the story each have to do a little soul-searching–which in turn encourages some reflection on the reader’s part as well. Overall HakoMari weaves an intelligent narrative, and moves along at a steady enough pace to encourage me to read further volumes, which I hope (and indeed expect) will flesh out its characters much further.

Cho’s Rating: Recommended

4 thoughts on “Review: The Empty Box and the Zeroth Maria (Vol 1)

  1. God I agree so much, I just couldn’t care for the characters at all. I’m glad that there’s a devoted following for this series and that people are enjoying it so much. It just wasn’t for me. I couldn’t stand the protagonist. He was so whiney, so frustratingly dumb and boring and without agency. At times the prose read as if the author was talking down to the reader because he kept reiterating the same points over and over or he’d try and explain something he’d already talked about in a different way that added nothing to the story. The details were wanting also. Overall I just really disliked this title and I’m not sure what everyone was hyping up.

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