Reaper's Reviews: 'Bakemonogatari'
Original title: Bakemonogatari (Monster Story)
Format: 15 episodes
Release: July 3, 2009 - June 25, 2010
Source: Light novel
Age rating: R - 17+ (graphic violence, mild profanity and partial nudity)
The Monogatari series might be one the biggest anime franchises in recent years, in spite of the fact it started less than a decade ago with this little title bearing the name Bakemonogatari that soon became a cult hit.
It’s a series I’ve been avoiding for a while now, ironically after my first exposure to it during its original airing all the way back to 2009. Back at the time I was a hyperactive kid with a very short attention span and couldn’t get myself to sit past the third episode, and so I dropped for a very long time.
Almost ten years later, I found the determination to sit through the season, devouring all of the fifteen episodes in two days. I am older and, hopefully, wiser and more mature, with Bakemonogatari being presented in a new light to me.
I could end this review right now by just telling you to watch this series, but… Let’s take a deeper look at it and learn why Bakemonogatari is so damn good.
Story & Setting
Bakemonogatari is not an easy show to describe, not because it’s too difficult to describe its premise, but because words alone might give you the wrong impression of this series, somewhat ironic given its rich dialogue.
On the surface Bakemonogatari is a supernatural mystery series with a very define structure that involves our main protagonist Koyomi Araragi and the girl and mystical anomaly of the week. Within every arc - of which there are five - Araragi has to find a way to release that arc’s main girl from the anomaly’s grasp, sometimes aided by his mentor and expert in supernatural beings Meme Oshino, and his love interest Hitagi Senjougahara.
It’s also a harem series, and throughout its 15 episode run Araragi manages to woo or inspire each of the five girls he encounters.
This tested formula, however, hides Bakemonogatari’s true brilliance.
Bakemonogatari provides rich, elegant and witty script - one of the best of any anime in the 2000s and early 2010s - that carefully but smartly mixes and balances hilarity, suspense, horror, life lessons, memes and romance. One moment Araragi and whoever he is talking might have a dead serious conversation about the arc’s anomaly, and the next moment they might start talking about underwear.
But the series manages to pull off the unbelievable and let those contrasting tones shift smoothly. It definitely helps that for such a dialogue-heavy series, it keeps a tight pacing and composed arcs that never overstay their welcome.
Alongside these elements, the series is rife with numerous subtle, not so subtle and dry references to other series and even obscure anime/manga memes (to say that I was surprised to hear “a cat is fine too” would be an understatement) and reoccurring verbal tics or cues such as Senjougahara’s monotone tone, Tsubasa’s knowledge catchphrase or Mayoi’s misspelling of Araragi’s name that help establishing wordplay, bonds and conversations.
And the series can get surprisingly somber and melancholic with its more suspenseful moments, often tearing into folklore, legends and how they affect or even get corrupted by the different girls who get related to them. It’s those moments where Bakemonogatari truly shines as a mature and exceptional drama, that also has the guts to be immature when it prefers to.
The series’ biggest flaw, however, lies at the series’ very nature: its dialogue. The series is about 90% of various, different conversations, explanations and verbal confrontations between two or more parties, often in a brisk pace with multiple rewatch bonuses but also terms and concepts mostly unfamiliar to western viewers, especially casual anime watchers who might just be turned off by Bakemonogatari’s ultimately meaty and zany script.
It’s definitely not the show for anyone who gets tired of continuous dialogues, has zero patience or short attention span, and even those who will get interested and intrigued by its premise and style will find Bakemonogatari exhausting and even somewhat taxing, requiring at least another watch to better grasp the narrative.
The story is so well-written and presented but at the same time can be a little too dense and threatening to give a try, making it best to watch two or three episodes at a time. Despite this major flaw it’s still not enough to undermine what is admittedly an absorbing narrative.
Every arc focuses on a new character which our main protagonist Araragi helps with their unique supernatural problems. Said character will often play a supporting part in a later arc, so even the focus on them decreases, they still have a role to fill.
Our introduction to a wild cast of seemingly cliched female archetypes turned complex and messed-up personalities begins with Bakemonogatari’s poster girl, Hitagi Senjougahara, a beautiful and top-class student who is also somewhat psychotic in nature and quite scary.
Hitagi is a wonder to watch, quickly shifting from a cold-hearted and creepy psychopath to a quirky and sarcastic girl to a gentle and loving woman whenever the situation required. She commends a calm and deathly demeanor most of the time, but is capable of genuine emotion under her mask of cynicism. In particular, it’s her surprising chemistry and witty exchange with Araragi that pushes a lot of development to both.
The four succeeding girls Araragi gets involved with all fall into typical archetypes or fetishes of Japanese media ranging from yuri to cat girls, but as with Hitagi (who plays with the tsundere classification) there is far more into them, especially Suruga Kanbaru and Tsubasa Hanekawa, the latter having what is possibly the series’ best arc.
What I love about those characters is how much depth each one possesses and how they grow beyond their formalic roles. Their interactions with Araragi, confrontations with their curses and their own personal quirks and running gags make them endearing, entertaining and likable.
Their struggles may appear supernatural at first, but slowly unravel as some deep psychological and physical scars such as parents divorcing, unrequited love or domestic abuse, giving horrific reasons for their behaviors, but also desire to resolve their problem.
What connects all those girls however, is Araragi, who, similar to those he helps, is more than meets the eyes. His laid-back demeanor and bored expression hide a hilariously eccentric and hyperactive young man with a sharp tongue that often helps him out through situations (after being beaten up to near death-state), but at the same time, he is also a very emotional and caring human, which what allow people to get attracted to him in the first place.
He can be a little bit of a weirdo, with his hilarious interactions with both the proclaimed lesbian Suraga and the supposed eighth grader Mayoi, but when he needs to, he can become one of the series’ most complicated yet morally upstanding characters, with a key scene of being the conclusion of the forth arc, Sengoku Snake, which shows his own struggle and pain with his desire to help *everyone*.
The supporting cast is fairly small, consisting only of Araragi’s younger sisters (who only appear in short cameos), a seemingly ancient vampire stuck in a young girl’s body called Shinobu, and Araragi’s associate and local supernatural expert Meme Oshino, who often steals the show in the short times he appears thanks to his easy-going personality, witty remarks and just sheer coolness.
Oshino is the only one given any actual personality, and at times feels just as important as Araragi, Hitagi and the other girls. Sadly he doesn’t stick around too much, and I can definitely say that more Oshino would be welcome.
Animation & Art
Visually, Bakemonogatari might be the most recognizable work and the definitive piece of director Akiyuki Shinbo and his animation team at studio Shaft, either codifying or introducing many of both parties’ unique quirks, signatures and styles.
The overall quality of the series, even by 2018 standards, is still damn high, in spite of the series technically doesn’t have that much fluidity, but this is more as an artistic choice rather than lack of budget. When animation happens, Bakemonogatari is gorgeous beyond words and fluid like water.
The general artwork is crisp and polished, with appealing character designs that are simple yet possessing at least one distinctive trait to make them stand out from the norm, like Hitagi’s purple hair or Araragi’s idiot hair that seems to be an entirely different entity altogether.
But one of the real stand-outs of this series’ animation is just how rich it is, occasionally altering its main artstyle to others at the drop of a hat, sometimes being portrayed with far more cartoonish aspect or in chibi form, sometimes utilizing classic 60s anime style, and sometimes even using live-action sections.
This constant change in artstyle, as well as a very wide palette of colors, that give Bakemonogatari this unique surreal vibe to is aesthetics, which sets it apart from many other offering in the medium, including other works by Shaft.
Audio & Sound
I’d like to break away from my usual structure when talking about an anime’s aural side to just commend the voice acting. I don’t speak Japanese and my understanding of the language is still somewhat limited, but regardless of that, the emotion, snark, passion and personality poured into the series by the voice cast is beyond words.
It goes without saying that the two big stars of Bakemonogatari are Chiwa Saitō as Hitagi and Hiroshi Kamiya as Araragi who possess an excellent chemistry when together, the former especially manages to go from pleasant and nice to cold and scary with absolute ease. Yui Horie as Tsubasa also deserves a special mention due to her own dual performance, which at times suppresses Saitō’s Hitagi.
Bakemonogatari boasts an impressive count of five different opening songs, each for every arc told in this season and is sung by the voice actress of the arc’s principal character. They are all pretty catchy and nice to listen to, but then one that captured my attention the most is the fifth opening, “Sugar Sweet Nightmare”, partly because it accompanies my favorite arc.
As for the soundtrack itself, it’s pretty decent, composed by the same guy behind Haruhi’s soundtrack, Satoru Kosaki. It’s a fairly flexible soundtrack, swiftly joggling between wacky and cheerful tunes to sinister and ominous music. It also includes some beautifully bittersweet melodies such as the track “Douchou Tosetsu”.
There is no going around this that Bakemonogatari is not for everyone; it has a unique and unconventional approach to storytelling, a surreal take on anime aesthetics and a very heavy dialogue consisting of multiple references, parodies, wordplay and blink-and-you-miss-it jokes. It can be a difficult series to penetrate.
At the same time, it’s actually those special elements that will draw other viewers in; Bakemonogatari has some of the best dialogues in the medium, rich with so much more details and alternate meanings that will reward viewers with a second or even third watch. And this doesn’t include one of the craziest and memorable presentations since the turn of the millennium.
Furthermore, it gracefully doubles as both a strong character drama and a quirky comedy with an especially bizarre approach to romance, both being just as compelling as well complimenting each other.
It is definitely an experience, one that I strongly adore and admire. It’s not the most straight-forward series around, and can be exhausting at times, but with a tightly written ad paced story cut into compelling arcs, immensely likable characters with zany personalities, and eye-catching visuals Bakemonogatari is an excellent series that truly stands as its own beast.
- Excellent script filled with emotion, laughs, fear, references and wordplay that few anime can match
- Lovable characters that are compelling and possess realistic, relatable struggles and problems
- Gorgeous and rich presentation that makes clever use of color, different styles and angles
- Excessive dialogue and zany visuals may wear some viewers down and push others away
- Not very straight-forward in its approach, which makes it an uneasy watch to penetrate
- I didn't mention it in the review properly, but the fanservice can be a little distracting when it happens
& The Ugly
- That laughter you let out once you just *barely* defeat an eighth grader
I've been thinking for a while about what recommendations I should be giving, and per the usual, I dag up two: the first is Kara no Kyokai, also known as Garden of Sinners, which is a similarly beautifully-looking supernatural mystery anime that is somewhat more serious in tone than Bakemonogatari, but presents enough common themes and elements as an alternative.
My second recommendation is for Katanagatari, an anime adaptation of another, stand-alone work by Nisio Isin, Bakemonogatari's original writer.
© 2018 Raziel Reaper