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Reaper's Reviews: 'Nekomonogatari: Black'

Ilan is a huge fan of anime and video games since he can remember himself. He is also an aspiring author who wishes to write fantasy novels.

Original title: Nekomonogatari: Kuro
Production: Shaft
Genre: Drama/Comedy
Format: 4 episodes
Release: December 31st, 2012
Source: Light novel
Age rating: R - 17+ (graphic violence, mild profanity, suggestive themes and partial nudity)

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It’s suffice to say that by now I’ve become quite a fan of the Monogatari series; the narratives written by Nisio Isin and brought to life by the visionaries in studio Shaft is a delicious anomaly that tells its story in unconventional manners.

Monogatari is such an oddball, which is strange in and of itself considering its affiliation with a medium notorious for its bizarre scenarios, absurd situations and over-the-top presentations.

With Nekomonogatari, the series concludes its first saga. While Bakemonogatari was a constant serial of both hilarious and dramatic events that never failed to grasp, I felt that is follow-up Nisemonogatari was a bit of disappointment due to its paddled nature.

But it appears to have been a temporary issue, for Nekomonogatari contains most of its predecessors’ strengths, while avoiding some of their pitfalls.

Story & Setting

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Nekomonogatari serves as a prequel to the fifth and final arc of 2010’s Bakemonogatari, “Tsubasa Cat”. It follows the events of the fateful Golden Week that introduced Koyomi to Tsubasa’s oddity alter ego, the curse cat Black Tsubasa.

Save for its somewhat slow start, Nekomonogatari distances itself from its predecessor Nisemonogatari’s loosen structure and goes back to the fast-paced narrative style Bakemonogatari. Doing so immediately eliminates pacing issues found in “Karen Bee” or “Tsukihi Phoenix”, and Nekomonogatari’s four episodes are often tightly written and paced.

Despite its prequel status, Nekomonogatari feels more rewarding if one is already acquainted with at least Bakemonogatari, as this story enjoys some bits of call-forwards and references to future events and possibilities.

Nekomonogatari builds upon themes introduced in both Tsubasa Cat and the Fire Sisters duology, namely family struggles, domestic abuse, depression and identity. Not all of them are handled the best of ways - the domestic troubles of Tsubasa are used as a basis but get forgotten or sidelined pretty quickly - but at the same time Nekomonogatari delves deeply into human psyche and Tsubasa’s internal struggles and trauma.

It also explores and plays with romantic tropes and thoughts regarding Araragi’s infatuation with Tsubasa, and his well-detailed reasons of how he feels and why a romantic route with what is probably his closest friend at the time never happened, in a way that is both amusing and melancholic.

It definitely earns its place as one of the darker arcs in the series so far; there is some humor here and there, including the aforementioned slow start which features an eccentric conversation between Araragi and Tsukihi, but Nekomonogatari on a whole is a more serious and sorrowful tale than its peers, and pulls no punches when it shows how one broken girl just wants to let her stress out, unfortunately for her in brutal ways.

It's certainly not an easy watch, especially for people who may relate to Tsubasa's deep scars and family issues, but it's hard not to get attached to the narrative unfolding here.

Ultimately, Nekomonogatari is more than a solid prequel to the "First Season" saga, even if it’s not as accessible as other prequels and is best watched after Bake and Nise. I personally recommend watching it after both shows to get all the hints and teases towards the chronologically later stories.

The Characters

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As its title implies, this is Tsubasa Hanekawa’s story and her first encounter with the entity that will be known as Black Hanekawa, who too shares a very large role in this series.

Nekomonogatari sheds more light on Hanekawa’s character, including her relationship with her parents and her pent-up stress that was first shown in Tsubasa Cat. Mrs. Class President’s darker thoughts are given a significant amount of exposure, include how it affects her dynamic with her curse cat oddity.

From one of the most shrewd and mysterious characters in the series, Tsubasa’s broken state becomes far more apparent and her emotional struggles as well as her distant and hostile family relations give birth to a creature who may even rival a vampire.

It doesn’t take any charm from her characterization, in stead showing how even the most level-headed girl Araragi befriended has her own demons. With the addition of this series, Tsubasa becomes one of the Monogatari series’ most complex and multi-layered personalities.

Black Hanekawa also gets more to her character, which also gives more insight to how oddities view morality. The curse cat is a cheerful and nonchalant oddity yet with total disregard to human lives. At the same time, it decides to help Hanekawa in relieving her stress, yet it does so out of a twisted way of caring.

Nekomonogatari also explores Araragi’s character in a way, especially his thoughts on love and hus confused feelings for Hanekawa. His chemistry with Hanekawa is apparent, and the series teases a possibility with them hooking up even though it’s already known they never will. In the end he continues being a non-standard protagonist, who solves issues via risky and reckless actions, even if it will cost him his own life.

Side characters include Oshino, Tsukihi and Shinobu - in her sulky Bakemonogatari days. Oshino’s friendship and differences with Araragi makes for a compelling and chilling confrontation regarding the curse cat incident, as well as the sheer trust and loyalty those two have for each other.

Shinobu’s interactions with Araragi are both humorous and heartfelt; even if she does act as a small deus ex machina during the finale, it’s interesting to see a chronologically earlier interaction between them and Araragi’s attempt to keep her by his side despite their mutual resentment.

Also, it’s a small thing, but I enjoyed the fact Tsukihi got a lot more screentime this series, as if Shaft realized how underused she was in comparison to Karen. It is somewhat of a bummer some of it got wasted in the beginning.

Animation & Sound

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Animation- and music-wise, there isn’t anything truly substantial to add other than the fact that Nekomonogatari is overall an eye and ear candy just like its predecessors, although I will add that overall, the quality of the animation is somewhat higher than in Nise, which is expected as the budget is spread over a lower number of episodes. I’d also say that this series is also slightly more violent and bloodier than either Bake or Nise.

And I’m fine with that; these scenes add a certain level of tension and fear that only Kanbaru’s brutalization of Araragi in Bakemonogatari; we all know Araragi will survive his encounters with Black Hanekawa, but there is a constant sense of dread that keeps you on the edge.

While the fanservice can feel a little bit excessive, it’s a lot more tamer than the absurd, incestuous tooth-brushing found n Nise. Its usage as a visual indication to differentiate between Hanekawa’s personalities is an interesting choice, but it helps understanding how wildly unique Black Hanekawa is.

The two noteworthy additions of the soundtrack are obviously the opening and ending songs. The opening, “Perfect Slumbers”, is a gently melancholic affair that won’t harm your ears but won’t stuck with you for too long.

On the other hand, the ending theme “Kieru Daydream” is probably one of my favorite pieces to come out of the Monogatari series thus far. It fits so perfectly with the more serious side of Hanekawa’s persona, and I really enjoyed its rock-flavored melody.

And we’ve come to the part where I’m not sure if I should to mention just how emotionally profound the vocal performances are, especially Yui Horie; she is simply fantastic as Hanekawa, and hammers down the duality of that role. Meanwhile Hiroshi Kamiya (Kyomi) keeps showing how well he gets along with his co-stars, because his chemistry with Horie makes for some heartwrenching exchanges.

Final Verdict

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“Tsubasa Family” is easily one of the better stories in the Monogatari franchise thus far; it’s emotionally profound, tightly paced and downright heartwrenching. Nekomonogatari is definitely a return to form after the slightly dragged-out Nisemonogatari.

It’s not free of issues, suffering from a dull beginning and struggling to flesh out some of its ideas and themes, but it features a top-notch production cost and strong characterization and development that make me forgive most of its flaws.

As the second part of Tsubasa’s character arc, it’s sublime, and as a prequel to the series, it sets the tone and setting very well even if it’s not as accessible as other anime prequels. It is an especially essential watch if you have any interest in Monogatari, and a damn good one.

The Good:

  • An engrossing and relatable narrative
  • Kyomi and Hanekawa's relationship is well-executed
  • Vivid visuals

The Bad:

  • Wastes some of its precious time on a slow beginning
  • Not all themes are explored well
  • Not particularly stand-alone for a prequel

& The Ugly:

  • Never grab Tsukihi's breasts (it makes sense in the conte- No, no it doesn't)

This time around, I'll refrain from giving any more recommendations; this is partly because it's not particularly easy to find alternatives to Monogatari, and partly because I've already given four different shows, so for now you may have enough stuff to watch in case you already finished the series.

© 2018 Raziel Reaper