Bakemonogatari Is An Amazingly Well-Directed Anime

As we’re coming up on the new anime season, I’ve been perusing the upcoming shows looking for what I should keep an eye on. One anime, in particular, has stood out to me as a must watch: Monogatari Series Second Season. There’s just one problem, I haven’t seen either of the preceding two series, Bakemonogatari and Niseimonogatari, nor the OVA.

While I have been an anime fan since the early '90s there was a several year chunk of time where I watched very little anime at all — until Heroes Phantasia reignited my passion for it. The Monogatari series in its entirety has fallen into this pit. But over the past year that I’ve been reviewing anime, no series has been recommended by Kotaku readers as consistently as Bakemonogatari. So to prep for this upcoming season I sat down to watch it — and I am ever so glad I did. Bakemonogatari is an amazingly well directed anime. [*Mild spoilers to follow.]

Good — Amazing Art Direction

From the very first scene, the art direction of Bakemonogatari is mind blowing. Sometimes everything is drawn in a vivid colour palate — though this can and does change at a moment’s notice. Other times it uses matte colours with no shadows. It has quick flashes of live-action scenes that appear seemingly at random as well as sketches modelled after Buddhist scrolls. The camera angles are often abnormal with extreme close-ups and jump cuts used expertly to increase the supernatural feel of the story.

All this makes the anime incredibly interesting to just watch, regardless of whether the characters are in an epic fight or a simple, light-hearted conversation. But more importantly, while captivating, it doesn’t distract from the story; it adds to it.

Good — Genre Savvy

Bakemonogatari is one of those series where the main character (Araragi) has at least some understanding of how his life works as the main character in a romance anime — to the point where he explicitly points out those traits from time to time. But he’s not the only one.

Characters throw around terms describing their own stereotypical character types — i.e. “Tsundere” to describe Senjogahara, the main female lead, (though honestly she’s more “Yandere” if you ask me). It also has a good time mocking common tropes of similar anime. At one point the show even digresses into a several minute conversation about how, as a male lead joined by two beautiful young sisters, he should be falling romantically in love with one or both of them — an idea he finds utterly without merit.

Good — Where the Ordinary Meets the Extraordinary

The direction does a great job at making the entire show have a supernatural feel. Locations ranging from abandoned crams schools to crumbling shrines take on a whole new perspective when gods, ghosts, and demons populate the world.

But where Bakemonogatari truly succeeds is by taking the normal world and turning it into anything but. Senjogahara, for example, uses school supplies as lethal weapons to the point where even a normal stapler becomes more than a little frightening. In addition, the violence, though rare in the series, is as graphic as it is unexpected — there is rarely any foreshadowing before violent action. Thus for long stretches you are lulled into a sense of complacency and forget these characters are anything but normal.

Good — Getting Together is Not the Ending

Beyond all the supernatural events in Bakemonogatari, it’s really just the story of two young people who have found their soul mates. They deal with typical teenage uncertainty as they try to define their relationship. From there they are confronted with the looming notion of life after high school and find themselves seriously looking toward the future for the first time.

Many shows, books, and movies — Western and Japanese — ignore anything past the point in the story where the two characters end up together — as if somehow that is the end of the relationship and not the beginning. It is great to see a show like Bakemonogatari where the ups and downs of stumbling through a relationship are the meat of the story — instead of assuming that once the characters admit their feelings for each other, it’s happily ever after.

Mixed — Sometimes the Dialogue Meanders Away

The dialogue in Bakemonogatari can get more than a bit dense from time to time. The characters are constantly making puns, dissecting the components of Kanji characters to explore their meanings, and commenting on cultural topics rarely discussed outside of Japan.

More than that, the story often digresses into conversations that, while entertaining for the therein character interaction, have absolutely no bearing on the plot. Many times they are simply social commentary rants. While those who enjoy just watching the characters banter will probably enjoy these scenes, those without a good grasp of modern Japanese culture and the language will be more than a little lost.

Bad — You Can’t Have it Both Ways

The biggest problem with Bakemonogatari is how it explicitly points out the absurdities in modern romance anime — often outright mocking them — and then turns right around and embraces the cliché totally straight with no hint of irony.

Take the scene where, upon meeting a typically moé grade schooler, Araragi falls on top of her, accidentally groping her in the process. He then has a deadpan voiceover mocking the situation and his place in it. Of course, the next time he meets her, he has apparently changed his mind on the whole ordeal as he sneaks up on her and grabs her breasts right off — simply for fan service it seems. Again, in case you missed it, this is a high school senior groping an elementary schooler. All this goes on, not for tongue-in check commentary, but for pure — though I hesitate to use the word — fan service.

Final Thoughts

I really enjoyed Bakemonogatari. It is visually stunning, has great characters, an excellent story, and a witty humour that few other anime match. That said, when the series starts using sexual harassment of underage girls as fan service (especially in a story where an attempted rape of an underage girl is a serious plot point) the show really falters. Still, as those moments were rather few and far between, I came away from the show really impressed. If you like modern Japanese fantasy or romantic comedies, Bakemonogatari is a must watch.

Bakemonogatari aired on Japanese TV in 2009. It is currently available in the West on Blu-ray.


Comments

    I actually file the dialogue firmly in the "good" field. The quick give and take of witticisms, clever insults, meta-references and running a trivial topic into the ground via unnecessarily winded logical analysis is what makes the -monogatori series so different of others. The best example of this (imo) occurs in the first episode of Nisemonogatari, when Hachikuji proves to an increasingly bewildered Kiyomi that adding the word "courage" to any sentence can turn even the most despicable actions into feats of heroism.

    Unfortunately, Nisemono also amps the underage fan-service noise to the max. Hopefully they will dial it back down in the next series.

      Man that "courage" speech from Hachikuji was incredible. The whole series has some really amazing dialogue. I found Bake hard to get into at first because it's just a lot of talking but I stuck around because it is visually compelling and eventually got into the rhythm of the whole thing. Nise is different, maybe more accessible, definitely more fan service but I probably liked it better all up. Feels a little tighter in terms of story progression. Really dug Nekomongatari from a few months back as well. Cannot wait for the next season.

      The problem with Nisemonogatari was that in its original form as the author had written it, it was shameless self-indulgent fapfiction that he never intended to actually publish. His editor apparently got a look at it and convinced him that if he tweaked it and took out the REALLY raunchy bits they'd be able to publish it no problem. So yes by all accounts the fan-service gets dialed back a fair bit after Nisemonogatari as none of the other books share its origins.

    Sounds really good. I'm going to have to give it a go.

    I've been umming and ahhing over the Monogatari series for a while. Hanabee is becoming a fantastic option as an Australian distributor other than Madman and Siren Visual so I'm trying to support them as much as I can though I wasn't sure about the series itself. I may have to consider watching this.

    The one downside to the animation style is the frequent use of largely irrelevant stills. Two people are talking then we cut to a distance view from above. Brief sequences are replaced by screens with text saying "Animation - [topic] #369".

    As a method of economising on the animation budget it has a long and distinguished history (Evangelion used some of the same methods) but it can still be irritating.

    That aside, it's a fantastic and intelligent series with brilliant art direction which reflects the skewed view of reality encountered by the characters.

    Supposedly a new series in the sequence starts airing next month (Zenmonogatari). Crunchyroll has an article that lays out all the series (and movie):

    http://www.crunchyroll.com/anime-news/2013/06/10-1/video-latest-monogatari-promo-and-visual

    They also have the whole of Nisemonogatari available for viewing (with ads if you're not a premium CR member). Don't know if CR will be showing Zenmonogatari.

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