I love the Monogatari franchise, I think it is one of the most entertainingly written and well-directed anime of the past few years. However, in some parts of Monogatari Second Season, the storytelling wears a bit thin.
As Monogatari Second Season is a collection of largely unrelated character follow-up stories of the cast explored in Bakemonogatari, I've decided to look at each of the two remaining arcs — Onimonogatari and Koimonogatari — individually before ending with some general thoughts on the overall series.
[Note: This review contains major spoilers for Monogatari Second Season. If you are new to the franchise, check out my review of the first series for a spoiler-free introduction.]
When it comes down to it, Onimonogatari is a story designed for one purpose: to further flesh out one of the series' most enigmatic characters — Shinobu, the vampire who dragged Araragi into the supernatural world hidden within our own. And as Shinobu is an immortal with centuries of backstory, there is plenty to explore. Told like a Japanese fairy tale, the story of how Shinobu almost became a helpful god rather than the tyrant vampire she had always been gives insights to her behaviour in her present state — as well as to the post-apocalyptic version of her we saw back in Kabukimonogatari.
And speaking of Kabukimonogatari, Onimonogatari serves as counterpoint to my biggest complaint with that arc: the complete and utter side-step of the moral dilemma concerning Mayoi and changing time to save her. But while in Kabukimonogatari Araragi was able to have his cake and eat it too, so to speak, the situation in Onimonogatari leaves him with nothing — no gain, just loss in the seemingly random and sudden death of a friend.
Unfortunately, as the point of Onimonogatari is to fill in Shinobu's backstory, this means we spend the majority of air time looking at either a flashback or watching expository dialogue. And when not focusing on Shinobu's past, very little happens. Despite the life-and-death consequences and the resulting downer ending, the vast majority of the modern-day portion of the story is just people sitting around talking. The characters just alternately run away and talk in an endless cycle until the plot reaches its conclusion. In the end, the backstory proved to be rather pointless to the threat at hand and left me wondering why this story needed to take up four full episodes.
Easily the most interesting choice of Koimonogatari, the final arc of Monogatari Second Season is that of the protagonist — i.e., Kaiki, the main villain of Nisemonogatari. Kaiki is a great narrator in a twisted sense. He is fundamentally unreliable as one — and he tells you such numerous times — yet, you still find yourself trusting his telling of the events on the screen. Being exposed to his thought process, so different from any of the other characters, is a real treat. So is seeing him interact with Senjogahara and Hanekawa.
As a final arc, this also does a great job of showcasing the character growth we have seen over the course of the franchise. Both Senjogahara and Hanekawa are now no longer damsels waiting to be rescued. Instead, with Araragi being the one in need, they are both willing to cross lines that Araragi would never cross in order to see himself safe.
And beyond the heroines, Koimonogatari continues to develop Nadeko from her introduction where she is the most boring and clichéd girl in the story to one of the most interesting as more and more about her life is revealed to Kaiki. Really, it's great character development all around.
Mixed Koimonogatari is the climax of Monogatari Second Season and a direct follow-up to the events of Otorimonogatari — which makes it feel more than a little odd that Araragi, the franchise's protagonist is absent from the climax of his own story. On some levels, this works well — Araragi could not do what Kaiki does. However, his complete and total lack of on-screen involvement beyond a single short scene leaves the series with an odd feeling as it ends. As viewers, we want to see our hero triumph over insurmountable odds. Instead, we see someone largely unrelated to the conflict do it for reasons we can't even understand. It doesn't make for a bad story, but it does make for one that can seem more than a bit unfulfilling.
The Series Overall
On the plus side, Monogatari Second Season retains the superb dialogue the franchise is known for. It is witty and humorous as it has always been, but it can really bring on the drama when it is needed. It also continues to explore the characters you've come to care about over the franchise and casts them in dynamic situations that show you the kind of people they've developed into. And the plot continues to be filled with twists and turns, rarely going in the ways you would expect.
But best of all is the exploration of the series' common theme: self-deception. All the characters in the series are confronted by their own self-deceptions and are forced to overcome them and face the consequences.
Hanekawa comes to terms with her life and accepts the pain in it. Shinobu sees through another version of herself how vital Araragi is to her. Mayoi is confronted with the fact that she is living a lie for personal happiness. Nadeko finds that simply pretending to be normal and innocent — or pretending to be a god, for that matter — is no way to find happiness. Senjogahara discovers she is not as strong nor as good a person as she wants to be — willing to betray Araragi's wishes to save him. Kaiki only reluctantly sees that he is not as jaded, cynical, or profit-motivated as he styles himself to be.
And as for Araragi, he comes face-to-face with his own hero-complex self-deception and finds that he can't confront everyone's problems head-on and expect to win; sometimes there is nothing he can do to help and anything he would try would just make it all worse.
On the negative side, Monogatari Second Season has more than a few problems that plague it throughout. While previous series in the franchise mocked fanservice and other anime tropes, Monogatari Second Season now embraces them like any other show. Beyond that, the pacing is uneven to say the least, with many episodes devolving into self-indulgent, tangential conversations that do nothing to serve the plot or the characters. More than a few episodes resolve absolutely nothing set up in previous episodes. This makes many of the arcs feel like they are treading water around their respective midway points.
Other than pacing, the biggest problem with Monogatari Second Season is its over-reliance on anti-climaxes. The occasional anti-climax — where everything is set up for an epic final battle which is then completely avoided suddenly and unexpectedly — is a great narrative tool and can serve as a great change of pace. The problem is, like any other storytelling trope, using it too much robs it of its usefulness. Monogatari Second Season ends three of its five arcs with an anti-climax. More than that though, it's three in a row. In the end, it was like having the narrative equivalent of blue balls.
All in all, Monogatari Second Season is a bit uneven, with some arcs being excellent — i.e., Nekomonogatari (White) , Otorimonogatari, and Koimonogatari — while others were sub-par — i.e., Kabukimonogatari and Onimonogatari. However, if you are invested in the series' plot, characters, and humour, you will likely enjoy what Monogatari Second Season has to offer — despite the occasional misstep.