A review of Bakemonogatari

Yeah, the anime reviews are back. I won’t even bother trying to keep up with currently airing stuff, though: my adventure with Cop Craft last year was exhausting enough, even if I did enjoy writing those posts. From now on, I’ll leave that work to the real experts and instead dive into the deep anime backlog I’ve got. And I’m starting with Bakemonogatari.

Sure, the Monogatari series is extremely well-known and a lot’s been said about it already. And I’m not even covering the whole thing but only the first 15 episodes from back in 2009 that adapted the first set of novels in the larger series into anime form. So maybe this is a weird decision on my part. Then again, the entire Monogatari series feels way too massive to take on all at once. I’ve also only watched Bakemonogatari so far — that’s just how far behind I am — but I feel there’s more than enough in this one run of episodes to talk about.

This guy with the giant cowlick is our protagonist, high school senior Koyomi Araragi. He looks like a bit of a delinquent in this screenshot, and he’s definitely a misfit in some sense — all the characters in Bakemonogatari are. But he’s actually a good guy and extremely altruistic, maybe too much for his own good. Almost certainly too much for his own good, in fact, because his altruism time and again gets him seriously injured and even nearly killed.

The story opens with Araragi running up the stairs at his school trying to make it to class when he sees another student falling from a high distance. He manages to catch her, but to his shock she’s nearly weightless in his arms. This girl, Hitagi Senjougahara, is one of Araragi’s classmates, one who’s both extremely talented but also seemingly very aloof, so much that she sits by herself and doesn’t socialize with others. Araragi is interested in learning more about her thanks to this bizarre encounter, so he asks his colleague on the student council, president and top-of-her-class student Tsubasa Hanekawa, about her.

Hanekawa can’t tell him much because she doesn’t know much herself, even though she and Senjougahara attended the same middle school — only that she used to be very popular and outgoing until she came down with a mysterious illness and seemingly withdrew into herself at the start of high school. Araragi, not letting on about her weightlessness, thinks to himself that it must be connected. As he leaves, however, he’s met by Senjougahara herself, who forces a boxcutter and a stapler into both sides of his mouth and demands that he stop prying into her business. Since he knows too much already, she tells him that she lost almost all her weight after she was confronted by a supernaturally powerful crab that she claims stole it from her, and ever since she’s been forced to hide this fact from everyone. Araragi is then coerced into agreeing to keep her secret, but she staples him in the cheek anyway just to make her point.

Araragi chases her down after recovering when he realizes that he can help her with her problem. and he convinces her to follow him when he shows her his cheek just a few minutes after she stapled it to reveal that the staple wounds have already healed. Because it turns out that the supernatural crab story isn’t some bullshit she just made up, and Araragi believes her because he’s had his own run-in with the supernatural. In his case it was a beautiful vampire woman who bit him and turned him into a follower before he was helped out by one Meme Oshino, a Hawaiian shirt-wearing guy who lives in an abandoned building and has the power to communicate with and expel gods, demons, and spirits. Araragi still has a few of the benefits of his former vampirism, including a fast-heal ability, but he’s more or less human again, and he now consults Oshino about other supernatural occurrences.

This is the beginning of Bakemonogatari, just the first part of a larger story about Koyomi Araragi and all the women who end up involved in his life. And aside from Oshino they are all women, some of whom end up having feelings for him. At this point, this might sound a lot like a harem anime, but it’s not exactly that. That’s partly because the show is focused a bit more on the various animal spirits that are causing problems for each girl in the cast, but also because Araragi quickly gets into a relationship with Senjougahara, the very same girl who stapled his mouth in the first episode. And it’s a relationship that both of them seem firmly committed to. There’s no wavering between different heroines in this one as there is in so many harem series, where the protagonist is a clueless dumbass too dense to understand what’s going on or to make up his mind and commit himself to someone.

His willpower does get tested, though

Their relationship is also tested from the very beginning by these supernatural incidents. Bakemonogatari is a faithful adaptation of the original novel series by author Nisio Isin, and like the novels it’s divided into five parts based on each new heroine and the animal spirit-related affliction she’s dealing with: Hitagi Crab, Mayoi Snail, Suruga Monkey, Nadeko Snake, and Tsubasa Cat. In each of these parts, Araragi takes it upon himself to help the affected person with the aid of the spiritual expert Oshino and his growing group of friends and confidants.

It soon becomes clear that Araragi is the kind of guy who will throw himself into a situation to save pretty much anyone without giving it a second thought. There wouldn’t have even been a story if not for that — the reason Senjougahara attacked him with a stapler in the first place was to drive him away, yet he still insisted on helping her after all that. And Senjougahara decides and then immediately announces that she loves him when, instead of just walking away from a problem to benefit himself, he shows the same compassion to the grade school girl Mayoi Hachikuji in the following part.

In the third arc, Araragi’s attempts at heroics nearly get him killed even with his quick healing ability, and only the intervention of Oshino and Senjougahara saves him. He ends up making a new friend in his junior schoolmate Suruga Kanbaru after she’s rescued from her own supernatural possession, but it’s pretty clear now that Araragi is willing to jump into any kind of danger for the sake of others to a crazy degree, even to the point that he doesn’t think at all about his own well-being. As Oshino, Senjougahara, and other characters point out to him, he’ll probably end up facing serious consequences for that sooner or later.

That brings me to the first big strength I think Bakemonogatari has: the characterization. I had a strong sense of who Araragi and Senjougahara were from their interactions in the very first episode. Araragi’s heroics don’t come off as false, because we see that he’s committed to them not to get praise but because that’s just how he is, and Senjougahara’s coldness and awkwardness also seem to be not really an affectation but just a natural part of her character. Other characters, like Hanekawa, are kept more obscure for a while, but this is clearly because the writer meant to reveal more of them when the time was right. This became more obvious after I finished this first series and went back to rewatch a few early episodes; there are plenty of moments that hint at trouble coming up for certain characters, brief moments that might be written off the first time as no big deal.

While there are some action scenes in Bakemonogatari, a lot of the show’s time is taken up by dialogue that helps establish these characters. It’s not very realistic, at least from what I can tell — you’d probably have to be an expert in Japanese to pick up on the nuances in how the characters talk, but just from the subtitles it’s obvious that these conversations aren’t the kind people would have in real life. Some viewers might be annoyed by this, but I don’t have a problem with stylized dialogue if it’s done well and is entertaining, and the dialogue in Bakemonogatari is both. I like the kind of dialogue you find in Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson movies, so it probably makes sense that I’d like this too, because it’s the same kind of snappy, witty exchanges with some weird references and wordplay involved.

Some of the more specifically Japanese references go right over my head, and the stuff involving kanji is impossible to get unless you have some basic knowledge of how those characters work. Even the title of this first season, Bakemonogatari, is a play on two different words: bakemono, 化物, describing a supernatural monster or spirit, and monogatari, 物語, meaning “story” or “tale.”* The wordplay and pun material goes way deeper than just that once you get into the story itself. Still, a lot of it’s perfectly understandable even if you’re relying on subs to understand it.

I still don’t completely get this snail -> cow kanji thing in Mayoi’s arc though

This strong characterization is also helped out by the visual style the show has. The entire series is produced by Shaft, an animation studio famous for their unique approach. I first found out about them through Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, a dark comedy anime series they also produced about a suicidally depressed teacher and his strange class of students. Bakemonogatari is pretty different in a lot of ways, and it does look different as well, but it uses some of the same visual ideas. A lot of the animation has a slideshow-ish feel to it like SZS did, with screens like the one above explaining certain concepts to the viewer accompanying the dialogue.

The settings are also quite strange: Bakemonogatari takes place in what looks like a large city, but where most series would put in a lot of background characters and traffic, both the halls of the school and the streets outside are always empty except for our main characters. Maybe that’s done to emphasize just how different and weird these characters are compared to everyone else. If that was the intention, I think it worked pretty well: it was pretty easy for me to accept that the settings should feel empty, even if they look unrealistic as a result.

It’s not a ghost town, but it looks like one

There are also a lot of close-up shots of the characters’ faces. Sometimes while they’re talking, but at other times it’s just a second-long shot of an expression without any words. As with the dialogue and settings, these shots feel a bit strange, but they also fit the show’s style very well. It helps that they’re beautifully illustrated with a lot of detail, great takes on the character designs by the original light novel artist VOFAN. But some of these shots also say a lot without words, especially when they show up in the middle of a long conversation. They provide some of those foreshadowing moments I brought up above, and I think they’re a nice, subtle way of adding to the characters and the story as a whole.

Like this one of vampire girl Shinobu. Still not sure what her deal is exactly, but later series are supposed to involve a lot more of her and her connection with Araragi.

I also need to praise the soundtrack — the whole thing is excellent, from subtle background tracks like Suteki Mappou and Sanpo to all the character themes and the ending theme. A lot of work was put into the openings as well — there are several different OPs corresponding to each of the five character parts in this 15-episode run alone. My favorite out of the lot might be Renai Circulation, Nadeko’s theme, even though it got stuck in my head for days after I heard it. It was only after watching this series that I learned about its massive meme status, probably because it’s such a catchy song.

There’s one more element of Bakemonogatari I want to address: all the dirty jokes in it. There are quite a few of them in here, along with some extra-obvious fanservice shots. Hell, the very first episode starts with the wind blowing down the street and flipping Hanekawa’s skirt up, giving the viewer an extended and highly detailed look at what she’s wearing under it. I don’t know if this was the intent, but it seems like this scene was put right in front just to let the viewer know to expect this sort of thing, and maybe to quit right away if they’re put off by it. Or maybe it’s just Shaft doing their usual thing, because there were some shots like this in SZS too.

oh shit

I bring this element up because I’ve seen Monogatari criticized for being full of fanservice, or a “perverted” or “horny” show, or whatever terms people are using on Twitter and Reddit now for it. I can only address what I’ve seen in this first series, but a lot of these bits figure into the plot — Araragi is a guy constantly surrounded by girls some of whom are interested in him, so some of it’s natural. Even the more gratuitous-seeming stuff doesn’t come off as being mean-spirited, though. And when Bakemonogatari deals with serious matters like bullying, broken families, and parental neglect, it does so with the proper sort of respect for the subject.

All these apparitions and spirits the characters have to cope with show up as a result of these personal issues, and this serious treatment is appropriate and doesn’t feel out of place alongside the comedy or fanservicey bits of the show. In fact, those less serious parts feel like nice breaks from the heavier material. But I have an extra-high tolerance for that kind of stuff. If your tolerance is low, you might feel like turning off Bakemonogatari after the first ten seconds. I get why some people would do that, but I also think there’s a lot they’d be missing out on as a result.

Well, taste is taste anyway, and you don’t need anyone’s permission to like or not like something. It would be nice if more people acknowledged that fact, wouldn’t it?

So far, it’s a nice story about fighting with/trying to appease dangerous spirits and also about the awkwardness of relationships. I like it.

So those are my thoughts on Bakemonogatari. I’ll definitely be continuing the series from here on, trying to figure out exactly how and where to watch all the different confusingly named parts. It was enough of a pain to find the last three episodes of this first series; for some damn reason (licensing problems?) all the streaming sites only have episodes 1 through 12, leaving out the last three parts of the Tsubasa Cat arc. Of course there are various ways to find them, but I leave that to you and whatever search engine you prefer to use if you’re interested in watching this show. If you refuse to go that route and don’t want to pay out the ass for the very expensive Blu-rays, you can always read the third part of the light novel series, all of which is translated and officially released. And if you want a beat-by-beat in-depth episode analysis, Yomu is doing that very well over on his blog, so check that out if you’re interested.

The next anime series up will probably be something totally different in tone from this one, but I’ll also be seeking out the Kizumonogatari prequel movies to watch. I’ve heard they’re pretty divisive, which makes them more interesting for me to watch in a way. Until then, do your best to stay away from dangerous spirits and apparitions. They really seem like more trouble to deal with than they’re worth. 𒀭

* I’ve seen the title translated into English as Ghostory and Monstory in attempts to recreate that wordplay, but it seems like everyone stopped trying after the second series Nisemonogatari came out, and now the translators are sticking to the Japanese titles.

4 thoughts on “A review of Bakemonogatari

  1. The snail thing is actually really simple.
    One of the ways to write snail is: “蝸牛”, and the latter kanji, “牛” on it’s own means cow.

    The whole whirlpool & insect part is just explaining how to make the kanji 蝸 for snail.
    You take the right half of 渦 (whirlpool) and add 虫 (insect) to make 蝸, then add 牛 to create “蝸牛” (snail). I guess the logic behind the first kanji is “whirlpool insect” due to the spiral shape of snail’s shells. And then maybe they threw the cow kanji in there because snails are slow or something?

    I’m surprised to hear that the Kizu movies are divisive, I’d never heard that before. Everything I’ve read has been overwhelmingly positive about them, and rightfully so I think. What sort of criticism do people have about them?

    • Thanks for clarifying that. I knew 牛 was cow, but I think the part about the whirlpool radical and all that threw me off. I didn’t know 蝸, but the way it’s written makes sense because of the animal’s shape. I need to get back on my kanji studies.

      I’ve seen some people criticize the different look of it and some scene involving Hanekawa. I’ve already watched the first movie since posting this, and I liked it fine, so no problems so far. I haven’t been spoiled thankfully, so I guess I’ll find out what someone’s upset about.

  2. Merci pour cet article très complet !
    J’ai également écrit deux articles sur ce même sujet, mais centré sur un versant plus psychologique (vis-à-vis de Senjogahara, et la petite Maoi) Voilà :).
    En tout cas, je viens de découvrir ton blog et c’est une bonne découverte pour moi 🙂 !

    • Sorry I can’t respond in French, but thanks very much! There’s certainly a lot of psychological material in this show — it seems like it benefits from repeated views, there’s so much to miss the first time around. The Mayoi episodes were some of my favorites for that reason.

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