Yes, it’s even more Monogatari. I know, I said I’d mix things up, but I’ve been continuing this series and I keep finding there’s plenty to write about every time I finish each of its parts. So it was with Nisemonogatari, an 11-episode run from 2012 that picks up from where Bakemonogatari left off. At first I thought of it as the second season of the Monogatari series, but there’s a long run of episodes later on called Monogatari Second Season that also contains a bunch of other named series within it each with the -monogatari suffix. And it’s not even entirely agreed upon when you’re supposed to watch this: some say you have to watch the Kizumonogatari prequel movies before Nisemonogatari, and some say you can put them off to later. I already watched and reviewed those movies here, and I’m happy I did, because they provide context for an important character relationship that develops in this series.
I’ll get to that one later on, though. The more obvious focus of Nisemonogatari is the relationship protagonist Koyomi Araragi has with his little sisters Karen and Tsukihi. These two only very briefly show up in Bakemonogatari when they’re violently waking up their big brother by pummeling him while he’s in bed, but here they play central roles. The “Fire Sisters” as they’re known at their middle school dedicate themselves to fighting for justice, beating up bullies and the like. However, in the world of Monogatari even this kind of stuff can get you in serious trouble, which is exactly what Karen and Tsukihi both find themselves in. The entire season is taken up by just two parts, in fact: Karen Bee and Tsukihi Phoenix, each focusing mostly on the title character as before.
These two character arcs are quite different from the five that came before in Bakemonogatari, however. The title of this series is another play on words: nisemono, 偽物, means a fake or counterfeit. While it does focus partly on demonic or spiritual possessions, at its core Nisemonogatari is about fakes: distinguishing between the fake and the real and asking how or whether that difference matters.
Also, just a note to avoid confusion: I’ll be referring to almost all the characters by their first names from here on because we now have multiple Araragis active in the story. I’ve just gotten used to referring to most of these characters by their last names because that’s how they read in Koyomi’s narration, but it feels wrong to mix up the use of first and last names unless it’s necessary, or if it feels off to refer to them by their first name (like for Meme Oshino or another character who’s going to show up soon.)
Also, a general spoiler warning, because I feel it’s hard to say much about this series without getting into them to some extent. If you haven’t seen Bakemonogatari at the very least, none of this will make sense anyway. We’re in neck-deep at this point.
You might imagine that the start of a new Monogatari series should be a bit weird, or at least I did after just watching the first series and the prequel movies. So the opening scene with Koyomi chained to a chair in the old cram school, falsely imprisoned by his girlfriend Hitagi Senjougahara, isn’t such a big surprise. She hasn’t turned on him, though: she tells Koyomi that she’s chained him up to protect him, specifically from a man he briefly met named Deishuu Kaiki. This Kaiki is a conman, but from Hitagi’s description of him he seems to be more dangerous than the average grifter.
Hitagi chaining her boyfriend up makes some sense. As we know, Koyomi is the kind of guy to rush headlong into danger to save others. And since Hitagi knows this Kaiki character — he was one of several cheats who conned her family out of money when they were seeking a solution to her weightlessness problem — she knows how dangerous he is. (She also seems to enjoy having Koyomi at her mercy a bit in these scenes, but that’s to be expected from her at this point.)
Nevertheless, Hitagi allows Koyomi to go free pretty soon after tying him up thanks to a threatening call she gets from their classmate, one we know very well by now: Tsubasa Hanekawa. We only hear Hitagi’s side of the conversation, but knowing Tsubasa, this threat was made in her characteristically sweet way and with serious intent behind it. Hitagi even apologizes to Koyomi, but says she’ll be taking care of Kaiki either way.
And it’s a good thing Koyomi is now free to act, because Karen has already had a dangerous run-in with the conman after she sought him out specifically to “beat him up” for his crimes. She failed in her goal and was left ill with a fever that Kaiki induced through some kind of — magic? Power of suggestion? It’s not clear at this point, but when Koyomi consults with his sisters and Tsubasa back at their house, he starts to put the pieces together.
As in Bakemonogatari, Koyomi is surrounded by aberrations and supernatural dangers that aren’t quite what they seem at first. The story in Nisemonogatari is complicated by the fact that the aberrations this time fall into that theme of “fakes.” Kaiki himself is merely a conman; he denies the existence and power of magic, but he also knows that he can use those beliefs to his advantage by selling supernatural curses and cures to gullible middle school students.
Strangely enough, though, when he’s finally confronted by Koyomi and Hitagi, Kaiki quickly and easily caves in to all their demands, agreeing to close up shop and leave town. He also tells them that the illness he inflicted Karen with was really a sort of mind trick and will disappear soon, leaving her perfectly well. In the end, it seems Kaiki was only doing what he did for one reason: to make money. It makes more sense to him to cut his losses and leave town that to get into a fight.
The Tsukihi Phoenix arc uses this theme of fakes in a very different way. This time, the “fake” isn’t an antagonist, but rather someone very close to Koyomi — his own younger sister Tsukihi. After another run-in with an extremely dangerous person, the aberration specialist Yozuru Kagenui, Koyomi learns that Tsukihi is actually the manifestation of an immortal phoenix that’s reborn when a human infant is stolen and replaced. This phoenix is “evil” according to Yozuru and should be destroyed, despite the fact that it’s also harmless and doesn’t even realize it isn’t a real human. But hell if Koyomi is having that — phoenix or not, Tsukihi is still his sister. Enlisting the help of his vampire companion/mistress Shinobu, he fights Yozuru and her undead familiar Yotsugi until Yozuru either decides she’s bored and gives up or sees Koyomi’s way of thinking, walking away and letting the Araragi family live in peace again.
At the end of Nisemonogatari, as a consequence, all the counterfeits that came into the story are still around. Kaiki is still out there conducting his shady business, and the “fake” Tsukihi who doesn’t realize her true nature is still living her normal life. Yet it’s all okay. At least for the time being. This seems to be a running theme so far to these series. Each one has a dramatically satisfying ending, but a lot of things are still left to be resolved — they simply can’t be resolved because of weird or difficult circumstances. But that’s life, isn’t it?*
Nisemonogatari may just be the second series of Monogatari, but it does feel very different from Bakemonogatari in some ways. I didn’t measure it or anything, but it feels like there’s even more comedic banter between Koyomi and co. than there was in the first series. He spends most of the first two episodes making the rounds, visiting and talking with each of his lady friends before the plot starts in earnest with Hitagi chaining him up, and even deep into the seven-part Karen Bee arc there’s plenty of messing around. This is combined with some of the usual fanservice stuff I now expect from this series: again, even more of it than before. And then there’s the infamous toothbrush scene in episode 8, which I can’t even do justice with words. If you haven’t seen it, you just have to watch it for yourself. It’s weird as hell to say the least.
Because of all this, I can’t say I blame people for thinking this series is self-indulgent. Nisemonogatari especially indulges in a whole lot of the above stuff. However, again I think most of this messing around isn’t here just for the sake of fanservice or to show off the writer’s clever wit (though I think those are probably reasons as well.) A lot of the banter establishes characters and relationships between them, sometimes in ways that are easy to miss the first time — one of those cases of “you might not have noticed, but your brain did.”
One of my favorite scenes in the series is part of a conversation between Koyomi and Tsubasa where they’re discussing Karen’s fever, and during which Koyomi refers to his sisters as “Karen-chan and Tsukihi-chan”. Apparently it’s a bit weird to refer to a younger sister using the -chan honorific, or maybe it’s weird if you’re a guy or something. Because Tsubasa instantly seizes on it and makes a bit of fun of Koyomi for it. When he self-consciously tries switching over to simply calling them “my younger sisters”, Tsubasa even stops him and reminds him that they’re “Karen-chan and Tsukihi-chan” with a sweet smile.
I get the impression that Koyomi referring to his sisters in this way shows how close he feels to them and how much he cares about them in a way that some older siblings might not, but also that he feels a bit embarrassed about that. While Tsubasa makes fun of him for it, she also seems to recognize this in Koyomi, and maybe she envies those relationships being an only child herself, and one who’s living with a lousy family situation on top of that. I feel like this is no accident: these and other exchanges show how subtle the writing in Monogatari can be; through one short exchange it can convey important information about the characters and their feelings.
Speaking of feelings, there are a lot of those to be resolved between Koyomi and Shinobu, and Nisemonogatari shows us some real progress in that relationship. Shinobu, that blonde vampire girl who all the way through Bakemonogatari was silent and sullen-looking, decides early in the series to start talking to Koyomi again. And I like the way the story handles their relationship from here on: Shinobu declares that they won’t and shouldn’t forgive the other for how they’ve hurt each other, but that doesn’t mean they can’t work together. Koyomi accepts this arrangement gladly, and from here on he has a vampire living in his shadow who he has a telepathic connection with, except when she decides to manifest in the real world to complain that she wants him to buy doughnuts for her.
This relationship progress is part of why I completely agree with those who say you should watch the Kizumonogatari prequel movies between Bake and Nise — they provide all the context for the complicated connection and history between Koyomi and Shinobu. Without that, Shinobu might just seem like some vampire girl Koyomi happens to know because he’s a weirdo who keeps attracting and getting attached to mythical beings and demigods. Which she is, but she’s also much more than that to him, as he is to her.
I look forward to their unusual relationship developing through the entire Monogatari series, but just watching their banter here is fun too. Though Shinobu refers to Koyomi as “my master” and omaesama (an archaic respectful form of “you” and a reminder that she learned Japanese back in the 17th century) she still acts pretty superior to him, albeit in a friendly way. At the very least, Koyomi has come to expect that attitude from Shinobu, and they have a nice working relationship at this point.
The technical aspects of Nisemonogatari are still excellent. It all looks just as Shaft-ish as you’d expect if you’re familiar with the studio; there are still all the weird scenery, head tilts and poses, cutaways to screens full of text, and the other usual weirdness that seems to be connected to director Akiyuki Shinbou. The music is once again great, suiting and enhancing the moods the show creates (and adding another earworm OP with Tsukihi’s theme Platinum Disco.) And the character models still look nice and very distinctive. I brought up original designer VOFAN who created the cover art for the novels, but the anime characters were designed by Akio Watanabe, and they’re both now favorites of mine after seeing so much of their work in Monogatari.
I wasn’t planning to address this aspect at first, because I already did somewhat in my Bakemonogatari and Kizumonotagari posts, but Nisemonogatari turns up the sexual innuendo scenes between Koyomi and the girls around him to such an extent that I feel I need to bring it up once again. I read on another blogger’s site some time back (I can’t find the link anymore, otherwise I’d post it) that he was happy about Koyomi getting knocked down a few pegs later in the series because the character was too flawlessly noble and might give some viewers the impression that as long as they’re nice and helpful, they can be just as pervy as Koyomi gets sometimes and still have the favor of the women in their lives.
However, while I agree that getting knocked down is great and even a necessity to keep things interesting and help the protagonist of a story learn more and grow as a character, I don’t see Koyomi or his antics in the same light as this blogger did. Partly because Koyomi does come off as quite a flawed character. It’s important to remember that the novels up to this point are written from Koyomi’s perspective, and though I don’t ever get the impression that he’s trying to mislead the reader/viewer, he is a pretty unreliable narrator sometimes. He has noble intentions and wants to save people, yes. And if he seems “too flawlessly noble” sometimes, this is probably a function of his being in his own head a lot.
But he also doubts himself and his own intentions pretty often. Even in Nisemonogatari, where his relationships with Hitagi and his various friends are pretty solid and well-established, Koyomi’s views are challenged by the new antagonists Kaiki and Yozuru, who aren’t even painted as necessarily evil, but rather as people with very different approaches and philosophies that clash with his. In other words, he’s not a Mary Sue. He doesn’t do what he does to pump up his ego but rather because he just feels he must. Even then, he doesn’t get a pass when he screws up, least of all from himself. And while Koyomi does have a sort of “harem” around him, with a couple of other characters having pretty obvious feelings for him, I haven’t yet gotten the impression that Monogatari is meant to be the kind of power fantasy that some actual harem series might be.
Aside from that, I don’t think anyone (in their right mind, anyway) would watch Koyomi doing his thing and think “oh, I can do that in real life and it won’t be a problem!” Maybe I’m wrong, but I feel these antics of his are so over-the-top that they come off as complete jokes. These scenes are unrealistic, just like the unrealistic dialogue in the series, and that feels very intentional. I think viewers can pretty easily see the difference between actions and consequences in the narrative of Monogatari and in real life for that reason. (And anyway, if off-color material is how we’re judging that, Suruga has him beat.)
You might think that those two would clash with each other. If this story were in the hands of a less clever writer, they probably would. But Nisio Isin manages to combine unrealistic situations and character actions with very real-feeling sentiment in a way that works. Even that Nadeko section of episode 2 that’s seemingly disconnected from the rest of the story, where she’s doing her best to seduce Koyomi, feels like it’s setting up a future plotline. Although it’s played off like a joke, it’s been obvious for a while that she’s in love with him, and I get the feeling this is going to cause serious problems later on for both of them. And just what the hell is Nadeko hiding in her closet, anyway? Maybe we’ll find out in the second season, because that few seconds of dialogue about it feels extremely ominous.
And that’s it for this part of Monogatari. I see why people have some issues with this run of episodes considering, again, how much messing around there is even compared to the first one. I wrote in my review of Kizumonogatari that I thought that set of movies was divisive, but I think now I was wrong — this is the divisive series, at least as far as those I’ve watched, and judging from what else I’ve read about it. But I like the mix of banter and comedy with drama and action that Monogatari has been using up to this point. Nisemonogatari carries the “screwing around” aspect further than the others I’ve watched so far, but I think it still manages to keep plenty of substance mixed in with all the style.
Now it’s on to the next series and the last of this first season of Monogatari: the four-episode Nekomonogatari Black, which despite the short length will get a post all to itself. It’s another prequel, taking place before Bakemonogatari and telling the story of Tsubasa’s initial possession by a wild cat spirit, an event that until now has been referenced a lot but not actually shown. I’m betting that, as usual, the story won’t be a straightforward one.
* Edit: Looking back at it, that seems to be part of the point of Tsukihi’s story anyway: the fact that the fake tries to be genuine makes it more valuable than the real thing, so there’s really nothing to “resolve” about Tsukihi anyway. Though ask a coin dealer the same question about counterfeits and you’ll get a very different answer.