As we’re coming up on the summer anime season, I’ve been purusing 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.]
From the very first scene, the art direction of Bakemonogatari is mind blowing. Sometimes everything is drawn in a vivid color palate—though this can and does change at a moment’s notice. Other times it uses matte colors with no shadows. It has quick flashes of live-action scenes that appear seemingly at random as well as sketches modeled 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I really enjoyed Bakemonogatari. It is visually stunning, has great characters, an excellent story, and a witty humor 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 and can be watched for free on Hulu in America.
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