Bakemonogatari – Review
Bakemonogatari has quite a bit of meta-fictional humour but it’s disappointing that it rarely goes beyond finger-pointing. Most of the time it just makes obvious references to other animes or acknowledges its anime-stereotypes.
Since the next winter-season will have Nisemonogatari airing I’ve thought that I should rewatch Bakemonogatari. The first time I watched it was when it aired and I’ve thought it was quite a good series. Of course marathoning it gave me a different impression than what I’ve seen the first time around. And if I had to decide whether watching the whole series in three days or watching one episode each week is the better way to enjoy this series, I would say the latter. The Shaft-style simply gets a bit repetitive if you marathon it. Bakemonogatari still had the Shaft-style reminding me of Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei and I think it was a good decision of Shaft (and Shinbou) to abandon that style when they made Madoka because if Bakemonogatari showed us anything then that a dominating Shaft-style no matter how well-done isn’t suitable for telling a story longer than a few minutes. The question now is whether Nisemonogatari will be like Bakemonogatari or whether it will follow in Madoka’s footsteps regarding its Shaft-style. In my case I hope for the latter.
Release-Date: 2009 (Net-Episodes: 2009/2010)
Episodes: 12 + 3 Net-Episodes
Synopsis:Although there are still traces of the brief period he became a vampire, third year high school student Koyomi Araragi is human again. He happens upon others with their own supernatural problems and finds that he can empathize. Koyomi becomes involved in their lives, seeking to help them and occasionally asking for advice from Meme Oshino, the homeless man who helped him become human again.
In my memory Senjougahara was this determined selfish girl who sarcastically called herself a ‘tsundere’ although she just pretended to have a ‘dere’-side thereby making fun of the notion that she needed to be moe or cute to be charming. But as I rewatched the series I was surprised to find out how faulty my memory of her was. She’s really a typical tsundere-character, probably one of the best out there following that stereotype. But I have to admit that I liked the version in my memory better.
Before Madoka magica Shaft had another success popularity-wise: Bakemonogatari. Shaft always had a unique style of animation and one may argue what it can contribute to an animes appearance and storytelling. Because it embraces the sort of abstract nature that isn’t really everyone’s cup of tea and is also hard to use without appearing to be purposefully enigmatic. Bakemonogatari surely is one of the better Shaft-series out there which also embraces its Shaft-y style. And the visual dominating Shaft-style seems strangely appropriate for this series because it is one of the few that favours style over substance. Bakemonogari isn’t deep but it has an unique charm.
The charm of Bakemonogatari relies heavily on its characters and their dialogue. The arc-based structure always concentrates on presenting one new character and the story on the whole never lets too many characters appear on the stage. If you have three characters standing in one room talking then you can consider the scene ‘crowded’. Therefore the dialogues structure is mostly something of a ‘action-reaction’-formula with the main-character being the one who reacts to something another character says or does. The dialogues then make it seem like the characters who are talking are playing a sort of game with each side trying to ‘outwit’ the other. This structure may seem monotone when I describe it now but what makes it work are the characters who are really good. They are given often a rather whimsical personality in terms of what they’re saying or doing. And whimsy attitude makes these dialogues rather unpredictable the first time you’re watching then. Because characterization isn’t used here to present a person with a multi-leveled psychosis which has to be solved by many episodes full of flashback and pondering dialogue, this series’ characterizations are secondary as that it’s done indirectly through the dialogue. Each character has an unique habit regarding the way he talks. Some characters even have catchphrases. What the characters lack in depth that way they gain in plain charm.
The story of Bakemonogatari follows an arc-based structure of the main-character meeting an Oddity and trying to help solving the problem whatever it is in each case. Unexpectedly this structure isn’t as repetitive as it’s usually the case with these kind of series and the term ‘Oddity’ doesn’t refer to a sort-of monster-of-the week-storytelling. There’s no apparent rule as to what exactly qualifies as Oddity and it gives the supernatural world a rather vague image. But I think in a 15-episodes-series it’s okay to leave it that vague (it’s of course another story when it comes to its sequel Nisemonogatari) and since the series has made it clear that it relies on its style rather than its substance one has to accept this decision made by the series. While it doesn’t get predictable in terms of the plot the tropes of the series are similar and connect the whole thing. It is a good decision storytelling-wise, I guess, but it diminishes the supernatural vibe of the series. Because the trope-connection is a rather daily-life-matter concerning the theory that facing the ugly truths of life and oneself is better than running away and finding a place to hide by lying, forgetting and so on. And the Nadeko-snake-arc and the tsubasa-cat-arc are my favourites for showing a supernatural world full of weird things. That’s what I wanted Bakemonogatari to be but most of the time the supernatural elements seemed to be ‘tacked on’, it was well done but it was ‘tacked on’ all the same. Because the whole story could’ve been told without the supernatural elements and it wouldn’t have changed a thing. Senjougahara didn’t need to be weightless to fall in love with Araragi and face the emotions resulting out of her past experience, Hachikuji didn’t need to be a ghost to be a child wandering off not willing to go home because of her parents problems and Kanbaru had psychological reasons as well doing stuff thinkable even without the supernatural explanation. Granted they would all end up being slightly crazy if you take away the comfort of blaming the supernatural for making them that way. But with the whimsy characterization they’re slightly crazy anyway. Especially Tsubasa Cat made it clear and the occasional flashback from Araragi as well that out there is a whole world of Oddities living in their personal shadow world. That’s the setting. But Bakemonogatari seemed at times like a guy meeting a black cat who then falls over his feet. And the explanation for the whole thing is a long-winded history lesson about the cat’s symbolic meaning and how it’s connected to bad luck. Throw in a few puns connected to the word ‘cat’ and its etymology. Then you invent some social drama why just that one guy got bad luck and you already have a typical Bakemonogatari-story.
If you ignore the charm of the characters and the dialogues then you get a rather average story of a guy helping girls with their problems while creating a harem. Bakemonogatari could’ve been another one of these typical shounen-harem-series with a bit of supernatural action. The quintessence of this series actually makes it out to be a rather generic offering. What changes this is on one hand its charming style and on the other hand that it’s very self-conscious. The way this series treats its own faults is really strange. On one hand it realizes that all these girls falling for Araragi is kinda strange and when Hanekawa proposed that it could’ve been a special power because of his vampiric nature I actually tended to believe her because it is ridiculous. It is the typical harem-mystery where there’s no apparent reason for the girls liking the main-character. But this series knows how mysterious the whole thing is. And the series addresses this point on many occasions especially concerning how Senjougahara and Araragi ‘shouldn’t be in love’. Now this part is really commendable and there’s also another example that Araragi’s endless compassion to help everyone he meets is addressed as something stupid. Where the whole thing starts to bother me again is when it simply accepts the silliness as if ‘God works in strange ways.’ is an explanation for everything. When the question comes up how Araragi and Senjougahara can be in love the answer is: What happens, happens. They love each other and things like that… happen. Okay, in terms of love I know some stories like to go for ‘love is a frigging mystery – so stop asking “why?”!’-route but this series doesn’t face its story-problems – it just acknowledges them. That’s just one of the two necessary steps to solve the problem of being stereotypical! This series believes to serve you a sweet cake who tastes sour saying ‘Yeah, isn’t it strange? A sweet cake solely based on lemons isn’t sweet.’. First the series starts talking and you get hopeful that you get to see a really excellent series but then… nothing. It’s like a failed parody because it takes itself far too serious. Yeah, even after fifteen episodes the relationship between Senjougahara and Araragie doesn’t become believable. Sure, they act all lovey-dovey and charming but Senjougahara’s ‘tsundere’-act is another one of this failed parodies because well, she is a tsundere. Like I said she has a distinct dialogue style which makes her character quite amusing but basically she’s still a typical tsundere. That doesn’t change only because she admits it herself, does it? It was frustrating for me to see these beginning of really good dialogue that just don’t go anywhere significant in terms of addressing the stereotypical ideas of this series at its foundation.
While some of the jokes aren’t really original the series has a good sense of timing. These jokes deliver their punchlines with a proper timing so that the series never dwells too long on its unoriginal parts.
Another thing that occasionally frustrated me was the animation. It’s Shaft so Shaft being Shaft they had (of course) to use their unique style. I’m certainly not one of their greatest fans and I don’t think this style is as good as Shaft (and Shinbou) seems to think. As for this series I would classify the Shaft-y bits in three categories in terms of what they intend to do: 1. Setting the atmosphere of a scene. 2. Characterizing a character’s mood visually. 3. Apparently nothing. I won’t talk about 1. and 2. because if you hate Shaft then you won’t like the style in all three instances and if you love Shaft you’ll probably only want to argue the third point. But if you’re in the ‘moderate camp’ like me you’ll want to know where the style isn’t the best thing since sliced bread. Most of the instances connected to three are the so-called “Unnumbered cuts” that come in variations of colour (black and red mostly) and just appear in place of a scene or interrupt a scene hinting at what’s supposed to happen on screen. At the start it is still an… let’s ‘interesting’ way to dictate a pacing in terms of scene-structure. Later, though, the usage of these ‘unnumbered cuts’ gets excessive and when a scene is visually interrupted not by one unnumbered cut but by two then it oversteps the boundary of being unique and goes into the territory of ‘forgetting what they actually try to do’. This is an anime and not an audio-drama! But because of these unnumbered cuts some scenes come dangerously close to be an audio-drama instead of a part of an anime-episode. It’s nice and all to have an unique animation-style but if it gets in the way of the animation itself? If I draw just a really tiny dot and call it a really tiny circle then people will argue by saying that they see a dot and not a circle and why shouldn’t it be what they see? In the same way if I see an unnumbered cut (a still image saying black, red or whatever) and hear just the sounds of a scene then that’s not an anime. An anime isn’t just sound and by taking the visual part away it’s not an anime anymore for this one particular moment. Another thing that falls under the 3.-category are these text-lines at the beginning of an episode which you can only read by having the video-file and constantly stop to read. Well, I’ve read them and yeah, it’s unimportant. Sure, it does add some extra information sometimes to what’ll happen in the episode or what Araragi is thinking but it’s nothing necessary. It’s the kind of stuff you use in a Novel to characterize but which is unnecessary in an anime where you can use the visual parts to indirectly give the audience the necessary information. So I assume these are lines from the original Light Novels. But it’s unnecessary and because of that I ask myself why it had to be in the series. It isn’t ‘stylish’ or anything, I don’t gain anything from reading it neither from not reading it. On the whole I think the Shaft-style is more helpful than anything else to support the ‘style over substance’-formula of this series but some usage of this style are simply too much.
Bakemonogatari is a good series but it strongly depends on how much you like Shaft’s style. The basic ideas of this series aren’t anything special and the series visibly struggles to make sense of its stereotypical elements. But in the end it isn’t its depth with which Bakemonogatari entertains but its charming characters and its witty dialogue. And those two things are more than enough to make this is an interesting and enjoyable series.