Since I have posted reviews on Facebook and Myanimelist before I started this blog, I figured I’d reupload those reviews on Fridays for the next couple weeks. Enjoy!
Anyone who has studied film has probably heard of the French New Wave (La Nouvelle Vague), a movement of French filmmakers breaking off from traditional Hollywood filmmaking to produce their own, low budget, artistic works. The Nouvelle Vague was highlighted by films that compensated for their low budgets with inventive camerawork that changed a story could be conveyed through jump cuts and excessive environmental imagery. Characters would foreshadow events, break the fourth wall, and display a sentient knowledge of their existence as fictional characters, accompanied with extensive knowledge of the genre they inhabitToday’s show, Bakemonogatari, is the animated equivalent of the French New Wave. It is an artistic overdose of beautiful imagery and metaphysical commentary and even having lacked the analytical mind to truly grasp the show’s brilliance when I first watched it, I kept watching simply because it was so alien to me that I had to delve deeper. Bakemonogatari is the story of Koyomi Araragi, a young man living in a small, normal provincial town in Japan, but who’s personal life is far from ordinary. Due to a dark series of events alluded to in the opening minutes of the first episode, Araragi is half vampire, a state upon which he was made by a powerful vampire who for reasons unknown to the audience, is now reduced to the form of a young girl, without the ability to speak. Her caretaker is Meme Oshino, a foreign man in a Hawaiian shirt with an encyclopedic knowledge of the supernatural. Araragi is acquaintances with Oshino, as Araragi, as if cursed, tends to attract all manner of supernatural occurrences to him.
Over the course of 15 episodes, Araragi encounters five young women who are in some way plagued by supernatural spirits and, being a good samaritan, works to try and save them from the apparitions plaguing them. The first girl, Hitagi Senjougahara, is plagued by an apparition that feeds on trauma in her family’s past. The second, Mayoi Hachikuji, is a young girl on her way to her mother’s house but due to some supernatural occurrence, is unable to make her way out of the city. Next is Suruga Kanbaru, Araragi’s underclassman. After coming in contact with the cursed limb of a monkey, her arm is transformed into that of a beast. The arm will take control at times and make Kanbaru go on violent sprees against the main character. Next, we have Nadeko Sengoku, a friend of Araragi’s younger sisters who’s life is threatened by a snake-like apparition that leaves snakeskin marks along her body. Finally, there is Tsubasa Hanekawa, Araragi’s best friend (and arguably best girl). Her apparition introduces a Jekyll and Hyde element to the story as she becomes a completely different person at night and a very violent person at that. The apparitions are seemingly random in symptom but all appear to the girls as animals. A crab, a snail, a monkey, a snake, and finally, a cat.
Araragi is an interesting protagonist because he is always trying to help people and this is both his greatest strength and his main weakness. It is a weakness that is at the heart of Bakemonogatari’s thematic hooks. Araragi wants to help these women and whether it is because of his admittedly childish sexual attraction or because of his innate kindness towards others, he goes through a shit ton of pain and agony and he is only able to survive torture after grueling torture because his vampiric abilities keep him from dying. This is a show about selflessness. It proposes that sometimes you cannot help everyone and that by succumbing to pain to help other people, you only make everyone else hurt. This is made more poignant by Araragi’s relationship with Senjougahara, who slowly becomes more intimate with him throughout the series. This, in turn, further strengthens Araragi’s struggle with whether or not to help people.
The three pillars of Bakemonogatari are visuals, dialogue, and characters. Before addressing the leading ladies, we have to discuss Meme Oshino and Shinobu, as their parts are significantly smaller than that of the rest of the cast in this first season. Oshino is as laid back as they come. He exists primarily to give advice to Araragi about the supernatural threats plaguing each of the girls. Much like Araragi, he wants to help, but his clients need to be willing to exert a significant amount of effort on their own end, as well as compensation. Shinobu, on the other hand, doesn’t have a lot of development, but it is clear that she and Araragi have the past and that he feels like he owes her in a way. This in a way connects to his impulse to help people.
As for the rest of the cast, the ladies of Bakemonogatari steal the show. Senjougahara is one of my favorite female characters. She is disarmingly commanding of attention, always saying exactly what she is thinking. She is sociopathic to a level only rivaled by that of Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock. Her chemistry with Araragi leads to some of the most entertaining moments of the series. Similarily, Kanbaru has great chemistry with Araragi, but more because she is always challenging Araragi’s sexuality, whereas Senjougahara is challenging Araragi’s logic and at times, his decency. Hachikuji and Sengoku are both on the younger side, Hachikuji being 11 and Sengoku being 13. Hachikuji is energetic and playful, very confident in herself. Despite this, she can also be quite mature when listening to others’ problems- especially Araragi’s. In contrast, Sengoku is very shy and timid, with a naive crush on Araragi, to the point of addressing him the same formality as that of an elder brother.
Whereas Hachikuji is deterred by Araragi’s jokingly pedophilic impulses in response to her cuteness, Sengoku demands that sort of attention, making her both adorable, but at the same time robbing her of any true character. Thankfully this lack of character pandering to the lowest denominator is addressed in later seasons and if you aren’t overly sensitive to this type of characterization, you will appreciate how adorable she is. Finally, there is Hanekawa. Tsubasa Hanekawa is a genius. She is deductive, insightful, and can see right through Araragi. I’m not sure there has ever been a single lie that has slipped by her from Araragi. In addition, she is disarmingly humble. Araragi will tell her that she knows everything, and Hanekawa will respond- every time- with her trademark phrase, “I don’t know everything. I only know what I know.” She is an angelic, bespectacled exposition machine that never ceases to have faith in her friends, and that makes her, like many of the characters in Monogatari, inherently awesome.
It should be noted that for all the praise I give the show for its characters, there is plenty of fan service. Fanservice is something that deters many people from watching anime. Now I’m no woman so I won’t pretend to understand how a female viewer feels about the portrayal of characters. What I can do is ask “did the sexualization serve a purpose?” Secondly, I can ask “did the sexualization make the character less respectable?” Pertaining to the first question, I’d say that there are only a few times when the fanservice served no purpose. As for the second question, the fanservice never resulted in me respecting the characters less. The sexualization was either meant as a joke, to illustrate some meta-commentary (arguably), or possibly because the artists just wanted to show off how beautiful their character designs are, which I can totally relate to.
Studio Shaft is famous for creating visually striking shows despite low budgets. The entire Monogatari series is a modern art piece in motion. The environments are often populated by minimalistic structures. The focal points of shots are accentuated by the very good use of primary colors. Whenever an anime displays very experimental, unusual, or trippy animation, people call it “pulling a Shaft”, a tongue in cheek phrase referring to studios echoing the works of Studio shaft and there is a bizarre honor to that. Shaft has pioneered an animation style of its own, which itself was an homage to the French New Wave. I could make an entire post about all the things I absolutely love about Monogatari’s visuals. And the best thing is that the show got even better over time. When the show aired on TV, there were some scenes that were not finished. But when the Blu-rays were released? It was phenomenal. However, good luck getting any entry in the Monogatari series for a reasonable price. Aniplex appears to derive pleasure from pilfering our wallets of over $100 just for 15 episodes because they decided to add a bunch of art books that still can’t make that price make sense.
Bakemonogatari is a beautiful collection of stories about helping out friends and lovers in need that is accentuated by masterful dialogue and a strong visual presence. It all culminates in an indulgent, thoughtful, and gratifying conclusion to a show that will draw in many with titillation, only to surprise you with pure art.
Where to watch it:
Bakemonogatari is available for legal streaming on Crunchyroll.com, however, only 12 out of 15 episodes are available for streaming. To watch the remaining three episodes will need to be viewed on Kissanime or another anime streaming site. It is also available on Blu-ray through Aniplex of America, but this is NOT RECOMMENDED as Aniplex’s Blu-ray releases are way too expensive.