Anime Review: Bakemonogatari

Thanks to a chance encounter with a vampire, high school student Koyomi Araragi became aware of ghosts, spirits, and other aberrations. Bakemonogatari tells the story, from Araragi’s viewpoint, of five girls who have been possessed (or cursed) by such spirits. Each story arc has Araragi getting involved with a new protagonist. Out of a sense of duty, he takes it upon himself to rid each girl of her curse.

Plot

I’ve come to think of Bakemonogatari as a show about pain – about the emotional tolls of loss, and how to overcome them. It’s certainly difficult to tag the series with other, more convenient genre labels. Bakemonogatari has the trappings of an occult action/comedy, but I don’t feel like it succeeds on that front. It doesn’t entirely work as a romance either, since the main love interest only gets a short story arc before fading into the background. But on the topic of pain, it manages to probe surprisingly deeply and reaches some fascinating conclusions.

Each story arc explores some kind of loss and the emotional burden it creates. This causes the heroine to become susceptible to possession by an aberration, a spirit which eases the burden on its victim but at a cost to her physical or psychological well-being. Eventually the victim realizes something is wrong, and in comes Araragi to save the day. All the story arcs feature variations on this general structure. This puts the focus on the nature of each character’s emotional turmoil, and the kinds of truths they can reveal.

Take for example the first story arc, “Hitagi Crab.” Araragi’s classmate Hitagi Senjougahara literally falls into his arms. Instead of love at first sight, we see hostility and mistrust because Araragi has discovered her secret: she has almost no weight. Eventually we find out that Senjougahara has been possessed by a crab spirit which has lifted some kind of psychological burden from her, the side effect being that it also reduced her physical weight. Seeking a cure, Senjougahara follows Araragi to meet Oshino, an expert in such cases of possession. They discover that Senjougahara brought the “curse” upon herself, wanting to erase the pain from a childhood ruined by a neglectful mother and con artists. In the end, Senjougahara decides that she needs her pain to be whole, and that she’s worse off by cutting off all social bonds.

In just a summary of the first arc (which only spans two episodes), you can see the kind of complexity involved in Bakemonogatari‘s storyline. What I like most is that Senjougahara’s background of child abuse is not played for melodrama. Her life isn’t instantly set right by Araragi’s intervention, nor is she freed from her burden by a good cry. It’s more about how Senjougahara’s past defines her, good parts and bad, and what she needs to do to have a future. I also find it interesting that Senjougahara didn’t end up spurning her mother, who almost got her raped by an older man. It’s a conclusion that probably fits better in Japan than a gung-ho feminist America, but that’s exactly what I like about it. It’s not an easy conclusion; it doesn’t fit part and parcel in a neat package because that’s usually how life is.

Bakemonogatari has aspirations toward other genres, and I find it less effective in this regard. Let it be known that I do not shun Japanese humor, but the jokes here get can be too predictable. The genuinely funny moments lie in the little winks and nods toward pop culture, especially internet culture, but I can live without all the word play. While it also has inklings of horror, action, and romance, I only found the latter really enhanced the story. The action scenes are quite well done but I never felt that they moved the plot along. Of course, you also get a sizable amount of fanservice. My official stance: almost every show is going to have it from here on out, so either sulk and never enjoy anything new, or just live with it. That said, the very first scene is a five second full-frontal panty shot.

I find myself admiring Bakemonogatari for its unflinching exploration of difficult themes: loss, pain, abuse, self-worth, and dysfunctional families. Stranger yet, the series wraps these subjects with enough humor and sweetness that it never feels oppressively moody or bleak. It’s bold, daring, and wholly unconventional – not a show for everyone, but definitely a show for me.

Characters

Most of the series’ strength comes from its characters, who are all well-written and (mostly) get the right amount of screen time. The story arcs focus on two characters at a time: Araragi and one of the female protagonists. Each arc uses them slightly differently, playing various tricks or even inverting the story structure I laid out previously (in particular, look at the “Mayoi Snail” arc and think about who’s really possessed and who really needs help).

What’s great about the writing is that each of the protagonists serves as an entry point into one of the show’s themes, but they also are written as actual people. They each have their quirks, behavioral patterns, likes, and dislikes played out. I feel that Bakemonogatari is more of a show about introspection than conflict, so it was not as important to make me be able to cheer for its cast. Even so, I found myself completely in love with the cast by the end. One example that sticks out is the second half of episode twelve. It features Senjougahara and Araragi going on a date. The setup is so simple, but the dialogue is spot-on: sweet, tender, funny, and completely character-appropriate. It made me feel some portion of the love they had for each other, and justified their in-story relationship.

Because of the care paid to each character’s personality, an anime so permeated with mythological creatures can ultimately be about people. The character writing reinforces the idea that Bakemonogatari is about how and why we feel, and not about, well, ghostbusting.

Technical

Bakemonogatari is infamous for its “quality,” being notably incomplete for its original run. It took almost a full year for the 15 episode series to be fully released, and it wasn’t until the DVD/Blu-ray release that all the animation could be completed. I’m basing this review on the Blu-ray version, so readers beware: watching the original broadcast version will lead to a significantly degraded experience.

The series features a unique style, a fusion of SHAFT’s production and Nisio Isin’s writing. As such most of the story is conveyed in dialogue, although annoyingly a lot of it is also told through too-quick-to-read title cards. On the point of Nisio Isin’s writing, this is one area which aggravates me. Bakemonogatari does little with its story that can’t be done on a radio drama. The visual element seems like a separate entity at times. You get a lot of spoken humor (particularly word play) intermingling with occasionally relevant visual gags. When the script and animation do sync up, the effects can be incredible. Desperate situations are made more tense by silent flashes of Araragi’s inner thoughts, for example, and romantic scenes are all the more touching when meticulous attention is paid to Senjougahara’s body language.

Whatever may be said about the show’s animation direction, I have to give it credit for not looking like anything else out there. The overall visual design is impressive, often evoking feelings of isolation or alienation. Each frame is well-crafted, camera angles are thoughtfully chosen, and scenes are composed so well that I found myself pausing just to stare for a bit.

The sound design exhibits a similar level of quality. The background music in particular fits well with the eclectic nature of the show, spanning all sorts of styles from cinematic to J-Pop to Latin. Each story arc has its own opening theme that tells you a little about what you’re going to see. The piece of music I like the most is the ending theme, Supercell’s “Kimi no Shiranai Monogatari.” It’s not just a bit of musically rich J-Pop; it captures the very essence of the show: the hidden pains and narratives that we keep to ourselves. It’s a very Japanese concept, which I love.

SHAFT rounded up an experienced cast for the voice work. Hiroshi Kamiya (whose most iconic role is probably Nozomou Itoshiki from Sayonara, Zetsubou Sensei) provides the fast talking voice of Koyomi Araragi. He’s not especially good or terrible, but fits the role. I was impressed by Chiwa Saito’s performance as Hitagi Senjougahara, though I was even more impressed when I found out she voiced Strike Witches‘ Francesca Lucchini of all people. Veteran voice actress Yui Horie plays a large part as Tsubasa Hanekawa, although for the amount of hype she’s gotten, I didn’t find her performance to be that distinctive. Finally, I always appreciate any appearance by Fumihiko Tachiki (that’s freaking Gendo Ikari, dear readers) even if it’s in a bit part.

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