Bakemonogatari is my first introduction to Nisioisin and to Shaft as an anime studio. I had tried to watch the show in fansubs when it first came out, as it hadn’t been licensed, and I remember being struck by the visuals of the series and the level of visual style – I could tell that the show was doing something – but I couldn’t tell yet, and I ultimately decided that I’d get around to it once the show had finished. And then I forgot about it entirely until this past year, when I decided it was time to finally get around to watching the damn thing – and I’m glad I finally have.
Bakemonogatari follows Koyomi Aragi – a high school student in his senior year, and is told exclusively from his perspective. He has previously had various run-ins with supernatural entities in the past, and over the course of this season he runs into several others, starting with his classmate Hitaki Senjougahara – who has been on the receiving end of a curse that renders her almost completely without weight. Along with his semi-mentor figure Meme Oshino, and the vampire he had previously been bound to, Shinobu, Aragi helps Senjougahara free herself from her curse.
As the series goes on, Aragi ends up helping out two other classmates – Suruga Kanbaru (cursed by a Monkey’s Paw), and Tsubasa Hanekawa (possessed by a Bakeneko), and two younger girls – Mayoy Hachikuji (cursed with the spirit of a Wandering Cow – sort of), and Nadeko Sengoku (cursed by a snake by one of her classmates due to a romantic complication.)
So, this show has style for days. Chief Director Akiyuki Simbo does a tremendous job of using a really powerful visual aesthetic with the show – the world has a pronounced sense of reality and unreality, all at the same time, going right from the jump. The classrooms in the show, on the one hand, have your familiar Japanese classroom look to them. On the other hand, well, our opening shot is in a spiral staircase that feels bigger than any spiral staircase in reality could ever be. It’s a level of stylization that reminds me a lot, also, of some of Kunihiko Ikuhara’s work (particularly some elements of the setting of Utena).
Simbo had done some of this before with Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei and Pani Poni Dash, but both of those were using that to a degree of exaggerated comedic effect. While Bakemonogatari has comedy, Simbo feels much more like he’s using this unreal reality to promote a sense of unease. That a scene that starts out with two characters exchanging witty banter could transition to one character trying to beat the other into red (or technicolor) paste (something that Aragi’s previous vampire experience gives him something of an ability to survive, to an extent).
This is also emphasized by the use of on-screen text. Like Hideaki Anno in Evangelion and His & Her Circumstances – Simbo uses on-screen text in Bakemonogatari to emphasize certain pieces of information and heighten mood (and occasionally explain some puns). However, it’s used less to convey information the way that Anno does. Instead it’s used to build the mood, and occasionally to either foreshadow plot points (by using a relevant passage from the novel as on-screen text at the start of the episode where that plot beat happens), or as a call-back.
This fits with the show feeling strongly like it’s from Aragi’s point of view – moving some of the male-gaze perspective shots of female characters somewhat from the textual elements of “The director is perving on the female cast” to “The point of view character is perving on the female cast (and the director is perving with them)” – still problematic, but in a different way. It keeps the tone of the series at the forefront, and actually works well with some of the underlying themes of the show.
Getting into spoilers for a 13 year old anime here, but the show does a really good job of drawing attention to how each character’s supernatural malady is impacted by their own life issues, to a degree that if you didn’t have Aragi getting swung around like a rag doll by his entrails, you could make an argument that there were no actual supernatural elements to the story. For example, Senjougahara’s curse is born out of her desire to “not be a burden” to her family, as the relationship between her parents became estranged, leading to her curse, and then also to her divorce after she was nearly sexually assaulted by a member of a cult her mother joined. Kanbaru’s curse is born of her wishing to be fastest at track – only for her main competition to be injured (now making her fastest), and her internalizing that, and her own subconscious desire to have wanted to see those people injured (which she would otherwise not act on) giving her a sense of guilt. That sort of thing.
It makes for something a lot… deeper in some respects than some other light novel supernatural mystery fare. It’s not super dense and philosophical, but it has more breadth to it, and I think that’s ultimately what has helped give the Monogatari series legs. It gives us something a little more to chew on, thematically.
I’m definitely looking forward to moving on to the novels in the future and comparing those.
Bakemonogatari is currently available in a prestige release from RightStuf (affiliate link) – and as of this writing is available for streaming in HD in its entirety on Funimation, and is available through episode 12 in 480p on Crunchyroll. Presumably, with the migration to Crunchyroll, the full HD version of the series will be available there eventually.