Despite the amazing diversity one can find scanning the anime landscape, it can actually be difficult to find a show that treats its subject matter as casually as Bakemonogatari does. Monsters, ghosts and legends that would strike terror into the heart of normal people are regarded by the show's characters much in the same way that one might regard a home plumbing issue. When Hitagi Senjougahara tells Koyomi Araragi of a crab that stole 90% of her weight, he more or less goes "Oh, I know a guy for that. He helped me out when I was a vampire one time." Meh.
That nonchalance isn't so much a sign of callousness or disrespect; rather it's an indicator of Bakemonogatari's true intentions. Ghost stories and folk monsters (Bakemono) are merely a device, a channel for intensely personal, even touching stories (Monogatari) to be told.
Read on for a bit more about what makes Bakemonogatari one of the most striking shows in years.
It's difficult to speak of specific events for fear of spoiling the plot, but the first episode doesn't quite drive home the the show's more unique qualities. The first few action-packed minutes are more from a of a bog-standard (if mature) adventure show, rather than a true character-driven production. However, glimmers of hope do shine on through, just enough to hook a willing viewer.
Bakemonogatari operates with an aura of self-awareness that just barely skirts the edges of cynicism, combining familiar otaku references with clever wordplay. Early on, Hitagi proclaims herself to be a moe character of the tsundere archetype, only to have Koyomi mentally retort that she's more of a "tsundora" (literally "tundra," a slang word for a cold, unfunny person). Later, Hitagi speaks of the kanji in "mitoreru" (to be fascinated) being a more sensitive alternative to "moe," thanks in part to a few shared strokes. It really drives home how much of an art punning can be. The curious decision to forgo the use of hiragana in all the text is hell for beginning readers, though.
The self-awareness persists into the show's visuals, which give the impression that studio SHAFT managed quite a lot while seemingly spending very little. To its credit, I wouldn't be exaggerating to say that any given frame of a Bakemonogatari episode would make a great desktop background. That said, more often than not those background are almost entirely static. Strikingly colored and expertly composed, but almost frozen. Oftentimes the only things moving are the character's mouths, constantly spouting streams of NISIOSIN's excellently written dialog.
Flat red or black screens disguise jump cuts from one angle to another. Any extra effects are handled with CG or slow, eroge-style slow pans. Combined with the back-and-forth banter, even the most relaxing scenes brim with an almost threatening feeling of tension. The cuts and sudden changes in animation speak of that self-awareness, as if SHAFT is telling the viewer "look, you already know what supposed to happen in this scenen, so we'll skip a few frames and get to the good stuff, how 'bout that?" Rather than looking cheap, Bakemonogatari looks more like a show that restrains itself, carefully managing its animation budget, waiting to splurge on brief peaks of intensity, be it a revealing emotive expression or sudden, uninhibited moment of violence, the few signs that something isn't quite right in this otherwise mundane high-school character show.
Speaking of characters, Hitagi Senjougahara stands as the show's true star, a sort of anti-tsundere tsundere, one that discards (or perhaps internalizes) the extraneous moe in favor of subtlety and grace. In fact, it's a testament to her character that she actually shows the tsundere archetype to even be capable of subtlety and grace. Chiwa Saito never raises her voice, delivering all of Hitagi's lines in an even, unflappable tone, conveying a sense of authority, one so strong that even the briefest concessions to makes to emotion - be it the faintest smile, a slight scowl, or a telling blink of the eye - feel like a reward, a relief from the building tension, rather than a forced exercise of tired cliches.
Other members of the cast ostensibly fit their mandated stereotypes, their true depth revealed by their individual, paranormal circumstances. In light of that, it almost feels refreshing that the protagonist, Koyomi Araragi, acts much as the typical harem-show hero: a standard Nice Guy, too kind for his own good, devoted to the rescuing any and all in need. Again, it comes to Hitagi to expose both the pros and cons of that attitude. At the same time, Koyomi's few references to his past - specifically his short stint as a vampire - hint at something deeper, piquing one's curiosity. Just what happened that spring break that inspired him to change into the sort of person that - fortunately - could put a dent in Hitagi's emotional armor?
I've slathered a lot of praise on the show so far, but to keep going would reveal spoilers, so I'll have to end it here. Needless to say, any otaku with blood in his veins should give Bakemonogatari a look.
Please license Bakemonogatari!
Oh, and on Blu-Ray!