Finally, North America gets a Bakemonogatari release. We've waxed it enough at Japanator. It sold well. We thought it was a top 50 pick for the last decade. We also knew it was going to be really expensive if it ever made it here, and it is. We wished it was licensed, and now it is here.
Last week we dug into it with our grubby hands. Now we will go through its content blow-by-blow. Just what does this light novel adaptation has that other shows don't? Maybe we can escape this maze of words that is Bakemonogatari.
For all the fanfare surrounding this show, it's easy to forget that at its core, Bakemonogatari is a straightforward, Japanese-flavored supernatural mystery. Each story arc lives on its own Blu-ray disc within that simple 3-cased, 6-disc box set. Akiyuki Shinbo's adaptation is faithful, to the extent that Nisio Isin's manuscript, these seemingly endless streams of words that come out of the mouths of our protagonists, are preserved. It's probably a question I asked myself several times throughout my time with those 15-episodes: why do they have to say things this way or that? It's ornately verbose.
I suppose that is the charm. Bakemonogatari states the characters largely as the words they speak, because that's simply how they are expressing themselves first and foremost. But it goes overboard. Characters even talk about the way they talk about certain things in a conscious way. Thankfully, often it is a joy to follow those almost-inane threads of thoughts through loops of sophistry and fuzzy logic. In so much Bakamonogatari tells, it is showing us how these ideas discussed come to their inevitable conclusions--usually some sort of exorcism. Ultimately, Bakemonogatari does well with just words, it is the way its characters come to life.
On the flip side, Bakemonongatari is an anime where characters hangs around and talk until the cows come home. Oftentimes, the story's plot can be reduced to only a couple plot points. Maybe that conforms to the notion of the average Japanese youkai mystery, and how it is about wrangling forces of nature to restore the broken harmony that causes these supernatural problems in the first place. There is no epic quest to go on, and demons are deferred or tamed, not slain. As a result, the protagonists often don't have to do very much--sticking a talisman here, stand up and get beat up there, what have you. Much like the elaborate torrent of words that lines Bakemonogatari, even the things Arararagi does often is merely symbolic and artificial, just to trigger some kind of emotional state or perspective change. And before we get to those token acts, Bakemonogatari would talk your ears off first, or flood your with flashing on-screen text descriptions of what happened last week, so fast that you can't read it without pausing.
To boil it down further, Koyomi Ararargi is the main character in Bakemonogatari--he has parents, goes to high school, and has younger sisters Karen and Tsukihi. Over spring break, he encountered some supernatural creatures, mainly a dying vampire, and he ended up receiving a portion of a vampire's power. It all ended well, thanks to the aid of a modern-day shaman named Meme Oshino. That was roughly the first 10 seconds of the first episode.
For the series proper, Araragi would encounter a supernatural thing or event in each story arc. In the first story, Hitagi Crab, a "weightless" girl, Hitagi Senjyogahara, falls off a building and Araragi manages to catch her. Story 2, Mayoi Maimai, details the encounter of Araragi with a wondering ghost, who is a 5th-grader named Mayoi Hachikuji. Story 3, Suruga Monkey, talks about Senjyogahara's underclassman Kanbaru's homosexual tendencies, and how suddenly a mysterious monkey-like creature begins to beat up Araragi as a result of his relationship with Senjyogahara. The fourth story, Nadeko Snake, details one of Tsukihi's ex-classmate, Nadeko Sengoku, and her struggle with a deadly curse that was accidentally enabled from a series of coincidences. The fifth story, which is told in 2 parts (partly because the second part of the story was broadcasted via the web and home video only) is about Araragi's good friend, Tsubasa Hanekawa, and her stress-related "ailments." While each of these story arcs are standalone, the character development and relationships carry over from one to the next. The first three stories, which were collected from the first printed volume of the light novel, form a solid understanding of the key Bakemonogatari characters. As one can probably guess, like the presence of unreadable on-screen text, viewing the anime after reading the light novels may yield yet a different impression than someone who did not.
What is equally unusual about Bakemonogatari is the visual feast that went with the impressive ripartee. If Bakemonogatari was made in the 1990s, we might have gotten the slideshow treatment with flapping lips. In 2009 terms, Bakemonogatari was a visual art project that first showcased the animation direction, design and approach that we'll see in later SHAFT works, most notably in Madoka. The visuals that accompanied the story tend to be just as audacious as the outrageous words sometime spoken by the characters. The same, oppressive and massive architectural designs dot Bakemonogatari's landscape--it features one heck of a playground, for starters. Araragi's house, Oshino's hideout and even the bamboo forest that housed the snake shrine all featured iconic design flairs that a good Madoka fan can pick up, right there with the impossible head tilts that has been a signature of modern SHAFT animation.
When I think of Bakemonogatari being visually inventive, I mean precisely in the way how you can create interesting animation to the plot of talking heads. Even in the 10-second lead-in in the ED during Tsubasa Cat, there's so much visual information packed in there, it makes you realize much of the show is packaged in a similar way. There are a couple fight scenes that might be worth your attention, in a traditional anime production-value sort of way, but no one really should approach Bakemonogatari looking for that. Speaking of which, as much as I found the Suruga Monkey fight quite imaginative in a Kill Bill meets Maria Holic sort of way, it's as graphic as Bakemonogatari gets. In fact, for a late-night TV anime, there is relatively little in terms of visual fanservice or violence to speak of. In exchange, when there is, it made sure you were paying attention. The web-only episodes, especially, took a step up a bit with its live-action nudity, and the two Tsubasa Cat opening pushed the boundary just a little more than the rest of them.
The most famous thing that came of Bakemonogatari, besides its animation production delays and sales figures, is its musical pieces for each of the story arcs. On the Blu-ray set, you can find the creditless OP and ED for that story arc alongside each of the story arc disc, rather than all together. Perhaps for some people, being able to see "Renai Circulation" in its purest form (with and without hats!) is worth the price of entry alone. Bakemonogatari is otherwise musically competent, although it's nothing to write home about, besides that ending theme "Kimi no Shiranai Monogatari" is one of supercell's best.
Looking back to my first viewing of Bakemonogatari in 2009-2010, not much has changed today. I enjoyed it as much then as I do now, with perhaps one single exception: Senjyogahara. In as much as one can derive enjoyment from the verbal diarrhea the visuals, the neck tilts, the way the title card tells you it is written in HGP Mincho B font, or that there are countless remixes of "Renai Circulation" out there, it is still the characters and their interactions that stay with me. And more I think about it, the more I think most people loved Bakemonogatari because of the way Hitagi and Koyomi came together, we love the weird confession line in English, or that sly smile in a car ride with Mr. Senjyogahara. It is the one aspect of Bakemonogatari that has stayed with me these past couple years, and seeing the two teenagers come together yet again brings out a different flavor to the relatively cerebral stories.
Seeing the whole thing on Blu-ray and in a complete box also brought up two issues to my attention. First, the entire commentary tracks are now included, along with proper subtitles. For those of us aching for Japanese Blu-ray on disc bonus items, this is a pretty awesome deal. Unlike the usual commentary tracks, the voice actors reprised their roles in these commentary tracks, and it sounds more like a radio drama more than anything. That means now we have 300 or so minutes of translated Japanese back-and-forth to go with your sub-only Bakemonogatari video. That means twice the fun, and twice the verbal overload. (There's a separate subtitle track for the commentaries.)
Second, it is actually quite tiring to marathon Bakemonogatari, simply because there are so much to the wordplay, to the way each sentence and each logical thought segue into the next, and so quickly, on top of a very visually-dense presentation. I don't know if I love the way how Aniplex split up the series on 6 discs, but I appreciate that additional reason why they might do things this way (besides that it's nice to see each arc get its own packaging), just so you can take a break every so often.
The first and last major issue anyone could take up with the Bakemonogatari Blu-ray set is its price. I don't think I can change anyone's opinions and I don't plan to, but it sure is nice to have a product that is designed around the content, and not the same cookie-cutter mass-produced stuff that you can have for bargain basement prices in a couple years. Seeing that price tag, however, still jolts me out of my sense of value, despite that it is loaded with some of the things I love. The unfortunate truth is regardless of how the price may or may not be fair, the high cost of ownership will exclude a lot of people who love this show.
I am not someone who would hate something just because I can't afford it; there's little to Bakemonogatari that I hate at any rate. Rather, it is because we care about such an unique piece of animation and how its characters resonate with us, that we care about this really expensive Blu-ray set. And in the end, as long as you know what kind of otaku fodder you are getting into (in other words, try out the free stream on Crunchyroll first), Bakemonogatari is worth every penny.
8.5 - Great. 8s are great examples of their genre that everyone should see, regardless of their interest.
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