May 20, 2013

Anime Review: Bakemonogatari & Nisemonogatari

Bakemonogatari and Nisemonogatari titlesNow a mostly-cured human after briefly becoming a vampire, our high school senior hero Araragi finds himself mixed up, primarily due to his meddlesome nature, with a number girls each of whom is involved with various sorts of ghosts, gods, and spirits.

Impossibly surreal and artsy. Bakemonogatari is sharp, clever, and rhythmic. It is a love it or hate it series, though. Either you dig its eclectic style of backgrounds and architecture, symbolism, character dynamics, and dialogue, or… you find it grating, pretentious, and pointless.

A head-on view of the main character Araragi Koyomi running arms out along a fenced-lined sidewalkThe title is a portmanteau of “ghost” (bakemono) and “story” (monogatari) and so it sort of translates to “ghostory”. The second series, called Nisemonogatari executes a similar language trick, combining “impostor” (nisemono) and “story” into something like “impostory”. This titular word play is the first clue that the show likes to play with language, imagery, and style. Sometimes breathtaking, often confusing, and occasionally lucid, the story is broken into several major arcs centered around one of the female characters and her supernatural situation. Refreshingly, it never really becomes a harem per se, as the girls, while often reeking of common archetypes at first, are distinct and maintained throughout the rest of the series. Helpfully, this avoids that too common disconnected problem with characters disappearing after their story bit is over. Not so here! Each one manages to find a place in the story and become contributors in their own way to the weird tale. Mostly, this is through one-on-one interactions with our male lead Araragi. In fact, dialogue is a major component of the storytelling, although the visuals provide the sub-textual sugar and spice.

A close-up bird's eye view of one of the Fire Sisters sitting on the side of the bed looking up nervously yet expectantly

So often episodes will spend ten plus minutes with nothing but two characters talking in the same room or place. And yet, somehow, it manages to make it incredibly engaging through a combination of wit and movement: scenes will flit about as they talk with sharp jump-cuts littered profusely, highlighting a slight movement or showing a different (and often odd) angle, all usually in frequently symbolic time with the words being said. This keeps things fresh, dynamic, and lively, despite the fact that often they are doing nothing more than standing or sitting in the same area for several minutes talking. So much more is said by the camera, it becomes a third voice in these scenes, especially since a lot of characters are given to unclear motives and whimsy as per their assorted personalities. Everything feels clever and revealing, smart and humorous, and carries a sort of cadence and rhythm to the back-and-forth.

One of the main girls, Hitagi, from the side sitting on tatami mats at a table, holding herself protectively

But, then again, that is often all it is: talking. Only occasionally are there interesting "action" scenes. When they happen, they are highly competent and engaging and fantastically animated. Hell even the more “static” scenes tend to be a feast, not just due to the interesting and engaging movement of the camera, but also just the style of presentation. Often backgrounds and environments are heavily stylized, with lots of contrast, monochromatic elements, and surreal symbolism.

But this all comes at a heavy cost, as the show can and does collapse under its own stylistic weight sometimes. Whole episodes can go by where you feel like it was being really savvy and sexy but can hardly recall what’s going on. What I mean to say is that it can be a bit confusing, to say the least. On the plus side, I suppose it does reward re-watching, as you’ll get a second chance at following along as well as seeing all of that lovely animation budget put to such good use (especially during Nisemonogatari, where it seems they got a significant boost in budget even over the first series).

Araragi power slides on a bicycle away from the camera while looking back dramatically

Honestly, I cannot recommend the series enough. Each of the characters manages to be as memorable as they are enjoyable and varied, especially the stand-out Hitagi,Hitagi, chin up and back-lit, looks down and to the side at the viewer with a very slightly playful yet confident face although some of them do require waiting till the second series to find their groove (or in some cases, like the Araragi “Fire Sisters”, some actual screen time). Even though it has some problems with pacing (particularly the second series, which manages to cover only two girls compared to five from the first series despite having the same number of episodes), it is sometimes too clever for its own good, and the fact that it is a divisive love-it-or-hate-it show, it is different and stands far out from the rest. That alone is reason enough to give it a shot to at least experience something peculiar, something that has a lot of effort of thought and skill. Even if you find it annoying or stupid, you’ll not likely be able to compare it to much else.

If you’re still unsure, well… spend 2 minutes of your time watching this and tell me you aren’t at least a little curious (and, while you’re at it, go buy all of she’s music).

As of this writing, you can watch both Bakemonogatari and its sequel Nisemonogatari for free on Crunchyroll.

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