Though inevitably some may find it frivolous and even offensive, Bakemonogatari delivers convincing character drama and memorable directorial efforts, creating a unique series that’s rich in both style and substance.
Plot synopsis: Araragi is a regenerative vampire whom take it upon himself to save young women from their horrible fates. From weight-stealing crabs to sentient monkey arms, Araragi must use all of his wit and courage lest his friends lose their lives, or worse.
Though the first instalment in the animated adaptation of Nisio Isin’s light novel series, Bakemonogatari actually doesn’t take place chronologically first (the Kizumonogatari movies, released in 2016, take that honour), but leads Araragi, Senjougahara and Hanekawa are introduced in such a way that a sense of them can be easily gained from their first few minutes on screen thanks to some decisive mannerisms and the strong performances by their respective voice actors and actresses. The first two episodes are occupied by lead Araragi, an immortal vampire with a knack for helping people, aiding Senjougahara in returning to her proper weight (though through supernatural means rather than dieting). He takes her to Meme Oshino, a man with a wealth of knowledge in supernatural entities and history with Araragi. With his help, Senjougahara is purged from her curse stemming from her past experiences, and develops a level of respect for Araragi.
On paper, the plot of Bakemonogatari seems incapable of spanning 15 episodes (of which 3 were released online after the series finished airing) and still remaining interesting. It consists of 5 arcs, each dealing with the supernatural problems plaguing different women (see above) around town, and they all have a similar structure. Araragi meets a woman who seems impermeable at first, and after some talking she reveals her past, but leaves out some details because she is ashamed of them. Then Araragi, often with the help of another girl, usually Senjougahara, gets that girl to confess her true feelings in an emotionally heated (and occasionally physically violent) climax, subsequently followed by her getting over the problem, but having to give something up. What makes Bakemonogatari special is its smart character dynamics and interactions, which vary from silly comedy to heart wrenching drama without feeling contrived or inconsistent. Though the series has supernatural elements, at its core it is about accepting and evolving past ones mistakes and flaws, no matter how long ago they occurred. Not a single character with a name or face (not even Shinobu, who is completely silent until Nisemonogatari) is left without characterisation; there are no lazy CGI crowd shots or cookie-cutter character designs here. Add that to the excellent character development for the entire cast, especially Senjougahara, and the generally strong presentation, and Bakemonogatari lives up to its praise.
The series starts out strong, with Senjougahara’s history playing out in a particularly resonant short story, and the way in which the series handles pre-established relationships from the 2016 released movie Kizumonogatari (Bakemonogatari was released in 2009) feels organic rather than forced or confusing. Hachikuji’s arc isn’t quite as strong, though her comedic dialogue with Araragi really makes up for it, and Senjougahara, who’s at the core of Bakemonogatari as much as Araragi is, proved her worth. Kanbaru’s arc is one of the more powerful ones, bringing up the almost taboo topic (in Japan) of homosexuality, yet not defining Kanbaru by it, but actually making her one of its strongest characters. It has a brilliant action scene, and is as dynamic as Bakemonogatari ever becomes. Nadeko’s story is the weakest link, which can be heavily attributed to her being the weakest character (and being blatantly sexualised), but it still provides a good climax and breather between the very heavy Kanbaru and Hanekawa arcs. Hanekawa rounds out Bakemonogatari with her 5-episode (depending on where you see it) arc being the most detailed and my personal favourite, heavily because the rational and thoughtful Hanekawa is my favourite character from Monogatari. Throughout these plot lines runs Senjougahara’s romantic development, Araragi’s perverted pranks and the other girls popping in and out at their leisure.
The character of Araragi doesn’t have as much time devoted specifically to him as the others, though his dynamics with the girls give him more than enough characterisation. As Senjougahara’s stabbing post and love interest, Hachikuji’s sparring and stand-up comedy partner, one of the few people that Kanbaru openly trusts and Hanekawa’s old friend, he is greatly explored through his interactions with the other girls, and them through him with semantically precise dialogue. His deceptive determination and desire to improve those around him makes him a likeable lead, though he does have his flaws, such as his occasional impatience and established desire for Senjougahara to treat him as more than a mosquito (at least, she considered this a flaw). Senjougahara is revealed, through voice acting and specific word choices, to be an inexperienced girlfriend who has trouble treating anyone as an equal, though the effort from both her and Araragi is genuine, resulting in it feeling less like a forced, one-sided relationship and more like a realistic imperfect romance between two flawed, though inherently good, people.
Kanbaru lets her actions speak for her, as a determined and proactive woman, though she is revealed to have more to her than first meets the eye. Nadeko is more flaccid than the other girls, though she does act as a sort of buffer for both Araragi and the audience between the other human-shaped puzzles. She’s a cliche with only one defining trait (her lust over Araragi) and though this becomes extremely important in Otorimonogatari, her capacity here is negligible outside of a tick on the fetish checklist. Hanekawa is a girl who is very versatile and nearly always right, but is humble and never puts herself on a pedestal in spite of her considerable intelligence and accomplishments. She even plays down her looks and keeps a measured tongue, showing great restraint as a character and ultimately may be the wisest of the cast. As the series describes her, she is for all intents and purposes “The perfect woman”, and Bakemonogatari never tries to flaunt this, and even Senjougahara praises her. However, the initially perceived “positive” qualities are flipped on their head in the stirring final couple of episodes. On the whole, the cast of Bakemonogatari are very strong, but this is only the beginning for many of them, with essentially all of them having much more to come.
Presumably, one of the reasons that Bakemonogatari never became the juggernaut in the West that it did in Japan was because the visual metaphors associated with animals and colour are different for Japan compared American or European interpretations of them. In dreams, crabs represent tenacity and diligence, fitting to Senjougahara, but they can also indicate the deterioration of one’s mental state because of past trauma and their inability to deal with it, which is also relevant to her. Hachikuji’s animal isn’t as directly referenced as the others outside of episode titles, though the snail’s slowness and vulnerability are both expressed in her, particularly because she seems to be the smallest and youngest of the main cast here. From Kanbaru, the Gorilla represents brute force, which is taken very literally in this case, though more subtly can also imply disagreements between friends or uncontrollable anger when rampaging, making Kanbaru’s symbol the most on-the-nose of the bunch. In a way, these animal metaphors serve as foreshadowing for the characters. Hanekawa’s cat metaphor is only really introduced here, with Second Season and Nekomonogatari: Kuro giving a further explanation. However, the nature of her condition is easily the most compelling of the cast.
In terms of animation quality, Bakemonogatari isn’t particularly spectacular in comparison to other series released around the same time, and may be the weakest entry in the Monogatari series in terms of overall animation. The character movements are usually restricted to mouth flaps, albeit fluid and anatomically correct ones. The amount of movement in many episodes is so little that, in combination with Oisin’s excessively verbose writing style and the layered stories, it can be difficult to stay awake for many of Bakemonogatari’s long and drawn out conversations. The series contains few action scenes, with physical confrontations usually consisting of one-sided beat downs (with Araragi usually coming off worse), with the exception of Kanbaru’s brilliant paint-blood massacre against Araragi and the unexpectedly visceral final fight (it only went on for a matter of seconds, but they sure were intense).
However, outside of the relatively little movement, Bakemonogatari is a visual marvel in every other regard. The colouring in this series is absolutely breathtaking in many scenes, particularly the emotionally charged climaxes of the arcs of the various women. The broadness of the colour palette, particularly on the characters’ eyes and uniforms, is very impressive, though with an appropriately darker tinge than later instalments that fits with its thematically and emotionally heavy nature. The series colourful CGI is also implemented fairly well with the background, in particular for the monkey bars at the park and many of the houses. The almost static shots of the characters reveal a lot about their nature, as does the way in which their posture changes over the course of the series. Senjougahara starts out poised and proper, which when combined with her above average height made her a quintessentially imposing ice queen, helped by the framing making her appear even taller than she actually is. Kanbaru, meanwhile, is depicted as much more energetic and humble by her gazing eyes and more flexible posture. The framing of conversations is also noticeable, each of the girls initially being shown at a farther distance from Araragi at the beginning of their story than at the end, indicating that he has earned their respect and that they feel comfortable around him.
The most potentially off-putting visual aspect of Bakemonogatari, outside of its often static nature, is its visual puns and rapid fire imagery. Each episode begins with useful, though not quite vital, information being dashed through in the space of several seconds. Throughout the anime, there are intercuts between the standard beautiful Shaft art, comical expressions, paper craft, stick figures and even some live action footage, sometimes all within one minute. Indeed, director Akiyuki Shinbou’s (and the others at Shaft) visual pacing in this series is extremely inconsistent, resulting in some parts feeling like snail crawls and others like violent explosions, with the change-up sometimes occurring within the span of several seconds. Thankfully, experimental animation sequences are only especially noticeable during the moments that were designed to carry the greatest impact, such as the recounting of Senjougahara’s childhood or Kanbaru’s violent demonic rage.
The controversial use of nudity and sexual overtones in the series is an aspect that may leave some viewers feeling offended, particularly when it is considered that many of the cast are underage. However, it never falls into the territory of being superfluous, and even adds a layer of realism to how the younger children talk to Araragi. Senjougahara is the most sexualised character in the cast, though given this is how Araragi sees her and how she views herself, it feels quite natural for her to be framed in this way. Even so, a bit more restraint from this series would have been appreciated with the other characters. Hachikuji never gets this treatment, thankfully, but Nadeko is regularly objectified, so much so that about half of her screen time is taken up with Araragi fantasising over her, not helped by how she just lets it happen.
The music of Bakemonogatari, in contrast to the visuals, is relatively down-played, though sometimes just as impactful. Opting for a relatively small quantity of high quality tracks, Bakemonogatari’s OST gives each character another layer of presence, with the females usually dominating over Araragi. Senjougahara’s presence is often accompanied by a meticulous piano piece, precise and distant, mirroring her elegance and harshness at the beginning of the series very effectively. An 8-bit soundtrack is often associated with Hachikuji, giving the audience both a taste of her playful and relatively simple nature and subtle implications about her dark history (few games aimed at children in 2009 still employed 8-bit soundtracks). Kanbaru’s designated instrument seems to be the guitar, reflecting her upbeat and outgoing attitude, and in conversations pertaining to her and Senjougahara pianos and guitars tend to mix, and this is done very well. The strongest of these, however, would have to be the loud and violent rock music that plays during Hanekawa’s arc, particularly in terms of how strongly it contrasts her usual optimism.
Bakemonogatari’s multiple openings are serviceable, though they don’t quite stand out. Chiwa Saito (Senjougahara) and Emiri Katou (Hachikuji) aren’t quite the most musically experienced voice actresses, though they do fit their characters well. The best opening comes in the form of Sawashiro Miyuki’s “Ambivalent World”, which also is the best-looking opening and most obviously relevant to its respective story. Kana Hanazawa and Yui Horie also contribute, however they’re much too subdued to really impress. Another clever thing the soundtrack contains is instrumental renditions of the series’ opening songs, typically played at the end of certain arcs to give them a sense of closure. Musically, the strongest area of Bakemonogatari is the beautifully sung, written and animated ED performed by Supercell, which acts as another character theme for Senjougahara and showcases the rest of the cast with Shaft’ wacky art style very effectively, enhanced by the changes made to it over the anime to reflect the changes in character dynamics.
No dub for the Monogatari series yet exists, and given the age of the series it’s plausible that one will never exist, but that’s fine, because the voice acting from the Japanese cast is stunning. Unlike many action or comedy heavy series, Bakemonogatari relies heavily on witty dialogue and verbal expression, and a weak cast would have caused the whole series to crumble. This did not happen; Kamiya Hiroshi’s performance is Araragi is versatile and memorable, seamlessly switching from surprised to angry to guilty. Senjougahara, though in ice queen mode 85% of the time, still has a wide range of tones, ranging from dead-pan, sarcastic, sad and even nervous. Though Sawashiro, Saito and Kanazawa all fit their roles well, they don’t quite reach the level of the other two. Yui Horie, however, really steals the show with her performance as Hanekawa’s other form, her feline inflections (constantly saying “Nyaa”) and generally sadistic attitude contrasting the other subtle, down to earth performances with scenery chewing, overbearing evil.