Nekomonogatari: Black represents a stunning return to form for the franchise, grounding graphic violence and sexually explicit imagery with harsh psychological themes and emotionally resonant character moments that don’t feel unapologetically self indulgent, resulting in what may well be the finest arc thus far, and is certainly one of the densest.
Plot synopsis: Araragi has developed complicated feelings for Hanekawa Tsubasa, the smartest girl in his year and possibly to most pure-hearted woman he has ever met. However, an apparition has overcome her, and it is up to Araragi to defeat it and save the soul of his class mate through coming to terms with who she really is.
From the very beginning, where Araragi is asking his little sister Tsukihi what “love” is, it is clear the Nekomonogatari: Black is a lean and efficient narrative beyond the likes of anything the series has given us so far. The first episodes features some great dialogue that carries both substantial weight and easy-too-miss subtlety. The former manifests in regards to Hanekawa’s complicated family situation and abuse she undergoes on a seemingly regular basis, and the subtlety comes in the form of how she is charactised to be somewhat unhinged, much more so than most of Bakemonogatari depicted her as. By the second episode, the threat of an apparition that has possessed her. The Sawari (harmful) cat has surfaced and the brutality that ensues in its wake exceeds what the flash back painted as something of a minor mishap. For the most part, the series moves along at a brisk pace, and carries a more conventional structure than the going-around-in-circles approach of Nisemonogatari; there is an initial confrontation where the main character is defeated, he then learns about his enemy’s motive and weaknesses and confronts her in a climax that doesn’t go according to plan but works regardless. What makes it work is how, in spite of the ending and even most of its details being known, is the compelling layers of Hanekawa being revealed to the audience. Retrospectively, this may even improve her in the two earlier installments. The more straight-forward nature of the plot doesn’t make it feel mundane, but rather purposeful, given that till this point no-one has exerted a comparable omnipresence to Sawari.
Successful anime prequels like Trust and Betrayal and Fate/Zero showed that overwhelming the audience with more complexity and even depth in the depiction of already know stories can make for an immensely satisfying experience, but this particular installment has the task of being more tonally consistent with the later (chronologically and in release order) entries in the franchise. Also, unlike in the case of the earlier examples, the artistic endeavors are mostly the same, albeit with more bite (in every sense of the word) and given what it was trying to accomplish within the framework of its pre-existing mythology and limitations, it did a fine job. Araragi’s immortality is used far more here, though we don’t get to see anyone besides him go at Sawari (Oshino loses to her off screen, but how the heck did he survive?), which is somewhat nonsensical given that her murder rate was described to have racked up quite high. The weapon used against her also feels somewhat at odds with the Monogatari universe, as such instruments weren’t really mentioned much before and it seems odd that someone like Oshino would possess what seems to almost be an artifact. It doesn’t quite fit the mold of a contradictory plot convenience, as it wasn’t explicitly stated that supernatural weapons don’t exist, but it feels like quite a major detail to leave out of the telling from Bakemonogatari, especially when the plot could have been more-or-less indentical without this weapon.
One of the biggest strengths, and potentially problems, with Nekomonogatari: Black is how it presents the character dynamics between its small cast in contrast to the rest of the series. Oshino and Shinobu are consistent with their later selves, the former actually being the funniest he’s ever been, his excuse of Sawari arousing him and causing him to lose working as both a great way of expressing his wounded pride failing to dampen his spirit and his possible awareness of the protagonist’s feelings for her. The relationship between Araragi and Shinobu is given more depth, as her past self is slightly alluded to, and Araragi’s sisters are depicted as being much more likeable in this arc than they were in Nisemonogatari, pulling off what it failed to do in a much longer time span. The discussion with Tsukihi about love at the beginning in particular makes her far more sympathetic than her condition as an object of philosophical discussion. Karen still isn’t quite convincing, and her nearly nude scene was one of the few pieces of poorly done fan service this time, but the chemistry between her and her older brother improved slightly.
The mixed bag is how Hanekawa and Araragi’s relationship is depicted, and how it contrasts their chemistry in Bakemonogatari. There are traces of Hanekawa’s deep seated crush for Araragi visible here, particularly at the beginning, but Araragi’s “love” or perhaps even “lust” for Hanekawa doesn’t seem convincing given how his first interaction with her in the series’ first installment was looking up her skirt. It also seems forced how strong his feelings towards her were; he’s been Senjougahara’s boyfriend for around two dozen episodes, and he didn’t express a fraction of the almost suicidal adoration he had for Hanekawa. Him licking her desk when she was gone did make for a quick laugh, but it’s confounding to think why a man so restrained with Senjougahara (her tsundere tendencies aside) later on is so hoggishly in love with a woman who does not reciprocate his affection even when she feels the same way he does. It seems likely that Araragi may have been a late bloomer and his hormones are going crazy, but he acts much more restrained here than in Nisemonogatari, and his “I would die for Hanekawa!” speech should at least make him slightly uncomfortable in her presence in Bakemonogatari. It’s a shame that the core relationship of this anime is so needlessly ambiguous, bordering on contradictory, when everything else worked out so well.
However, Nekomonogatari: Black got its titular character almost perfectly right as a sort of subversion of the cat girl trope. Possessing many of the superficial qualities, such as the agility, bouncy nature and claws, this gives her a sense of innocence, as she seems to have Hanekawa’s best interests at heart, and makes it all the more humiliating how easy she defeats everyone (except for Shinobu, or course, but that’s obvious). She also serves as a reminder of how, in spite of its more serious nature, this entry is still a harem by definition, though certainly not by execution.
Given the comparatively raw visceral and emotional nature of Nekomonogatari: Black, the return of Bakemonogatari’s healthy, tan skin tones in contrast to Nisemonogatari’s painfully pale porcelain complexions is welcome, as it adds greatly to the more grounded, ironically “mortal” aspect of Araragi this time around. Sawari exudes a subtle ghostly gleam and the inconsistencies in her hair and expressive feline qualities also indicates the presence of Hanekawa. This is also one of the few cases where fan service adds to the emotional intensity, as having Sawari wear what Hanekawa would surely die before going anywhere near really helps to separate the two. To add to that, few shots are composed with sex appeal being the main draw; instead, Sawari’s reckless and omnipotent nature seems to make even such scant clothing feel like more than several kilograms of heavy armor. The execution of Sawari’s presence is as effective here as it was in the finale of Bakemonogatari, which is to say that the peak there is the norm here.
The violence depicted here is unflinchingly brutal, extended over prolonged periods of time and in more than one instance. Araragi and others have their limbs severed well beyond what threats in previous installments did to them. The considerable quantity of gore here teeters on self-indulgent, as it easily surpasses the paint display in Bakemonogatari’s most violent confrontation. However, the way in which this anime expands upon pre-existing intrapersonal and interpersonal conflicts make these high stakes feel earned, and as a result this should absolutely not be watched in its chronological place (After Kizumonogatari and before Bakemonogatari). Beyond the violence, perhaps the most striking visual component of this anime is its use of old Japanese style paintings as stills and even some religious symbolism, contributing greatly to Nekomonogatari: Black’s atmosphere of higher emotional and physical stakes. Frames are next to never wasted here, and the fan service passes too quickly to be a nuisance, so there is little to complain about in terms of aesthetic information density.
On the down side, there weren’t really any stand out set pieces this time around, with the series’ gradual developments in character animation and visual pacing not being met with an equal upgrade in backgrounds. Instead, the forests still contain basically coloured bamboo with a lazy gradient over it and Oshino’s cram school looks the same as always. Araragi’s house looks much less impressive than in Nisemonogatari, and though the reuse of old set pieces could be excused with the argument that there isn’t really any new information (outside of depth into Hanekawa) being brought forward, the short length of the series should have given the staff at Shaft time to be more creative than this.
In terms of audio, this is head-over-heads the loudest Monogatari has ever been, with quiet seeping pianos being switched out for loud, aggressive and piercing instruments that lay out through the violent confrontations. Sure, the music that plays through the conversational dialogue between Araragi and his sisters is the same as usual, but a short series like this only really needs a couple stand out tracks to work.
Yui Lori is even more menacingly feline this time around than she was before as the Sawari (Harmful) cat, never missing a beat with her replacement of “na” with “nyaa”, successfully walking the knife sharp thin line between hyper-sexualised and excessively sadistic. Oshino and Shinobu are played great as usual, though perhaps having Shinobu completely silent was unnecessary, given that most viewing this would have already seen Nisemonogatari.
Nekomonogatari Black may be bought and streamed on Hanabee’s website if you live in Australia.