Kabukimonogatari blows every preceding entry away in terms of scale and adds considerable depth and emotional weight to Shinobu, though the nonsensical story line that doesn’t make much of an attempt at justifying time travel logic, the solution is discovered far more easily, and ironically very little is accomplished with Mayoi.
Plot synopsis: Araragi and Shinobu go back in time and ruin everything. Those idiots!
Kabukimonogatari begins with Araragi and Yotsugi discussing the nature of Mayoi’s presence, setting events into motion far quicker than most arcs. Well, they use the excuse of Araragi time travelling to get his homework done on time, but that borders on irrelevant. Episodes one, two, three and four are all rife with theorisation and consequential actions that, while ultimately not earning the scale of the events presented or dealing with them properly, make for an engaging narrative and character study of Shinobu. It’s an epic adventure series in plot and presentation, with the semantically specific dialogue being mostly focused on Shinobu and Araragi discussing scenarios that, while solidifying them as a wonderful duo and giving Shinobu much more personality, feels more like an out of place what-if scenario than a canon story. However, it does work really well as an advertisement for Kizumonogatari, as Shinobu’s true form is truly a sight to behold.
World building in this anime feels grossly incomplete, though the small scale in the earlier entries mostly made this a non-issue. Are there no other vampires in the world besides Shinobu? How many people are aware of her, given her history as something of an omnipotent deity, and why haven’t there been crusades to have her killed in her weakened state? Monogatari has always focused on the intimacy of character relationships and introspection, but by skimping on important details such as this, many potential plot holes arise that serve to break immersion, given this arc takes itself so seriously. To make things worse, it feels odd that a teenage boy and his little vampire friend could just travel through time at their own leisure like it’s no big deal. Is no-one else, out of billions of people, able to do what these characters can? If so, shouldn’t time travel be illegal, given how much damage they’ve done after changing a minor incident? These details should really be filled in, and perhaps are elsewhere, but the events here lack major context. Given the nature of this story, it might have been a better decision for this to have been a non-canon OVA.
The story, beyond being shrouded in mystery, feels much to short. We get a cameo of Hanekawa as a little girl (which should have really been cut out given her sharp memory, but this series clearly is no Steins;Gate) but skim by bad-ass teenage Mayoi, her knife skills only being teased. Given Kabukimonogatari is dealing with such hefty character alternatives, an apocalyptic future and even bringing to light how killing Shinobu might be the safest course of actions, it feels woefully stunted and incomplete, given the events depicted here would need up to triple the length they were given to be truly fleshed out. To make matters worse, with all its wide shots of ruined cities, decaying humans and strong colour choices, the stories resolution feels grossly underwhelming and unsatisfying. Nisemonogatari, to its credit, was at least up front about its nature.
The ambitious story is one of the biggest draws and, when all is said and done, the biggest weakness of Kabukimonogatari. The series has always been indulgent in fan service, but by keeping the scope small and the focus on intimate character relationships, things always felt personal and tangible. The sudden and blatantly jarring widening of the scale of events smartly keeps Shinobu at it’s core, and she is the one who ultimately must set things right again, but the character interactions are less focussed on personal growth and more on the prevention of mass destruction, resulting in less grounded personal conflict.
On the flip side, this does allow sufficient context for one of the strongest and most compelling dynamics of the franchise thus far; Araragi and Shinobu’s master-servant relationship. They are simultaneously equal, inferior and superior to each other; Araragi is the master and is more physically mature, Shinobu is infinitely richer in strength and wisdom, and both of them get in way over their heads in this arc. They both, as is shown by their respective down falls in the alternate future, rely heavily on each other despite their considerable differences, and they both care deeply for the other, regardless of how much pain one has inflicted on the other. From their small interactions in which they make references to Doraemon (which is the death sentence to most teenagers’ cool factor) to how they perceive the completely hypothetical nature of time travel, they have a lot of common ground, probably due to, as Meme Oshino previously mentioned, Araragi’s influence on Shinobu.
Yotsugi is utilised far better here than in her first appearance, in large part due to how she has been forcefully rejected by her master, in no small part to her embarrassing loss to Shinobu. She provides some great world building and a uniquely flat, yet vibrant personality that makes her a stand out among Monogatari’s already strong cast. Even Ougi, arguably the star of Owarimonogatari, is well presented here, as the staff at Shaft clearly knew exactly how to handle her both aesthetically and semantically from her very first appearance.
The use of fan service here gets a pass because it’s only present for one or two instances and serves to lull the audience into a false sense of security, but it’s nonetheless saddening to see young Hanekawa being downgraded to Araragi’s lolified plaything. Hachikuji’s treatment is negligible; she’s simply a catalyst in a stream of (admittedly very compelling) events. With reasoning, her place could have easily been filled by another character and have the same effect, but given that the series is saving Nadeko for the (fantastic) next arc and all the other girls have played a part recently, perhaps they wanted to prevent character fatigue? Shinobu and Yotsugi pick up the slack where the others fall short, so on the whole character progression is substantial.
Another area worthy of praise is how, between this and Nekomonogatari White, Monogatari Second Season is showing the girls come into their own and solve problems with little intervention from Araragi. While Hanekawa used her skills of observation and sharp memory to make peace with Black Hanekawa, Shinobu is accepting how much she relies on Araragi and how vulnerable she is in spite of her immense powers. Shinobu is the one who sorts things out, and she is the centre of this arc, not Hachikuji, regardless of the title. If Second Season can keep this up, Araragi won’t even be needed in the future (pun intended).
Since Bakemonogatari, this entry is the most abundant in memorable set pieces and creative artistic choices, which is appropriate given its hefty emotional and thematic material. Character designs are as attractive as usual, with true Shinobu’s character design standing out as the most luxurious of the series thus far. Wide city shots are commonplace, though they mostly consist of the same old CG buildings with tweaks to detail and lighting instead of anything particularly new or outstanding. There are several chinks in the artistic presentation of Kabukimonogatari, with the design of the zombies feeling grossly lazy and the patterns on kimonos may be seen not moving properly with the characters, leading to some distracting moments. The use of cloud, dust and various supernatural effects has greatly increased, and though this certainly isn’t Fate/Zero by any stretch, the effects are more plentiful and creative here than in previous arcs.
The ED retains Nekomonogatari White’s song by Luna Haruna, but the more kinetic and sharp visuals compliment the similar song much better, resulting in a much more engaging ED overall. The OP is among the weakest of Monogatari’s not-very-strong list of openings, with the instrumentation and Emiri Katou’s childish vocals combining with the wonky CGI and directing to make for something truly dissonant with the actual themes of the story, not to mention how gratingly awful it to listen to. Evidently the creators were aware of how contradictory it was because they only really used it twice.
The OST as a whole, however, really stands out in the finale, where classical instruments alternate between tragic, threatening, resigned and even relaxed. The music used in the first three quarters of the arc is standard, light-hearted Monogatari fare, though its certainly serviceable. Much of the deepened characterisation in this arc may be attributed to powerful vocal performances across the board. Saori Hayami successfully gives a dead-pan character a strong personality with very specific and the nuanced expression of emotions such as confusion, bitterness and even envy, most of which is directed towards Araragi and Shinobu. The dramatic nature of Kabukimonogatari allowed from some great acting, with Maaya Sakamoto and Emiri Katou in particular deserving mention for playing both the past and future versions of Shinobu and Mayoi, respectively. Granted, Maaya Sakamoto got to scream, grit her teeth, lament herself and gasp in horror more than the formerly cutesy wootsy Shinobu has had the opportunity to do till this point, but she really sells the transition here. It would have been a pleasure to see Katou be given more screen time, given this is “technically” her arc, which is a bit of a missed opportunity.
Kabukimonogatari may be bought and streamed on Hanabee if you live in Australia.