The Monogatari series is definitely something special. Regardless of whether or not you personally enjoy the show, it is unanimously agreed upon that the show is artistically beautiful, well-written, and unique. I read one very enjoyable review (I cannot find it now for the life of me) by someone who did not like the show, but stated “I wish I liked this show, because it’s so interesting.” That’s a cool statement for a fan of the series like myself to read, and after recently re-watching the show for the fourth time, I was still amazed at how many small details I could pick up with each viewing. As it is still fresh in my mind, I have decided to make Bakemonogatari my first review. Let’s jump into it!
Bakemonogatari focuses on main protagonist Araragi Koyomi, a high school student who has recently survived a vampire attack and is left as a sort of vampire/human hybrid. The anime is broken up into 5 arcs over the course of 15 episodes, with each arc focusing on a different female protagonist (or antagonist, depending on how one decides to look at it). Each of these characters is afflicted by a supernatural entity known as an “oddity” or “aberration.” Araragi, with the help of a Hawaiian-shirt-wearing oddity specialist named Oshino Meme, takes it upon himself to assist the afflicted girls. Throughout the show, there is also an overarching plot line that revolves around the romantic relationship between Araragi and Senjougahara Hitagi, the first girl who he “saves” (or as he puts it, he helped her to save herself).
The plot, then, is essentially following Araragi as he delves into the stories of the five female protagonists, listens to their problems, and tries to find ways of helping them deal with the oddities that are heckling them. While the plot is interesting even by itself, at its core, Bakemonogatari is truly a character-driven show. It contains a significantly larger number of lines than your average anime, and is heavily reliant on quick, constantly-evolving dialogue to drive both the plot as well as the development of the characters. The plot is more of a necessary foundation, like a stage, upon which the characters are able to interact and grow.
The plot of Monogatari is the characters. It is their stories, their struggles and insecurities, and the ways in which they are able to overcome these issues. Opinion: What fascinates me most about the plot of Bakemonogatari is how well it works to tell these stories. The oddities that afflict each of the female characters in the show can almost be seen as symbolic characters themselves, or even as extensions of the individuals they are afflicting. Indeed, some of the oddities even become the characters themselves. That said, recovering from the affliction involves a lot of introspective thought on the parts of the characters. Araragi is there to assist them with beginning the process, but at the end of the day, it is up to each character to try to understand themselves, realize their own weaknesses, and thus overcome them by accepting what happened and coming to terms with it.
I do not want to dive into the specifics of the plot, as that would involve actually covering each character’s particular affliction, and this is a spoiler-free review. I will end this section by saying that I believe the plot to be brilliantly constructed insofar as fulfilling its purpose of providing a solid, unique, and even philosophical foundation upon which to develop the characters. Opinion: This combined with a well-paced story progression and scenes that flow naturally and effortlessly into each other is my justification for providing the story of Bakemonogatari with a perfect score.
As I mentioned in the previous section, Bakemonogatari is a character-driven story. Other examples of this would be anime like Samurai Champloo, Serial Experiments Lain, Death Parade, etc. These are anime in which the plot progression takes a backseat. Throughout the course of a whole episode, only a little bit might happen as far as the main plot is concerned, but as far as character development goes, there is a lot going on. Before I get into the actual characters of Bakemonogatari, I want to specifically cover character development in general. Of the various anime in this style I have seen, Bakemonogatari stands as a prime example of how character development should work at its most basic level:
Act I: A character starts a particular way, we are introduced to the character.
Act II: After dealing with various hardships and learning more about himself and the world around him, the character begins to see the world in a different way.
Act III: The character is fundamentally the same, but they have matured and their perspective has changed, for better or for worse.
Every character in Bakemonogatari changes and evolves, they mature. This character development, to me, is the heart and soul of the show and the point of contention that separates those who say it is brilliant from those who are entirely unimpressed.
Maturity and growth is, in fact, a primary theme for Bakemonogatari. We repeatedly see examples of “saving yourself” and “coming to terms with your weaknesses.” The female protagonists, at the start of Bakemonogatari, are broken. As far as Araragi Koyomi is concerned, he comes off as someone who has already “done his time” and now feels a responsibility and honest desire to help those still in suffering. That said, Araragi is not the savior of the broken characters in this show, but rather an instigator who allows them to save themselves. It all seems supernatural and fantasy-esque when watching the show and taking it for what it is, but Bakemonogatari is true to real life in its portrayal of maturity. Characters that begin broken, angry, depressed, etc. at the beginning of Bakemonogatari come out at the end feeling fulfilled. Not happy necessarily, but fulfilled. They give off a sense of knowing what direction they want to go in and understanding who they are as a person. This is not a review on other seasons of the Monogatari series, but I believe it is an important point that the characters you watch in later seasons of the series have distinct and noticeable differences in the way they speak and carry themselves than those in the beginning of Bakemonogatari.
The characters themselves each have their own particular quirks and personalities, most of which are thankfully distinguishable from the common tropes we see in 90% of anime these days. However, as Bakemonogatari is very satirical in its portrayal of character personality as well as fan service (more on that latter point later), what we get oftentimes are characters who almost fall into common harem anime tropes, but have some particular aspect to them that makes them entirely different.
An example of this is Araragi Koyomi, our main male protagonist. As far as tropes and cliches are concerned, in typical harem anime you have either:
A) A good-guy male protagonist who is heckled by and loved by every female protagonist in the show, but is a complete loser and wants to avoid doing anything sexual in nature whatsoever for fear of turning into a blathering idiot with no backbone.
B) A good-guy male protagonist who is heckled by and loved by every female protagonist in the show, loves it, and “secretly” wants to sleep with every one of them on the same night in the same bed.
Araragi is a good-guy male protagonist who is heckled by (but not necessarily loved by) every female protagonist in the show, but he is neither a loser who turns into a blathering idiot nor does he want to get with every girl. In fact, it is early into the show that his relationship with Senjougahara, the main female protagonist, is confirmed and set into stone. Araragi goes around helping each of the female protagonists with their problems, in typical harem fashion, but it’s his relationship with each of these characters that separates him from the common tropes. Each of these relationships is unique, and Araragi changes the way he acts around each character based upon his relationship with them.
All of the characters are fascinating in their own rights, but truly the stars of Bakemonogatari are Senjougahara and Araragi. Their romantic involvement is something I haven’t said much about yet, but it is an integral part of what gives this show life and allows these two characters to develop so fully. Senjougahara is what one might consider tsundere. She suggests this herself in the show (to which Araragi replies, “Your character is what people call tsundra”). I can’t say she can be neatly fit into that category, as she takes a much more passive-aggressive role than most “tsundere” anime characters. But the point is that as far as the relationship between the two lead roles goes, one would normally expect Tsundere Senjougahara to be the one belittling silly, smart-ass Araragi and correcting his misconceptions due to his being either stupid or just really sarcastic. For example (actual dialogue incoming):
Senjougahara: “Academic performance rating check. Mine is 74.”
Araragi: “Mine is 46…”
Senjougahara: “That would be zero if you round that.”
Araragi: “Huh? You’re kidding! The unit value is 6, so… wait, you rounded using the tens! What did you do to my academic performance rating?!”
This sort of banter happens time and again throughout Bakemonogatari, and what’s interesting is that the typical Boke and Tsukkomi roles (for reference: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BokeAndTsukkomiRoutine) are occasionally switched. Araragi will be the straight man (the tsukommi) and Senjougahara takes the role of the wise guy (boke). This role switching, combined with the constant barrage of witty, fast-paced dialogue is definitely one of the highlights of the show and is a big part of what defines the two main characters as well.
Since dialogue is something I have been praising throughout the review and it is one of the main focal points of Bakemonogatari, I do want to mention that one criticism I have seen on the dialogue is that it can meander or lose focus. This certainly does happen to an extent, but I have never found this to be a negative thing. In real life conversations, that is exactly what dialogue tends to do, which makes the characters of Bakemonogatari pop out more and allows their personalities to really shine through. In addition, the dialogue always regains focus by the end of the conversation, leaving the viewer with a good understanding of the important plot points, and allowing the finer details of the characters’ personalities to be left in the viewer’s memory as an added bonus.
To wrap up this section, I do want to mention that while all of the characters are brilliantly realized and the dialogue is some of the best I have experienced in any anime, there was one character in the 4th story arc who I thought could have been much better-developed. I mention this because it is the only reason I can’t give this section a perfect 10/10. Sengoku Nadeko is a character that is made quite a bit more complex in a later season, but I can’t let that be an excuse for how comparatively unremarkable she is in Bakemonogatari compared to the other characters. I also realize that it could be argued the whole point is that Nadeko be unremarkable, but as I can’t find hard evidence for this to be the case, and I think she could have been developed more in this season of Monogatari, I have to label her as an unfortunate outlier in the cast. The rest of the characters are, of course, very well written, developed and acted. Truly a joy to watch.
Shaft has a (good?) reputation in the art and animation department. So I think it goes without saying that the art and animation in Bakemonogatari are top notch. But really, even when comparing it to other acclaimed works by Shaft (Puella Magi Madoka Magica comes to mind), it is gorgeous. As far as quality is concerned, just know that it’s among the best out there, not much else needs to be said on that point.
As far as the style and the use of the art is concerned, the backgrounds range from just plain beautiful to more modern and “avant-garde”, oftentimes with colors or even geometry changing to fit the tone of a particular scene or portion of dialogue. Because this anime is so focused on character interaction and dialogue, the art is used as a way to both reinforce what is being said as well as set a particular mood or feeling. You will notice warm colors changing to cool to create a particular mood; things may be falling apart in the background as the characters speak to reinforce the deconstruction of a character or idea; familiar places may look strange for a moment to put the viewer on edge. The art direction is extremely well done, every scene feels thought-out and appropriate, and all the while it looks stunning.
Animation in Bakemonogatari is something that I could talk a lot about, but I’m going to refrain from going too deep into it for one reason: some people simply don’t like the “Shaft style.” That’s fine, that’s an opinion. Opinion: I personally enjoy unique and interesting “cinematography” and animation, but others do not (I hope you can feel the tongue-in-cheek oozing out of that last sentence). In any case, I will try to speak from an objective point of view here. First off, yes the animation is gorgeous, there’s no question about that. Lots of movement, fluidity, great lighting and shadows, etc. “Cinematography,” a term generally reserved for movies rather than anime, is actually an applicable term in this show as well. The use of different angles, distances, and points of view are varied and serve as both a mood-setter (much like the art itself) as well as a way to enhance the dialogue and hold viewer interest. Opinion: It’s innovative and unique, though whether or not the viewer will enjoy this direction is purely up to their own preferences. I will be scoring it positively because, regardless of preference, I believe it fits the show very well.
In conclusion, much of this anime is dialogue-focused, so it is important that the art and animation keep things fresh and reinforce what is being said. This is absolutely the case in Bakemonogatari, and as the art and animation are both beautiful as well as relevant and impactful, I give this section a perfect score.
Music/Sound/Voice Acting (9/10)
The way I review music and sound is simple:
1. Did the music, regardless of genre, enhance the viewing experience and fit the tone and presentation of the show?
2. Was the sound of high quality and used to enhance and reinforce the viewing experience? How was the voice acting?
To the point of the music, I would say mostly yes. Opinion: There are a couple standout tracks in Bakemonogatari that I have even gone so far as to put on my ipod (namely Senjougahara’s piano theme and a track called “Ika, Kaisou” which can make any situation seem creepy and emotional). Like most aspects of the show, the music is clearly tailored to create a particular mood and tone based upon character interaction. I would argue, in fact, that it is the most important factor in how we feel as the audience when watching any particular scene. The music in Bakemonogatari will change almost without warning sometimes, taking us from a light, melancholy mood straight into a comedic mood, and then perhaps into something more creepy and dark, all in one scene. It is not sporadic, however, and flows naturally.
The music is not meant to be thematic, it is BGM. It sets the tone for us, and for the most part, it does this very well. There are a couple tracks that seemed a bit odd to me, and I can’t really say they added much to the experience or even made me feel any particular way. They were confusing is the best way I can put it. Apart from that however, the music is sublime, felt more than heard (apart from a couple standout tracks), and that is the way it should be.
The sound was excellent, very high quality, and nothing stood out as annoying. Dialogue is made interesting with appropriate use of reverb for different areas as well as stereo separation to contrast spoken word and thoughts, an effect I’m not sure I’ve heard used in quite the same way in other anime. There are lots of great, layered sounds for destruction and fight scenes (though such scenes are sparse in this show) and the sounds are both varied and plentiful, which keeps things fresh and definitely reinforces the action on-screen. I have no complaints or qualms whatsoever in this section.
Voice acting in Bakemonogatari is excellent. I cannot think of one character who’s seiyuu I did not thoroughly enjoy. All of the voice actors brought a lot of life to these characters’ quirks and personalities, and given that the writing is already superb, I’d go so far as to say it was a match made in heaven.
Overall Presentation/Tone (9/10)
How well did it all fit together? I would say this is a show that knows what it is, though I will admit that is definitely my opinion. Some may see certain aspects of Bakemonogatari, such as the meandering dialogue, art style, and experimental fan service, as undesirable or unfitting. However, for me the music, art, writing, and dialogue all seemed to fit together in a way that was satisfying and highly enjoyable.
What’s up with the “fan service?” I’ll be blunt here, without going on for 5 paragraphs about my view on the fan service argument… you can hardly call the “fan service” scenes in this show fan service. (Note: I will always be putting “fan service” in quotes when referring to it in the context of Bakemonogatari). It is satirical. The “fan service” scenes in this show aren’t meant to be viewed the way typical fan service scenes are, they are poking fun at such scenes. I found this astoundingly obvious the first time I watched the show, though I can of course understand that some will not see the line between shameless fan service and satire so clear. Some of these scenes do actually develop the characters, and it is relevant that if you watch future seasons in the Monogatari series, some of those “fan service-y” quirks will make more sense. In fact, there is a whole running joke based around a young girl named Hachikuji which many people call “fan service,” and this “fan service” joke actually had me near to tears in a later season. Opinion: It is so unique and blends in so well with the rest of the show that I honestly can’t find any reason for one to complain about it unless you are absolutely, positively opposed to seeing animated female undergarments. These scenes are oftentimes creative, accompanied by relevant plot information, and also funny. So if anything, I would give points to Bakemonogatari for it’s very creative and satirical use of “fan service.”
Now, for the sake of being reasonable towards those who do not like seeing such things in any amount, I will say that even if you feel this way you will probably not be so distracted by it as to have the show ruined for you. There is not a constant barrage of “fan service,” and what is there is far from being the most provocative thing we’ve seen in anime (Kill La Kill, Highschool of the Dead, etc.). However, if you do not want to see “fan service” at all, you may want to skip this series (Note: please do not skip this series).
My own personal enjoyment score (10/10)
Conclusion: My final overall score for this series, with my own personal enjoyment weighted into the score, is 9/10.
Bakemonogatari is simply too good to miss. This would have been given a 9.5/10, but I understand this is not a show that everyone will enjoy. It is, by nature, pretty controversial and different in the way it presents itself and tells its story. However, I firmly believe this is a must-watch for any anime fan as I can guarantee you will not have another experience like it in other anime series.
Thank you for reading! Hopefully this will help new viewers make a decision and perhaps help old viewers rethink certain aspects of the show. Comments and feedback are always welcome!