I’ll start with the visuals. Bakemonogatari is anime as a modern art form, and that presents some problems. When I say art, I don’t mean beautiful backgrounds etc. No, this is symbolic art, expressing ideas and situations non-literally and/or non-realistically. This is a conscious move away from visual reality. The biggest problem with that is how effectively it can be used as financial necessity disguised as creativity.
Think about where viewers might stand on anime as a modern art medium. Let’s take, as a random example, a shot of cars on the road, with every car identical. At one end of the scale you have the viewer who will think they understand the animator’s reason for that and consider it creative and clever and making a statement. At the other end of the scale you have the viewer who sees cheap and nasty CGI and thinks the other viewer can’t see that the emperor is naked. Never the twain shall meet. One viewer thinks the other is a philistine for failing to grasp the meaning of the art. The other thinks the appreciative one is a gullible fool for falling for the trick of cheapness masquerading as something special. Both of them are wrong, and both of them are right, and the really tricky bit is finding where the two interpretations should meet in the middle.
For me, the success and the cleverness here is in the overall visual style, especially overly-bright scenes with stark contrasts, often locating two characters in large, otherwise deserted landscapes. At times this is utterly brilliant, never better than the empty playground where the main character converses with a lost child who can never reach her destination. I lean towards the captions expressing Koyomi’s thoughts being a good thing. Others that give random information such as the choice of typeface used have about as much value as a blank canvas claiming to be a work of art. I don’t mind the bombardment of information at times – you can pause and read it all if you want to but its not essential. However, you’ll certainly need to concentrate on the subtitles as this is a dialogue heavy series. Sometimes whole episodes pass with little movement, but I was never bored. The opening title sequences change regularly and are almost all awful. The end sequence remains largely unchanged and is terrific. There is one thing I have to condemn this series for, and that’s the occasional use of live action images. This is a line that anime should never cross, neither for artistic nor financial reasons. Investing emotionally in an anime series requires the viewer to achieve a subtle but important mental shift into the reality of a 2D world and accept that as a representation of living, breathing characters. The minute you cut to a shot of a real human arm wearing a watch, or have a naked woman in the opening credits, you cut those delicate strands that connect the viewer to the animated world. It’s the one thing I least want to ever see in an anime.
I’ve written too much about the visuals and have still hardly scratched the surface, but I’ll just mention one stunning sequence in the final episode with a cat girl running up beams of light as if they were literal ramps and crouching on top of street lights, while Koyomi walks along the street below. If there were ever an expression of how a modern non-literal artistic approach can be an absolute triumph in anime, there it is.
So let’s get to the story and the characters. Superficially this is a harem anime set-up, with a male main character helping out female characters who have some kind of a problem in their lives, whereupon most of them fall in love with him. Being a lesbian is apparently no barrier to that process. Bakemonogatari almost immediately blasts away some of the clichés of the genre by having Koyomi hook up with one of the girls he helps and remain in a committed relationship, which is beautifully explored in its early days throughout the series. The girl in question is a fascinating character, a perfect representation of how well a tsundere character can work to create a female lead who is defined by so much more than her love for the lead male. There is also a great framework to this series: Koyomi has cheated death with the help of an ancient vampire who looks like a child, and a mysterious friend who looks after her, and he is perfectly placed to help a variety of girls he meets who are afflicted by possessions. He basically functions as a kind of exorcist, finding ways to liberate girls who are cursed in some way. Across 15 episodes we have a girl who had most of her weight stolen by a giant crab (a weird and wonderful idea), a little girl who died in a traffic accident on her way to find her mother (my favourite segment of the series, delivering a real emotional punch), a girl whose arm has grown into a cursed monkey paw, a girl who is entangled in a giant snake spirit, and finally a girl whose emotions allow a dangerous feline alter-ego to emerge. They are all great stories, every one of them, and each create unique challenges for Koyomi. I also liked how the characters don’t just disappear after their problems have been fixed, each remaining an occasional or sometimes a significant part of the series and having their own parts to play in Koyomi’s life, or in one instance already a significant part in his life before her problem emerges. These 15 episodes feel like we’ve just scratched the surface of Koyomi’s story, and indeed we have, because this is just the start of the huge, sprawling Monogatari franchise. I can’t wait to see what they did next with this story, but I just hope the visuals lean a bit more towards the traditional for future efforts. This CGI and modern art combination is sometimes a little bit too modern for its own good. RP