Friday 16 August 2013

Anime REVIEW: Bakemonogatari

Bakemonogatari Koyomi Araragi Vampire Shaft

Based on a series of light novels by Nisio Isin (Medaka Box) and animated by the studio Shaft (who also worked on Puella Magi Madoka Magica, among other things), the Monogatari series is arguably one of the most popular anime franchises that's around at the moment. It's also one that's taken me far too long to actually give a try. The first in the series, entitled Bakemonogatari (a clever pun that works in Japanese and English, as it translates to "Ghostory") ran for a total of 15 episodes (the final three released as ONAs) back in 2009.

Bakemonogatari Hitagi Senjōgahara Crab Shaft
The crab.

Bakemonogatari tells the story of Koyomi Araragi, a third-year high school student who partly human again after becoming a vampire in events prior to the series. One day, his classmate Hitagi Senjōgahara, falls down the stairs into his arms. He discovers that Hitagi unnaturally weighs next to nothing. Despite being threatened by her to keep away, Koyomi offers his help and introduces her to Meme Oshino, the one who cured him of being a vampire. Once Koyomi helps solve Hitagi's problem, she agrees to become his friend and, later, his girlfriend.

As the series progresses Koyomi encounters various other girls, each plagued by their own supernatural oddities. Unable to keep away, Koyomi vows to help each girl - turning to both Meme and the vampire that attacked him (who is now in the guise of an 8-year old girl named Shinobu) for help.

Bakemonogatari Mayoi Hachikuji Snail Shaft
The snail.

The "apparitions" that plague the characters of Bakemonogatari each take the shape of a different animal, and along with this comes several visual cues that relate to each character/arc. Despite the range of relatively "safe" animals these spirits take (a snail for example), visually the show couldn't get much more twisted than it already is. Behind each character is some sort of trauma, and even if the show doesn't explicitly display these traumas in its own unique way it'll provide you with enough info to paint your own images. While the supernatural plays a very heavy part on how everything unfolds in the series, the actual tension and drama is mostly drawn out from these very human events.

Bakemonogatari Suruga Kanbaru Monkey Shaft
The monkey.

Even though the supernatural element of the show is a huge draw that a lot of the drama hinges on, the Bakemonogatari wouldn't be what it is without its cast of lovable characters. The hapless but good-natured Koyomi, sarcastic and sexualised Hitagi, humourous schoolkid Mayoi, perverted tomboy Suruga, good natured class president Tsubasa and...the slightly less interesting Nadeko - each one brings different traits to the table resulting in an excellent variety of exchanges. Even the mute Shinobu will have you considerably impressed by the time the final episode is through.

Once you become invested in the characters, it becomes clear how much they stand above the various animal apparitions that plague each of them. Suddenly the overly long sections of dialogue become engaging banter, and the episodes that have little focus on the supernatural become among the strongest the show has to offer.

Bakemonogatari Nadeko Sengoku Snake Shaft
The snake.

The final thing that needs to be said about Bakemonogatari is that it is an absolute artgasm. Seriously, this is one show that REALLY needs to be seen in high definition to get the full experience. The show places just as much emphasis on visuals as it does on narrative, with varying styles using to depict different sequences. The most common is blank cards with single words or phrases appearing onscreen, often differing from the dialogue but adding to it. Some parts move so fast that you won't take it all in, but the effect still remains. Backgrounds are often stripped down to the bare essentials and single colours in order to make the characters stand out, while monochrome photographs and papercut sequences (think the witches in Madoka) are used to illustrate the show's chilling flashbacks. Bakemonogatari is a visual tour de force, presented in a style that only Shaft truly master.

Bakemonogatari Tsubasa Hanekawa Cat Shaft
And the cat.

Admittedly Bakemonogatari's individual arcs often get off to a bit of a slow start and the heavy dialogue does sometimes borderline on the pretentious, but these small flaws are easily to overlook because of just how amazing everything else is. Shaft proves themselves to be kings of the artistic, weaving the outstanding visuals with compelling characters and a story line that cleverly balances it's light and dark elements. I don't know personally whether the later seasons show the same level of quality (I'll find out soon enough), but even as a standalone piece, Bakemonogatari will quite easily be a series that anime fans fondly remember for years to come.

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