Reviewby Theron Martin,
Bakemonogatari [Limited Edition]
Koyomi Araragi seems like an ordinary third-year high school student, but not so long ago an encounter with a vampire nearly turned him into one and the lingering impact of that experience has left him with an extraordinary level of healing. That becomes useful when he starts encountering a variety of girls who have all had their own run-ins with “apparitions” (a blanket term for supernatural creatures and spirits), some of which have violent consequences. First is Hitagi Senjyogahara, an aloof classmate with a rather extreme weight problem (as in, she only weighs a few kilograms even though she looks like a normal girl) and an initially very hostile disposition, although the two eventually become a couple. Others include Mayoi, an elementary school girl who is having an odd amount of trouble getting home; Suruga, a track star whose bandaged left arm hides the fact that she has accidentally gotten what she thinks is a Monkey's Paw fused to her arm; Nadeko, a friend of one of Koyomi's younger sisters who has had a nasty encounter with a snake spirit; and Tsubasa, the class rep and top student of Koyomi's class, whose cat affectation can manifest in a dangerous way when she is under considerable stress. Helping him out on most issues is Meme Oshino, a mid-30s man who seems to know quite a lot about apparitions and rescued Koyomi from becoming a vampire, and often lingering around is Shinobu, a seeming little girl who is also the vampire responsible for Koyomi's earlier troubles.
Based on a light novel series by NisiOisin (who also co-created the more conventional Medaka Box), this 15-episode series aired its first 12 episodes during the summer 2009 season and released its remaining three episodes online between late 2009 and mid-2010. It has proven quite popular in Japan, enough so that it has already spawned two additional series and has a fourth series and a movie on tap for later in 2013. Understanding why is not difficult; although its essential structure is conventional otaku fare, its execution is decidedly and dramatically unconventional. While the approach taken here may certainly turn away some viewers, and does generate some annoying quirks, it is much more likely to fascinate instead.
At its core, Bakemonogatari is really just a cross between a supernatural harem series and one of those Key/Visual Art's titles where the male protagonist goes around solving the problems of broken moe girls. The male lead is, after all, a fairly generic nice guy with two cute younger sisters who just happens to have had this past vampire issue (a matter which the series seems to make a point of only elaborating on in momentary snippets), and most of the girls he helps out either fall for him as a result of the help or had fallen for him beforehand; even the self-admitted lesbian girl seems to be awfully chummy with him in later scenes. The troubles that the girls have which led to their supernatural situations are hardly out of line for harem and/or moe problem-solving series, either, and neither is one solid romantic relationship developing out of all of the possibilities.
Any notion that this will be a typical series of either type gets shattered early on, however, as certain stylistic elements quickly take command. The series is verbose to an extreme, with rapid flashes of on-screen text being a post-opener staple and dialogue taking place in almost nonstop streams of liberally-flowing exchanges, ones which are occasionally peppered by complex wordplay. (Puns involving the way kanji can be split up into symbols that make other words are frequent.) Action of any kind is not entirely absent – in fact, the series has action scenes that can get brutally bloody – but it definitely takes a back seat to the protracted conversations and on-screen text showing some of Koyomi's thoughts. While the conversations do meander at times, they are rarely the exercises in pointlessness that one sees in dialogue-intensive series like Lucky Star; they either display complex character development, engage in witty byplay, or discuss the topics immediately at hand, and sometimes all three. Jokes and occasional anime and cultural references are a regular feature, too, including one that plays out over the course of two episodes, but the humor does not predominate. As a result, paying one's full attention to what's happening is practically a necessity.
However, the characters are also good enough to keep one involved even without other gimmickry. As much as Koyomi seems like the typical nice guy, he can manifest a shocking, amusingly cruel streak (especially with Mayoi), is hardly above being sexually tempted, and must struggle to accept in one case that his “save everyone” solution is not always feasible. (That incident also brings up the interesting question of where allowing a fatal curse to be thrown back on its instigator fits within a moral framework, especially when the curse probably ended up being stronger than originally intended.) Mr. Oshino has the cool dude shtick down pat, Tsubasa is a delight in her unrestrained, cruel-edged catgirl form and pleasant enough otherwise, and the other girls have their own appeals, but the true star here is Ms. Senjyogahara. Whether being playful, seductive, sincere, or frightfully intimidating, she always has a dry, blunt style that still allows a sense of her underlying feelings to show through – a trick that many series attempt but few succeed at, as it typically requires a more detailed display of expression and body language than animation can normally manage. Her forcefulness never goes out of bounds, either, and the characterization of her as tsundere by both herself and one other character seems to be a running joke. One is never left to wonder how she and Koyomi become a loyal couple.
The artistic effort by Shaft can also easily grab and command a viewer's attention. This is director Tatsuya Oishi's only lead directorial effort to date, and he makes the most of it by guiding the creation of an eye-popping display of visionary visuals. This is a series where ordinary things like the way desks are arranged (or stacked) in a classroom, construction scaffolding, and even rows of innumerable identical bicycles in a bike lot are turned into artistic statements, where a catgirl can scamper up and down beams of light from streetlights as if they were ramps, and a seemingly ordinary high school girl can produce an array of stationery implements wielded in a weapon-like fashion seemingly from nowhere. Perspective tricks like viewing scenes from a distance and/or through objects to minimize the need for animation have been used prior to this series (see ef – a tale of memories), but even there the artistry strikes out in a fresh direction with the stark color contrasts of a brilliantly red jungle gym against a white background or sharp yellows and greens used to demarcate other objects. The artistry is not shy about resorting to abstracts, comically exaggerated expressions, or occasional descents into the chibi and parody realms, either. Character designs range from one of the most irresistibly alluring catgirl designs one will ever encounter in anime to the Western-style cool of Oshino to the dangerously creepy look of another character who goes into a psychopathic mode, but even more normal-looking characters like Hitagi and Nadeko have their own strong appeal and Shinobi looks suitably pathetic most of the time. (But the one time she does take action, watch out!) Even the bloodletting – and on the infrequent occasional where it happens, it is considerable – takes a highly stylish approach. While fan service is not heavy enough to draw attention solely on that basis (and the only actual nudity is a shot of a live model in one of the openers), it is used efficiently and effectively as an added enhancement. Much odder is the regular insertion of flashes of screens depicting typesetting and other formatting codes and phrases, such as a screen indicating that “advertisements follow” always coming up where the eyecatch would be.
Evaluating the animation is quite a bit trickier. The series depends heavily on still shots and other gimmicks to avoid showing much animated talking, to the point that sometimes lengthy stretches pass with little or no movement, but at other times a scene goes to great pains to precisely animate how a character's mouth moves in close-up shots. Action scenes tend to happen in brief, intense bursts that showcase dynamic flurries of movement and brutal strikes. Essentially, what the series does animate, it animates well, but it does not have an especially great amount of animation.
Although the musical score is more conventional in sound and application than the artistry, it still excels and may, in fact, be the series' strongest and most consistent production aspect, as the artistry occasionally drops off a little. Whether playful or intense, background music ranges across a wide variety of tones and styles but is invariably appropriate and highly effective. That variety can also be seen in the highly diverse collection of openers the series uses. There are five in all, one for each girl as her story arc is focused on and in each case sung by the seiyuu for that girl. Their songs vary from hyper-peppy J-pop to rock to one that is even partly done in a cutesy rap, and their visuals vary just as widely, including one which has one version filmed mostly in live-action. (In some cases these are updates to the versions originally used for the TV broadcast.) The closer always features that same pleasing J-rock song by supercell (Guilty Crown, Black Rock Shooter), although the animation gets modified a little depending on which girl's arc is being featured. The deeply experienced Japanese vocal cast also turns in a solid effort, especially Yui Horie as Tsubasa's catgirl personality and Takahiro Sakurai (Code Geass's Suzaku) as Mr. Oshino.
Given that this release has finally come courtesy of Aniplex, that it is being released on Blu-Ray but without an English dub should be no surprise. That the list price of nearly $190 is out of line for comparable-length series should be no surprise, either, although it is not quite as outrageous as for some other Aniplex releases and they do, at least, offer quality production for that. The visual quality of the Blu-Ray transfer – sometimes in 1.78:1 aspect ratio and sometimes in 1:2.35 – is amazingly sharp, wonderfully bringing out the brilliant colors and beautifully highlighting the design aesthetics. The sound is less impressive though still well-rendered, with an uncompressed LCPM 2.0 audio mix. Most importantly, though, putting the series on hard copy allows a skillful remote control user to actually catch all of the on-screen dialogue that otherwise flashes by too fast! The episodes are spread across six disks (roughly one for each story arc) stored in three cases that come in the depicted artbox. Each disk has relevant clean opener and closer, the alternate version opener (if there was one) for the original broadcast, and the Next Episode previews used for the original broadcasts. They also feature a “character commentary” for each episode, which is an audio commentary-styled alternate dialogue/subtitle track done in-character by two cast members, usually Tsubasa and one of the other girls. These involved affairs are just as talky as the actual dialogue for each episode is, done precisely in a voice actor commentary style, and are often entertaining independent of the content that the characters are commenting on. They also sometimes provide additional explanations for certain events and/or off-kilter alternate interpretations for events happening on-screen. Each disk case also has bonus interior art and the artbox also includes a 36-page booklet which includes detailed arc summaries, character profiles, and an “Ending Cards Illustration Gallery,” which consists of random, often stylized character pictures.
Few anime titles demand a viewer's undivided attention as forcefully as this visually and verbally ambitious series does, and few benefit more from a Blu-Ray release. The characters and stories have sufficient appeal to carry the series even without the gimmicks and sustain interest even when the talkative nature occasionally gets tiresome, and some parts have more humor than one might initially expect. Arguably the biggest flaw of the series is that it tends to prioritize style when it comes into conflict with storytelling or character development (fortunately not a common occurrence) and the biggest flaw of this release is that the lack of an English dub forces viewers to split their attention with the artistry – and this is a series where one definitely wants to pay attention to the artistic details. If you want something that looks and feels different without actually being too different than the norm, though, then this one should keep you well distracted.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B+
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : A
+ Visually and verbally ambitious, musical score, audio commentaries, Hitagi Senjyogahara.
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