Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, May 20th 2014
Sub.Blu-Ray - Tsubasa Family [Limited Edition]
Hanekawa and Araragi find a dead cat by the road. They bury the cat and soon thereafter, while Araragi is trying to parse his feelings for the Class Prez, Oshino informs Araragi that there's a Sawari Neko loose in town. An extremely painful encounter with a cat-eared, lingerie-bedecked Hanekawa leaves no doubt that the Neko has possessed the Prez. But how and why? And why is the Neko, supposedly a minor apparition, so horrendously strong? And smart?
Nekomonogatari (Black) is a short, transitionary OVA produced between Nisemonogatari and Monogatari Series Second Season that is, properly speaking, a prequel to both. In fact, chronologically it is the earliest of all the Monogatari series, taking place between the long-promised, yet-to-be-produced Kizumonogatari and Bakemonogatari, the franchise's first series. The OVA isn't absolutely essential in understanding the franchise, but it does substantially enrich Hanekawa's segments—particularly Tsubasa Tiger, the opening arc of the slyly achronological Second Season—and provide that peculiar Monogatari combination of playful philosophical noodling and bleak, artfully abstracted emotional revelation.
If you're a fan of the franchise—and really, who else is going to be watching a transitionary OVA between seasons two and three?—then you know what's coming at you: a deluge of dialogue, a wave of verbiage; characters discussing every topic under the sun, swapping dialogue partners, trading barbs and metafictional jokes, playing with words and pulling their meanings apart and peeling away lies and protective layers to reveal their sparring partners' beating hearts. The OVA begins with Araragi trying wryly to define love with little sis Tsukihi and not even being bisected—yes, Araragi gets dismembered again—can shut the characters' mouths, as Araragi analyzes Hanekawa's personality and expounds on his and Sawari Neko's feelings while his guts leak onto the pavement.
From all of that discussion a supernatural mystery emerges, and like all the mysteries of Monogatari it is a mystery whose heart lays deep in the psychic wounds of the culprit's victim. Strictly speaking, any Monogatari novella is a monster-bustin' tale—an apparition possesses someone, and Araragi must figure out what it is and get rid of it—but in Monogatari magical monsters and inner turmoil are one and the same. The monsters are real but also fake; they're things to be exorcised and also simply manifestations of the kinks and knots in a person's psyche. Araragi is battling an apparition, a mythical monster, yes, but he's also battling to repair a damaged heart.
And in this case the heart is Hanekawa's. If you're a Hanekawa fan, this is your poison. These episodes dig deep into Hanekawa's world, uncovering—as this set's sub-title "Tsubasa Family" hints—a home life that is as cleanly, antiseptically awful as you care to imagine. As is NisiOisin's wont, however, Hanekawa's demons aren't as simple as "monstrous parents, abused child." The show has a certain sympathy for Hanekawa's parents, as well as a cold, clear eye for the ways Hanekawa contributes to her own predicament. While Hanekawa is surprisingly easy to root for given her character type (the kind, strong, pure, preternaturally even-keeled perfect-girl), the OVA is careful to spotlight how spooky, unsettling, and just plain unnatural she is. And then asks: how might that affect a girl's step-parents? And what happens to the natural urges that must die to maintain that unnatural state?
It is one neat bit of stereotype deconstruction: NisiOisin forming Hanekawa in strict accordance with the perfect-girl template and then using the nature of the template itself to turn her, and her character-type, inside out.
Nothing so radical happens to Araragi, but we do get another demonstration of why he's so strangely easy to like. He's a pervo for sure—he gropes the heck out of his little sister within minutes of the OVA beginning—and kind of a dope, but he's also a sort of loveably tarnished knight-errant. A perceptive but bumbling Don Quixote, aware that he's going to get himself hurt, that he may not help at all, but unable to stop himself from riding—uncoolly—to the maiden's rescue. Which in its own way, in this case a humiliating, gory way, makes him pretty dang cool.
Aniplex has put together a package that is, quite simply, great. It's a two-disc set in a lovely cardboard slipcase, with enough room inside for both a welcome color booklet (best feature: translations of the ending cards used in the previews) and a collection of quality postcards adorned with the show's scrumptious character art. There's a smattering of on-disc extras too—PVs for both Bakemonogatari and Second Season—but the discs' best feature is simply their video quality. It is beautiful. Perfect. Unblemished. The set divides the OVA's four episodes over two discs, which obviously allows for extra care in packing the data because, even as nice as other Blu-Ray releases are, pretty much all of them look muddy and sloppy next to the pristine flawlessness of these discs.
And it helps immensely. For all its obsession with dialogue, the Monogatari franchise is intensely visual. As you'd expect with a stylist like Akiyuki Simbo aboard. Having gone over it before, I won't get into the specifics of his direction or how it interacts with NisiOisin's writing, but both are crucial to the abstract, fabulist's spell that the show casts. Black's palate is, well, a little blacker, but otherwise the series looks like any other Monogatari installment. Which is to say, terminally stylized and punch-you-in-the-eye gorgeous. The show's fan-service is still among the best ever animated, and with Hanekawa prancing around in her skivvies for most of the show, also plentiful. Fan-service-wise, if you're a Hanekawa fan this OVA is again your poison. Though the Fire Sisters also get a couple of good pokes in.
Satoru Kousaki's score is also crucial to that fabulist's spell: subtle, simple, and haunting. Rarely are more than two or three instruments used at a time and they weave their spooky magic unheralded—building, enhancing, insinuating, but never announcing their presence.
At the risk of stating the obvious, this review is a recommendation. A strong one. But not a wholehearted one. Black is a good Monogatari arc: darker, quicker, and more compact than the meandering arcs of Nisemonogatari. But no matter how strong the arc, no matter how sold I am... on the merits of the franchise in general, there's always a little worm of reservation squirming away at the heart of my admiration. NisiOisin is a wickedly smart observer of otaku culture, the philosopher king of repetition and simplification. And Monogatari is probably his masterpiece: an abstract narrative, ingeniously painted with the primary colors and synthetic shapes of the otaku palette.
But that's also the show's Achilles' heel. The series' focus is intensely emotional, but the emotions are abstractions of emotions, the characters abstractions of characters (themselves abstractions of real people). Black and its Monogatari kin will always feel a bit cold and distant because they are synthetic by nature. Inside isn't the organic pulsing of a heart but the intricate ticking and whirring of an exquisitely assembled machine. Which can be beautiful in its own way. But while we can appreciate, we can enjoy, we can even laugh and understand, we do not feel. And so the worm wriggles on.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A
+ Flawless presentation; interesting insight into Hanekawa; wicked smart use of the "perfect girl" archetype; all-you-can-eat eye candy buffet.
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