Monogatari is a Disasterby Nick Creamer,
Look, Monogatari is a mess.
I feel I have the right to say that. I've written thousands of words of glowing praise for the show, including several highly positive reviews here at Anime News Network. I've covered it from a thematic front, a visual storytelling front, a character-analysis front, and basically every other angle you could choose for approach. I've written essays on how one character's story reflects family, how another's recent arc triumphs as a coming-of-age narrative, and how the show overall engages with truth and identity. I love Monogatari - it is one of my favorite shows, warts and all, and I think few shows really “get” me on a more fundamental level.
But the thing is a mess.
It is very hard to recommend Monogatari to people. Not just because it contains one type of controversial content, though it certainly has plenty of that - it's because it contains every type, some of them being controversial in wildly divergent directions. It's no surprise that Monogatari is considered divisive, or an “acquired taste” - the ambiguities of Monogatari, its weirdnesses and idiosyncrasies and awkward ambitions, are all baked into its fundamental nature. Monogatari is part fanservice manifesto, part slapstick comedy, part atmospheric art exhibit, part character study, part open-mic monologue; sometimes, even its own greatest fans don't know what to say to it. But I can at least say that, and maybe try to explain why Monogatari is, has, and always will be a beautiful mess of a production, a work that people will either love, hate, or love-hate for a variety of extremely valid and understandable reasons. Any show will inspire diverse reactions, but Monogatari essentially demands them. Let's start at the top.
The first thing you need to know about Monogatari is that it's actually several shows in one. The most basic description of the show would be “Araragi Koyomi is a very unusual high schooler. He's a pervert, yes, but more importantly, he's a half-vampire, permanently bonded to a sullen vampire who once attacked his town. But even this isn't enough for Araragi; no, he apparently has to go and get himself caught up in all manner of other supernatural nonsense, as he finds himself acting as chief exorcist for a long line of spiritually troubled young girls. Over the course of many arcs, Araragi and his companions will deal with cursed monkey paws, angry snake gods, and any number of other spiritual-psychological phenomena, maybe learning a little bit about themselves along the way.” So you've got the “snarky high schooler as exorcist” hook, and you've got the base harem nature of a series of arcs dedicated to different girls. That's a fine premise for a show, but for Monogatari, that's only where it starts getting weird.
The fact that Monogatari is a series of distinct arcs, each of them focused on different characters and occasionally framed from different viewpoint protagonists, means the show gets to try on a lot of hats. This, combined with its simultaneous interest in sex, comedy, drama, identity, and visual framing, mean you basically never know what show you're actually going to get. Sometimes Monogatari leans into Araragi's personality, and becomes either a fanservice show or a raunchy comedy (see: basically any Mayoi Hachikuji arc). Sometimes it focuses on the strict supernatural problem a given character is facing, and becomes a very focused drama. And sometimes it goes deep on exploring its characters' personal conditions, becoming a kind of psychological thriller. In Monogatari, the supernatural elements are always reflective of underlying psychological problems a character is facing, meaning you might get one set of episodes that's basically all about Araragi liking little girls swiftly followed by a set that focus on the impermanence of family as a support structure, or the ways our emotional fronts impact our underlying identities.
This scattershot set of priorities is also reflected in the show's visual framing. Monogatari is a show where most of the time, framing matters - what is revealed in the frame, and where a scene is shot from, tells you something about the characters and emotions at play. The way the camera looks at one character while they're being examined by the viewpoint character might reveal whether they're seen as a threat or friend, old comrade or object of lust. The lighting and color work often change dramatically as a character's emotions shift, and the pacing of cuts will often speed up to demonstrate panic or stall to imply peace and familiarity. Monogatari's visual framing matters... except when it doesn't. Because sometimes, the show just wants to titillate. Sometimes a boob is just a boob. Because the show wants to be both a visually purposeful story and a quirky fanservice ride, its visual framing will sometimes end up at war with itself, one set of priorities pitted savagely against another. And this is before we even get to how the show's style changes over time.
Because that's the second thing you need to know about Monogatari - that it undergoes some pretty dramatic style shifts over its many arcs and seasons. The conventional wisdom is that all these shows are just “SHAFT's house style,” a style directly reflective of director Akiyuki Shinbo's sensibilities, but the truth is a bit more complicated. If you take a look at Shaft's output, you swiftly notice that pretty much every recent show says “directed by Akiyuki Shinbo” - he's essentially become not just a person, but a brand label, a popular name stamped on top of a variety of other directors. Shinbo obviously is involved in all of his productions to some extent, but simplifying all these shows to a “SHAFT” or “Shinbo” style denies the meaningful differences between them.
And there certainly are meaningful differences, ones which in the case of Monogatari might make you love half the series and have no interest in the rest. Bakemonogatari's director was Tatsuya Oishi, and his season is marked by all numbers of stylistic diversions. In addition to the usual clean, almost sterile visual aesthetic, his season is heavy on jump cuts and full of photo flashbacks and other distinctive visual ideas. Bakemonogatari is scattershot and bold, full of visual invention that often seems more focused on being interesting than purposeful.
After Oishi left the series to work on the mythical Kizumonogatari, Nisemonogatari dropped these visual digressions, gaining more consistent animation and an upgraded focus on sexuality in the bargain. Nise is Monogatari at its most “fanservicey,” but it also uses the camera's eye to convey legitimate tension and emotional/sexual dynamics between characters. This “every shot is purposeful” trend continues in the shift to Monogatari Second Season, where the focus on sexuality is lessened as the show adopts a consistent style somewhere between Nise's aesthetic and an overt stage play. The camera pulls back more, lighting becomes more important and theatrical, and shifts in color scheme begin to accompany scene and emotional changes. Eventually, the show begins to reintegrate some of the style quirks of Bake, leading to a diverse menagerie of visual tricks. All of these styles are engaging in their own way, but they're all very different, and liking one season's aesthetic in no way means you'll have any fondness for the others.
And the director isn't the only one making Monogatari a bumpy ride. Because the third and final pillar of Monogatari's inherent divisiveness is that it's written by friggin' Nisio Isin. When given a central theme to cover, Isin will dance around it in conversations about slugs and snails, or have a character monologue their feelings on a seemingly unrelated but thematically relevant topic, or suddenly shift from comedy to terror in half a scene. Isin's writing is unabashedly self-indulgent, and you could easily make an argument that it's therefore “bad.” That it's slow, and conveys information inefficiently, and often seems too self-conscious and in love with itself. That the ways his characters actively comment on storytelling, the ambiguity of language, and their own journeys makes them feel unreal, like they're not people at all.
So why do people like this writing, then? Well, because those “weaknesses” aren't necessarily weaknesses. Isin's writing can also convey personality and tone, or just simply sound rhythmically satisfying. It's full of jokes and interesting ideas, and his rambling conversations can give you a stronger emotional understanding of a character than clear, unambiguous dialogue would. Labored writing can possess a dramatic pacing of its own, can convey themes through its very obscurity and build purposefully towards distant peaks. Instead of possessing the propulsion of a film, his stories often seem to work according to the narrative rhythms of a stage play.
So is it good or bad, then? Well, that's the tricky thing about writing, particularly writing that possesses such a specific authorial voice - you'll either love it, hate it, or sometimes both. This is true for me personally - when Isin digresses into characters arguing with their own psychology, I'm all for it. When he digresses into wordplay and sex jokes, I tune out. Isin's characters don't generally “sound like real people,” but that's actually true of most stories - the important thing is what kind of unreal styles of characterization a given audience member responds to, and that can be a very personal thing.
This issue of personality essentially applies to all of Monogatari. The show will either come off as full of personality and tone or self-indulgent and needlessly obtuse. There's little middle ground on whether the style works for you or not; it's just too aggressive for that. And because Monogatari has become such a huge, monolithic thing, engaging becomes even more difficult. All of these various quirks become more and less prevalent across its length, and everyone will have a favorite and least favorite arc. Many people say Bakemonogatari is the best part, and nothing afterwards is worth watching; personally, I sort of wish there were an abridged “greatest hits” of the first two seasons, just so people could more easily get to Second Season. And the reason I wish that is because, well...
Because I think the show is worth it. In spite of all its contradictory weirdnesses, the show tends to be really good at most of the things it attempts, or at least it attacks them with a great deal of unique personality. It's full of rich characters with strong voices that undergo tremendous amounts of growth, elevated by a unique visual style that makes every scene a new adventure. There's little else like it, little else like several of its internal selves. And in its nature as a “broken work,” as a scattershot reflection of creators imprinting their identities on narrative in a loud and inescapable way, I think it really represents a lot of the personality and idiosyncrasy and general weirdness that people come to anime for.
Monogatari is a disaster. Give it a try.
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