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The Skeptic's Guide to Monogatari

by Kevin Cormack,

Studio Shaft's long-running, one-hundred-episode and three-movie-strong anime franchise Monogatari, split into three “seasons” over ten years between 2009 and 2019, seems almost purpose-built to deter newcomers. A confusing naming scheme that titles each story arc separately, a tortured continuity with non-linear storytelling, Aniplex's hideously overpriced Blu-ray volumes that make collecting the series a similar investment to purchasing your first car, and inconsistent streaming availability come together to scream "Stay away! It's so much effort!" Seriously, there are multiple complex flowcharts on the Monogatari wiki competing to elucidate your watch order.

And that's without even considering Monogatari's high frequency and intensity of fanservice, including not only the constant sexual objectification of every single female character, but regular, uncomfortable elements of suggested incest and pedophilia. Even if these scenes are played mostly for laughs, it's no wonder that the series, although popular amongst certain subsets of anime fandom, has never broken into “mainstream” anime acceptance.

Based on prolific Japanese light novel author NisiOisin's twenty-eight-novel Monogatari series, the anime adapts the first eighteen of these into its three “seasons”, and tells the story of seventeen-year-old main character Koyomi Araragi's final year at high school, the female characters he befriends, and the unusual supernatural occurrences that befall them. Superficially structured like a harem anime, Monogatari is far more clever, and complex, than that genre classification would suggest.

The term Monogatari in Japanese literature means, roughly translated, “epic novel”. Only an author as famously verbose as NisiOisin could make such a mundane, overdone setting as Japanese high school into such a thought-provoking, entertaining, and at times profound story. That is, if you can look past the raging torrent of ecchi content and endless circular conversations full of untranslatable wordplay. There's a reason Monogatari has never received an English dub. It would be impossible.

The closest Monogatari will ever get to an English dub are the translated audiobook adaptations of some of the first few novels, read by some well-known North American anime voice actors. The novels themselves are available to buy physically and digitally in English, at least up to Japanese volume eighteen, where the “Final Season” ends. Spoiler — it's not very final, as two further book “seasons” follow. Whether they'll eventually receive an anime adaptation or not is currently unknown, though Shaft's chief director Akiyuki Shinbou previously expressed his desire to continue adapting the series as long as NisiOisin continues writing it.

Monogatari's central conceit regards the existence of “oddities” (or “aberrations” or “apparitions” depending on translation or context). Oddities are superficially similar to some Japanese yokai, but depend on human beings for their existence. They often take the form of animals, and are a manifestation of a person's inner pain, or unacknowledged desires. When oddities attach themselves to a person, the consequences may be dire, and the services of supernatural “specialists” may be required to combat them. Because of his love of complex Japanese wordplay, NisiOisin often infuses the oddities in his stories with powers originating from words, or at least specific character readings that are difficult to translate into English.

Monogatari's first anime season began in 2009 with a fifteen-episode adaptation of the first novel, Bakemonogatari (Monster Tale). Bakemonogatari relates Koyomi Araragi's early interactions with several of the female cast, including the terrifyingly sharp-tongued, purple-haired, offensive stationery-wielding Hitagi Senjogahara, who becomes his girlfriend. Despite the frequent ecchi shenanigans surrounding (and perpetuated by) Araragi, Monogatari is notable in that it sets up its central relationship very early. There's none of this wishy-washy “will they or won't they” nonsense so common to high school anime, and Araragi never strays from Senjogahara. Their romantic relationship develops mostly in the background, except for in a handful of arcs, allowing Araragi's friendships with other characters to become the focus.

Confusingly, Bakemonogatari isn't the first story chronologically. It's the third. NisiOisin's second Monogatari novel was Kizumonogatari (Wound Tale), and instead of comprising part of the anime's first TV season, it was instead produced as a trilogy of three movies, finally released after many delays in 2016 and 2017. Kizumonogatari relates the story of how Araragi meets a gravely injured Queen of Oddities, the beautiful, blonde, European vampire Kiss-shot Acerola-orion Heart-under-blade. (NisiOisin's character names are a lot sometimes.) Against all common sense, he saves her life and becomes a vampire himself. This isn't a sappy Twilight-esque romantic tale, however. It's something a lot darker and more melancholy.

The Kizumonogatari movies, despite looking very different from the TV series, act like a microcosm of everything Monogatari is about. They are perhaps my favorite part of the franchise, despite their shortcomings. At a combined runtime of almost three and a half hours, Kizumonogatari as a whole feels too long, and bloated at times. It's full of those trademark lengthy, digression-filled Monogatari conversations, but also features amazing visuals, stunning action animation, incredible gore (fountains of blood!), and even slapstick comedy referencing the very best of Chuck Jones and his deranged Looney Tunes. But with vampires.

I'd argue that for anyone sitting on the fence about whether to watch Monogatari, the Kizumonogatari films are a good place to start, to gauge if you can tolerate the languid pace, the verbose dialogue, the deliberately uncomfortable ecchi material, the spectacular violence, and the at-times frustratingly obtuse characters. For better and for worse, Kizumonogatari doubles down on all of these aspects.

Whereas the TV series is relentlessly colorful, the movies stick to a limited color palette of yellow/red/black/white, likely an overt reference to the vampire Kiss-shot's design. This results in a trilogy of movies that look like almost nothing else, their queasy, hazy ambiance evocative of the unearthly nightmare scenario that Araragi must navigate. I definitely recommend sticking through the slower scenes for the absolutely bonkers climax where two continuously-regenerating vampires battle each other in an empty stadium, each gleefully lopping body parts off their opponent, only for them to instantly regrow. It's hilarious and gross at the same time.

2012 brought the next chunk of Monogatari season one, the eleven-episode Nisemonogatari (Fake Story), which examines Araragi's sometimes contentious relationship with his two younger sisters, Karen and Tsukihi. The Araragi parents seem completely absent from the household (his mother cameos once, in a different arc), which perhaps helps explain why the interactions between Araragi and his siblings seem so creepy and wrong.

It's impossible to discuss Nisemonogatari without at least mentioning the Monogatari series' most infamous scene. You know, that one involving a toothbrush. It's an incredibly discomforting extended sequence where Araragi offers to brush his sister Karen's teeth, and this is portrayed in excruciating detail, framed romantically, overtly sexually, with groaning noises. It's heavily implied that if they hadn't been interrupted by horrified youngest sister Tsukihi, Araragi and Karen would probably have crossed intimate boundaries into illegal carnal activity. It's easy to see how such a disturbing scene could completely turn off casual viewers, uncorrupted by continual exposure to other boundary-shattering incest-containing anime. I think this is probably meant to be satirical, but when I showed it to my wife to gauge her reaction, she slapped me. Monogatari is not a show one can safely watch with one's wife, it seems.

Season one concludes with 2012's short Nekomonogatari (Cat Tale) Black, the second story in continuity. The second season picks up with 2013's Nekomonogatari White, thematically linked to the previous story but much later in continuity. These stories feature seemingly perfect student Tsubasa Hanekawa, and Araragi's vocal lusting after her voluminous breasts. Although their attraction to one another is mutual, Araragi maintains his fidelity to Senjogahara, and the strain of their relationship, plus the effects of Hanekawa's abusive/neglectful home life, cause Hanekawa to manifest multiple destructive cat-themed oddities. Enlightened cat-girl enjoyers will find much to appreciate in this part of the franchise. Meow.

If season one can be said to have a theme, it can perhaps be distilled down to “Araragi meets a girl with a supernatural problem, he sacrifices himself to help her with it.” The second season often relegates Araragi to a supporting role, while the girls deal with their own issues, gaining independence and autonomy from him. In the first season, supernatural specialist and mentor figure Meme Oshino repeatedly announces that “you can't save people, people just go and get saved on their own.” It takes the rest of the show for Araragi to truly internalize and comprehend this concept, but the second season provides several examples. Season one introduces other concepts that the second deepens, though not all may be totally apparent on initial exposure. Monogatari is a show that rewards repeated viewing to pick up its sophisticated callbacks, subtle themes, and character nuances.

The second season also introduces one of my very favorite characters — the spooky and mysterious Ougi Oshino, the clearly inhuman, empty-eyed, malevolent and mysterious girl who wraps Araragi around her little finger. The mystery surrounding her identity and motivation persists through the second season, before becoming a primary focus of the final. She is the main instigator of the plot that builds non-chronologically through the second half of the show.

Although I'm not a big fan of Hanamonogatari, an arc bolted onto the end of the second season that primarily features second-year high school student Suruga Kanbaru, it holds an unusual place as the story that occurs latest in continuity, even far past the conclusion of the final season. It epitomizes the concept of a female character resolving their issues separately from the main male character, and it also features the gender-ambiguous Ougi Oshino dressing as a boy and gaslighting Kanbaru into accepting that she'd been this way all along. Ougi's such a messed-up but entertaining source of chaos.

Monogatari's final season, released between 2014 and 2019, is the most complex in terms of continuity, with episodes taking place across the entire timeline of the franchise. As seems common with NisiOisin's approach to Monogatari's storytelling, the arcs are arranged thematically. It does help to watch along with a flowchart or a database. The twenty-episode Owarimonogatari is my favorite part of the TV show, with so many great character moments, revelations and emotional resolutions.

In this final season, Araragi is forced to contend with his previous choices, and to take responsibility for his actions. Whereas the previous seasons featured great character development for the peripheral female cast, this last segment of stories really drills down into Araragi's character — his strengths, his failings, his assumptions and beliefs, and challenges each one. It contextualizes the entire story as the end of Araragi's adolescence, and the beginning of his transition into independent adulthood.

Themes established way back at the beginning, and enriched via detailed character interactions, finally meet their conclusions here, in an emotional and ultimately uplifting way. Long-running character arcs conclude and relationships change and progress, as Araragi processes his regrets and ultimately moves on with his life. In an entertainment medium filled with long-running franchises predicated upon wheel-spinning and drawn-out stories, it's refreshing to experience such a definitive thematic end as that offered by Monogatari Final Season. It retrospectively makes the rest of the franchise so much more worthwhile, and justifies the slog through some of the slower or more objectionable elements.

Monogatari's entertainment value is multiplied greatly by Shaft's peerless production work. With visuals that are never less than stunning, Monogatari is the very definition of anime eye candy. Akio Watanabe's character designs adapt and simplify VOFAN's beautiful light novel illustrations to give the show a striking, instantly-identifiable look. This isn't a show where every character looks the same — there's more than just color-coded hair used to tell the girls apart. Every girl's character is illuminated by their clothing, posture, movements, their recurrent motifs and actions.

Perhaps reflecting Koyomi Araragi's hyper-fixation on attractive girls, apart from the main characters, no background characters ever appear except as vaguely defined placeholder figures, similar to the later works of Kunihiko Ikuhara (Mawaru Penguindrum, Yuri Kuma Arashi, Sarazanmai). Backgrounds are ever-changing, psychedelic, colorful, evocative and surreal. Sometimes they're relatively realistic, with the almost art deco-like design of Araragi's school a recurrent feature, but often characters are portrayed walking through bizarre mindscapes reflecting their mental states. There's much symbolism in Monogatari; it's not a show where everything presented should be taken at face value.

Especially early on the series, due to the sheer density of information presented in quick-cut staccato manner, an unsuspecting viewer is likely to feel utterly overwhelmed by the walls of text lifted straight from the light novel, spewed onto the screen frequently as blink-and-you'll-miss-them title cards. This does calm down later. A little. Perhaps as a way to distract from the relatively limited animation, Monogatari's directors employ all manner of visual tricks to keep the viewer interested during the episode-long conversations that would be interminably boring in lesser series. (Though I still find some episodes difficult to endure.) Weird camera angles, innumerable head-tilts, frequent visual pop-culture references, exaggerated slapstick, and constant surreal imagery help to keep the viewer's brain in a constant state of “what the hell did I just watch?”

Even though each individual story arc may be as short as only two episodes, it receives its own opening song, sung by the voice actress of that arc's main featured female character. Monogatari has so many openers, almost all uniformly fantastic pop songs with wonderful accompanying animation. Even if I'd never watched the show, I'd keep some of these songs in perpetual playlist circulation. Even the lyrics closely reference each character's mental state and motivation, and are another testament to the incredible effort that Shaft made in producing this anime.

I feel I've only begun to scratch the surface of the quality and meaning hidden deep in the Monogatari series, behind flashy visuals and ecchi nonsense. It's a fascinating story, cleverly told, with memorable, sympathetic characters, and a wicked sense of humour. I'm very glad I was convinced to give it a chance, even if some scenes left me feeling very creeped out. If you're willing to look beyond some of its more objectionable or tiresome aspects, I heartily recommend you jump aboard the Monogatari train. it's a long, but fun and rewarding ride.

Kevin Cormack is a Scottish medical doctor, husband, father, and lifelong anime obsessive. He writes as Doctorkev elsewhere and appears regularly on The Official AniTAY Podcast. His accent is real

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