Episode 1

by Nick Creamer,

Hello and welcome to the return of Classic Streaming Reviews, as we explore the first season of a recent megahit franchise in anime. When I first reviewed a show for this feature, it was Paranoia Agent, something I'd never seen before, but this time, the situation's a little different - we're covering Bakemonogatari, the first part of a franchise I can confidently say I've dedicated over a hundred thousand words to writing about. But for all that writing, I've never returned to the show's first season since I first viewed it years ago. So I'll try to be part passenger and part guide here, without letting my loud, over-excited voice spoil the fun. Monogatari is a wild series, and I'm thrilled to explore it with you.

Of course, that's assuming everyone sticks around for the ride. Bakemonogatari's very first episode opens with a long, in-your-face panty shot, a statement of purpose as loud and abrasive as you could imagine. This isn't an incidental “here's a girl and there's her panties” kind of thing, either - the camera doesn't just center itself on her crotch, it then zooms in before panning up to her surprised face.

The Monogatari franchise is often most closely associated with its fanservice, and it's undeniable that the show has sex on the brain. But the framing of even this first panty shot reflects more than just “sexy shots for the audience's benefit.” Before we see that shot, the camera first jumps to protagonist Araragi's eye, and the framing of the shot itself implies that we're following Araragi's own gaze. While Monogatari will indeed have fanservice, the nature of these cuts reflects two of the show's other central priorities - the raging hormones of adolescence and the primacy of perspective.

Perhaps more than anything else, Monogatari is about the complexity of perspective. This first episode almost acts as a primer in that regard - there's an extreme emphasis on closeups of eyes, as well as a significant number of shots framed from a specific character's point of view. In the episode's first extended scene, Araragi talks to class president Hanekawa while the camera echoes his true feelings - it bounces restlessly around the room, focuses on his pencil and idle hands, and seems to deliberately avoid Hanekawa's eyes. There are few “unbiased” shots in Monogatari - most of its framing says something about a scene and often reflects the personal view of a central character.

Things speed up significantly after that, as we rush through a series of text images and then a vague sequence of violent supernatural events. While Bakemonogatari was the first Monogatari series released in both novel and anime form, it was followed by the “prologue story” Kizumonogatari, which is what you're just barely seeing there. The rushed delivery of this seemingly important material reflects another sometimes aggravating aspect of this series - the actual plot often doesn't matter, because the characters don't care about it. Monogatari is a story about people, and the show cares more about the things they currently care about.

By now, you've probably noticed even more of Monogatari's weird style tics - the text images and minimalist backgrounds. These tricks actually show up in a lot of shows by Monogatari's studio, SHAFT, whether they're appropriate or not. Fortunately, in Monogatari, they generally are appropriate. Monogatari writer Nisio Isin's prose is stream-of-consciousness madness, and conveying the subtlety of character established across many pages of internal monologue is pretty difficult in the limited animation of anime. But Bakemonogatari's director Tatsuya Oishi doesn't really care about making a “visually holistic” production, so he's perfectly happy slapping lots of that text into actual flashing blocks on-screen. The ultimate effect does more or less convey the idea of a panicked mind - you won't catch all the words, but you'll hopefully catch the general tone. The backgrounds are similarly viewpoint-appropriate - this is a show about self-obsessed teenagers, and self-obsessed teenagers generally don't pay that much attention to the world around them. Some key road signs, their schools, and their homes are often all that make an impression.

With all that stylistic stuff covered, let's actually get to the meat of this episode. The first striking post-panty-shot moment comes early, as Araragi looks up to see a girl floating gracefully down the stairs. It's a beautiful, almost religious moment, and it clearly affects Araragi - his following conversation with Hanekawa seems defined by distraction. But when he runs into the weightless girl Senjougahara just after that, she's anything but gentle.

Araragi and Senjougahara spar both verbally and (in her case) physically across the rest of this episode. Though she defines herself as a tsundere, there's clearly more to her feelings than that. Senjougahara doesn't actually know Araragi right now, so it seems like her defenses would rise up against anyone. There's a natural rhythm to their banter that sometimes verges on unbelievable, but it's still charming to see moments like her picking up and running with Araragi's Fullmetal Alchemist references. The two have a natural rapport, in spite of their conversation mostly concerning spectral crabs and former vampires.

Monogatari's approach to its own genre is another thing that really helps the series stand out. In a conventional fantasy drama, things like Araragi's vampiric nature would be placed front and center. The first episode would perhaps start with him defending someone from a ghost attack, or else he'd find himself caught in the middle of some fantastical battle. In lieu of that approach, Monogatari keeps its fantastical flourishes on a low simmer at almost all times, focusing instead on the mundane feelings and conversations of its characters. It's another potential turnoff point that makes me wonder how this show ever became such a success; fantasy dramas that hide their fantasy behind rambling conversations about school festivals and relationship boundaries don't make for the easiest sell.

But by the end of this episode, we more or less have our conflict established. Some time between middle and high school, Senjougahara found her weight stolen by what she describes as a crab. Spiritual expert Meme Oshino says this is a “Weight Crab,” but he seems suspicious of Senjougahara's feelings. He claims that “all you can do is save yourself on your own,” but if that's the case, why would Araragi have brought her to him at all? Bakemonogatari may not offer easy hooks, but there are already plentiful mysteries woven into its small cast and their spiritual bindings.

Visually arresting and full of witty banter, Bakemonogatari's first episode offers a strong introduction to many of the key tentpoles of this bizarre franchise. I hope you're ready for more.

Overall: A-

Bakemonogatari is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

Nick writes about anime, storytelling, and the meaning of life at Wrong Every Time.

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