Reviewby Nick Creamer,
BAKEMONOGATARI: Monster Tale
Koyomi Araragi never expected his spring break to be interrupted by a five hundred-year-old vampire or even briefly to become a vampire himself! How all that happened is a pretty interesting story - but it is not this story. Having survived his first supernatural encounter, Araragi has returned to his everyday school life, where he spends his time avoiding thinking about the future and halfheartedly contributing to school festival efforts - until one day he looks up while climbing the stairs, only to see a strange girl floating down from above.
It's something of a truism in fandom circles that “the original is always better.” Whether it's your favorite comic being adapted into a TV series, or your favorite novel being adapted into a film, the source material generally earns a kind of assumed reverence. This isn't terribly surprising - switching between mediums will naturally alter the fundamental nature of a story, and so if something deeply connects with you in its original format, it's likely an adaptation will result in a less perfect art-audience bond. Plus, there's the simple fact that plenty of adaptations are weaker works, or at least less poignant and personal articulations of a certain artist's vision.
Personally, I'm always a little suspicious of this instinct. I'm wary of being too precious about source material, and welcome substantial changes when works undergo adaptations. As I said, different mediums have different strengths - if a story is told precisely the same way in prose and animation, one of the two will be weaker for it. And so it didn't come as a terrible surprise to me that finally reading Bakemonogatari's source material left me a little underwhelmed. I'll go ahead and say it - I think the anime version of these stories is solidly superior.
As far as narratives go, both Hitagi Crab and Mayoi Snail offer the same unique storytelling sensibilities and deeply personal focus of their anime versions. If you're approaching the franchise for the first time, the central conceit of Monogatari is the existence of fantasy apparitions, which appear to “haunt” the central characters until we ultimately learn how those apparitions reflect those characters' emotional trauma. Stories proceed as exorcisms-slash-therapy sessions, offering a satisfying mix of fantasy drama and pointed character studies. The franchise has a compelling pitch, and its characters are easily complex and uniquely voiced enough to carry the story.
Outside of its overt plot beats, Bakemonogatari is also defined by its author's distinctive style and sense of narrative priorities. Bakemonogatari is basically constructed as a series of long, rambling conversations, where goofy banter eventually reveals emotional complexity, letting characters build off each other over time. The “what happens next” of Bakemonogatari is generally “then we talked about it some more” - if you're looking for cliffhangers and thrilling escapades, you're reading the wrong story. Author Nisio Isin's interest in wordplay, language more generally, pop culture, psychology, and much else all inform Bakemonogatari's rambling conversations, resulting in a story that can at times feel almost directionless.
If you're a big fan of the anime's more goofy, rambling moments, I definitely recommend picking up the book. While the anime already spent plenty of time letting characters like Araragi and Mayoi riff off each other, their conversations in the source material are even more lengthy and circuitous. As someone who often finds that pair's banter more aggravating than enjoyable, it was frankly tough to get through this book's second half. You really have to enjoy the rapport between Monogatari's title lecher and snarky grade-schooler for its own sake - there's no dramatic payoff waiting at the end, this is just a book that loves its aimless, endless conversations. Personally, I'd say the anime did very well in abridging these dialogues without losing anything of real value.
Enjoyment of the Bakemonogatari novel is also hampered by the often stilted prose. This book's awkward phrasing came as a surprise to me, as Ko Ransom's previous work translating Kizumonogatari resulted in a punchy, distinctive, and consistently fluid reading experience. In contrast, Bakemonogatari is full of clumsy phrasings, inelegant repetition, and unnatural dialogue. Whether this comes down to the relative speed of this translation, the fact that Nisio Isin's own writing here is worse, or something else entirely is hard to say - but the ultimate result is that reading Bakemonogatari feels like it requires its own act of translation, mentally switching the stiff phrasing of the text for something that resembles teenagers having conversations. The shift from prose to anime also seems to have done the story a great favor here, as very little of the irksome repetition that gives all of these events a stutter-step in dialogue made it over into the animated product.
Overall, I'd recommend the Bakemonogatari novel for two audiences: people who really loved Mayoi Snail, and people who are invested enough in the franchise that they'd be interested even in a pretty clumsy expansion of it. I wouldn't recommend this book to new potential fans - starting with either the Bakemonogatari anime series, Kizumonogatari films, or Kizumonogatari novel all seem like much more rewarding choices. The stories here are still compelling, but they've been told much better elsewhere.
Overall : C+
Story : C
Art : B+
+ Bakemonogatari's premise and stories are still compelling, lots of goofy Mayoi banter for fans of the character
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