Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jul 25th 2012
Episodes 1-11 Streaming
Koyomi is buckling down to study, to all intents and purposes done with the supernatural rescue business, when his sisters spoil his retirement. Karen and Tsukihi are a couple years younger than him, but share fully his inability to let well enough alone. They refer to themselves as the Fire Sisters and run around like middle-school superheroes righting wrongs. Which is how Karen runs afoul of a mercenary magician, a self-proclaimed “fake” who poisons her with the sting of a wreathe-fire bee. With Oshino gone and Karen's health fast declining Koyomi must turn to his friends, including vampire shadow Shinobu, for help. Later Koyomi meets a strange pair on the street, learning afterwards that they are supernatural specialists who hunt immortal beings. At first he's afraid they're after Shinobu, but when they pay a visit to his house their target proves to be someone even closer.
There are two powerful and distinctive voices at work in Nisemonogatari: one the narrative voice of pop-fiction scribe NisiOisin, and the other the stylistic voice of director and visual adventurer Akiyuki Shinbo. Luckily the two are a good match; their oddities and idiosyncrasies combine rather harmoniously to create something quite novel. Think of it as avant-garde horror theater as interpreted by mad otaku and even madder set designers. Or don't. Frankly there's no simple way to describe what a strange and delirious and alienating experience this show is. One thing is easy to say, though: it's like nothing you've ever seen. Unless you've seen Bakemonogatari of course.
NisiOisin's series often seem like experiments in storytelling form: repeating, commenting on their own goings-on, and stripping stories to their cores. Nisemonogatari takes that experimentation to perhaps its most extreme limit. The seven-part Karen Bee arc (and to a lesser extent the Tsukihi Phoenix arc that follows) is basically a series of conversational loops, with Koyomi and a girl talking until the conversation reaches its logical cutoff point and Koyomi moves onto the next girl and the next conversation.
It's a perfect platform for NisiOisin's love of sophistry, semantics, and wordplay. Karen and Kaiki the fake have a lengthy conversation about justice and evil, in which Kaiki twists words and logic to get the concepts on equal moral footing. Koyomi and grade-school ghost Mayoi discuss the power of the word “courage” to turn even the vilest acts noble (“The courage to betray your comrades!” “The courage to lie to your lover!”). In the Tsukihi arc the villain spends the better part of her final soliloquy discussing the (Japanese) etymology of the word “hypocrisy” to make a point about…well, not being Japanese, I'm not quite sure what. But it was convoluted.
And that's just the beginning. NisiOisin's dialogue covers a dizzying array of topics. There are tongue-in-cheek discussions of what it means to be a pervert. Classical philosophy gets a turn. Comic verbal sparring is a near-constant. Koyomi and Shinobu ponder the personal cost of immortality, Koyomi and Karen go back and forth over the role of strength in the pursuit of justice, and nearly everyone weighs in on the subject of “realness” and “fakeness” (the “nisemono” in the title means “fake”). It's through dialogue that relationships advance, in conversation that characters change. Hitagi lets Koyomi see how seriously she takes their relationship in one, and Koyomi shows Karen how much he cares for her by thrashing her in their argument about strength and justice.
As conversation loops into conversation, a plot begins to emerge. A mysterious phone call during Karen and Koyomi's talk of cool catchphrases and silly poses. A mention of fake curses at school as Koyomi talks games with Nadeko. A bizarre exchange with a bizarre man outside Suruga's residence. Eventually it turns into a full-fledged narrative about a brilliantly amoral con artist and a deadly curse, but still it is told in conversations: phone calls, walk-and-talks, long verbal confrontations—dialogue cycling forever, repeating themes and catchphrases and ideas, wandering through improvisational discussions of total unimportance as the important details sift themselves out and somehow form a coherent story. It's something very like abstract storytelling, a myth-simple tale emerging from the repetition of stylized blocks of narrative.
NisiOisin finds a near-perfect match for his abstract storytelling in the equally abstract direction of the possibly-insane Akiyuki Shinbo. Shinbo positions Koyomi's story in a world of such nonsensical expressionistic beauty that the settings can't really be called settings. They're more like externalizations of internal moods: a haunted school where towers of chairs float around a red tree that sprouts incongruously from the classroom floor; a room whose clutter is comprised entirely of piles of identical red books; roads crusted with traffic signs that reflect the ongoing dialogue; an octopoidal freeway overpass whose maze of curling off-ramps cages Karen and Koyomi as they fight. Shinbo regularly ignores continuity and reality, allowing the physical world to shift and change without explanation, switching art styles in mid-conversation, taking off on impressionistic flights of visual fancy, and defying all known laws of physics and architecture.
In the meantime Shinbo's camera is forever wandering: circling his characters, zooming in and dollying back, cutting to odd angles and elaborate POV shots. Geometric architectural designs turn his compositions into abstract tableaux, while magnificently mobile animation turns his fights into ballets as graceful as they are brutal. The end product is in every way a visual marvel, but it's best to think of it as an impression of the characters' subjective experience rather than a chronicle of objective reality. Don't try to make strict sense of what is going on, just flow along with it, feeling rather than comprehending. Satoru Kousaki's score, for the record, is an appropriately odd, appropriately attractive body of work, but cannot hope to approach Shinbo's visuals in beauty or invention.
Before leaving Shinbo behind, his fan-service deserves a special mention. It is, quite simply, fantastic. Full-motion animation and designs that don't ignore the laws of physics—close attention is paid to musculature, bone structure, and articulation—along with Shinbo and NisiOisin's libidinous imaginations make for fan-service that is erotically charged (and sometimes devilishly inventive) yet curiously tasteful; perhaps the closest pure titillation gets to being artful. There's just one tiny little hang-up. The series is, shall we say, omnivorous in its age preferences. Shinbo applies the same lascivious eye to eight-year-old Shinobu's bath that he does to pubescent Nadeko's attempt to seduce Koyomi or to fully-grown Hitagi's twisted flirtations. Add to that the fact that much of the fan-service involves Koyomi getting rather too close with his sisters—wiping down Karen's fevered body for instance—and you have a recipe for some seriously conflicted feelings. The first of the Tsukihi episodes is one of the absolute best fan-service episodes, perhaps ever (and one of the oddest—you'll never look at your toothbrush the same again), but it also has a high-school brother getting hot and heavy with his middle-school sister. The series' droll wit takes some of the sting out of that, and out of the other perversions as well, but still.
As unique, spectacular and, yes, sexy as Nisemonogatari is, it can be equally frustrating. NisiOisin's dialogue can be obtuse and slippery, requiring a healthy interest in philosophy and perhaps a working knowledge of the Japanese language to fully enjoy. Likewise it helps if you share NisiOisin's love of language and anime convention, which he skewers and exploits with equal enthusiasm. Patience is required as the plot repeats and his characters' conversations go off on playful but ultimately pointless tangents. And you can't mind the fact that Koyomi's enemies only ever suffer rhetorical defeats. Meet those requirements, though, and it can be a uniquely rewarding experience. Emphasis on the unique.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B+
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : B+
+ Takes anime storytelling in what feels like a new and artistically interesting direction; fantastic fan-service; generally a wonder to behold.
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