This is the greatest anime I’ve ever experienced, without question. There are so, so many things that are great about this series. It transcends this artform. From amazing artwork, to exceptional storyline, to the massive and tasteful swings between the comedic and the utterly heartbreaking, and above all, the magnificent character design and execution, this is a top 5 anime by any standard, and arguably number one. This is supposed to be a review, but honestly, I will have difficulty finding appropriate words to describe this series. If you haven’t seen this, go and experience this masterpiece right now, then come back here and join me as we relive all the amazing facets of this magnificent work of art.
On the surface, this show revolves around the mythical “apparitions” from either Japanese legend or the author’s imagination. That puts it squarely in the supernatural or fantasy genre. But this series goes way beyond that. I’ll get into this more below, but ultimately this anime becomes difficult to classify in genre because of this. Ultimately, for classification purposes, you have to simply say it’s supernatural/fantasy. But that does not do it justice.
As I write this, I’ve seen a lot of this series, but not all. I’ve seen everything through the second season and the major parts of the third. So if certain items in the series end up actually explained elsewhere, I may have missed that. But there’s so much packed into the first two seasons particularly, the material I’ve seen is more than enough to enable this review.
Nowhere have I ever seen such fantastic characters. Many animes have multiple great characters (e.g., KonoSuba, Akame ga Kill, Attack on Titan), and many, many animes have at least one epic character (e.g., Kaneki from Tokyo Ghoul, Kaori Miyazuno from Your Lie in April, Revy from Black Lagoon), but there are almost zero animes where every character is so blazingly fantastic. Koyomi Araragi, Hitagi Senjougahara, Tsubasa Hanekawa, Suruga Kanbaru, Meme Oshino, Mayoi Hachikuji, on and on. Oh, and that one other character named Shinobu Oshino, perhaps better known as…well, let’s get to that later shall we?
First of all, some prominent similarities run through all the characters. While usually I would dislike this, those traits they have in common all contribute to their high quality. The first thing they have in common is that they are all extremely conversational, and have a great deal of cleverness in their comebacks and exchanges. So much so, that if you look at this show carefully, you’ll realize that there are times when a single conversation can consume at least half of an episode. Most of the time these involve Senjougahara, who is a master of speech, but as the series progresses this happens more and more with more and more characters. It’s quite fascinating to watch. You don’t realize half the episode has gone by because the conversation is so engrossing. More on that later. But this common ability for all the characters to engage in extensive and entertaining dialogues is a fantastic aspect of these character designs.
The second prominent commonality is that everybody is a tsundere. I’ll go into this in a little more detail with some of the characters below, but everyone has the tendency to say one thing when they’re–at times quite obviously–thinking another. While this isn’t the full definition of tsundere, this is perhaps the most defining aspect of any tsundere character. Almost everyone is this way, to varying degrees, almost all the time. The author is well aware of this, since at times we see characters quite obviously break character in this regard–i.e., the character starts to communicate directly and frankly–and whoever they’re talking to at the moment always notices it. I like to point to the beginning of the second season, Nekomonogatari White, where Senjougahara and Hanekawa spend an episode interacting in Senjougahara’s apartment. While I’ll touch more on Senjougahara below, let’s just say for now that she’s rarely direct, and it’s usually quite remarkable when she is. But in this set of scenes, she’s so forthright that it makes Hanekawa uneasy, and she actually comments on how frank Senjougahara is being at one point. Whether this kind of behavior, the proverbial beating-around-the-bush or simply not speaking one’s mind honestly, can define someone as tsundere is not so much the point, as it is to say that every character has this in common. As a main tsundere trait, almost everyone in this show could be considered tsundere.
A third commonality has a little more to do with the story (see below) than the characters themselves, but I will observe here that each character shares one more obvious aspect. For this show to be so heavily about myth and the supernatural, every single one of these myths is surrounded by some very human behavior or action. In other words, while this show is without doubt fantasy and mystery and suspense and all the excitement that goes with that, it strays into a very human area every time we encounter a new phenomenon. In our characters’ cases here, that boils down to this: they all have some desperately sad part of their lives that suddenly gets exposed for us all to see. And some of these exposures will absolutely break your heart. I’ll speak about this with the individual characters below of course, but in terms of commonality, almost every character has this trait.
These major commonalities are quite obvious, but they’re also quite useful and interesting, and in the third case above, quite heartfelt. While too much similarity between characters is usually a detriment to a story, and a mark against an author who can’t imagine more distinct characters, I completely like these common threads among the characters. They make them what they are. In great part, I should say. For all the commonalities these characters share, it is the individuals themselves, their quirks and traits, that make Monogatari one of the great works of art it is.
Koyomi Araragi. This young man is at the center of everything. Indeed, who isn’t in love with Araragi? More on that later. Shameless and pathetic, he is all kinds of things at all kinds of times, but never a spectacular hero. Well, he is at least once, but he has an important reason to be so then. Briefly, this individual is the former victim of a vampire attack who, through various means, has since recovered mostly. He has aftereffects however, including a powerful supernatural healing ability. No matter how much his body is damaged, he can always recover. Oshino notes at one point that he could not recover from a “fatal wound,” but I question his definition of this term, since we see multiple wounds delivered to Koyomi that would be unquestionably fatal under normal circumstances. He’s cut in half at the waist at one point! So while, as Oshino says, he can’t defeat or overpower apparitions anymore, he can take immense damage from them, and this allows him to add a dynamic to these encounters that usually sways things his way. This invincibility guised as inability allows him to push back on the appellation of “hero” that so many people (girls) try to apply to him. In fact, he intentionally and continually pushes back on that appellation,
How so, you ask? He certainly is the main character, and without him none of his friends (girls) would have overcome their difficulties. As a result, they all view him as a hero. Most of them view him as a hero even beyond or before that. How could anyone argue against all this? Well, he tries very hard to negate this argument. If there’s anything we know and love for certain about Koyomi, it’s that he always gives his best effort. While this is a bit cliched in anime, he never throws it in our faces. But as it is with the best of anything, usually those who do something well don’t have to make a show of doing it. But giving-your-all cliches aside, Koyomi definitely works at seeming unheroic. Example, when Oshino departs after Bakemonogatari, Koyomi essentially assumes his role in their little world. Koyomi takes Oshino’s approach without question: that he himself is not saving anybody, but that they’re saving themselves, and he’s just helping them to do it. Oshino indubitably portrays himself as unheroic: the dull visage, the hanging about in an abandoned building, the droll tone of voice, his sloppy appearance, and those ridiculous Hawaiian shirts. While Araragi doesn’t inherit any of those traits in his own character once Oshino leaves, he does maintain Oshino’s defining approach that denies having a heroic role.
One aspect of Araragi we absolutely cannot neglect to discuss is his perversion. We regularly hear the declarations of “ecch-” and “hen-” and “hentai” from the girls around him. While I have a lot of distaste for his behavior, and particularly when directed at Mayoi and his sisters, I recognize what it is doing for his character and the story. First off, it’s disgusting, let’s just get that out of the way. Stop encouraging your sisters to want to marry you more than they already do. But this aspect does two things. One, it adds a level of discomfort and unusualness to the show. After all, this is a fantasy/supernatural genre anime, right? Shouldn’t certain things feel very off? On top of that, it’s often the source of incredibly humorous situations. As much as I dislike his harassment of Mayoi, it creates these pseudo-hostile situations between them where they often end up physically fighting. The first time we meet Mayoi is the funniest in this regard, as Koyomi continues to note internally that he’s actually the guy we’re observing beating up an elementary schooler. Since it’s all slapstick it’s very funny. The overtly sexual scene where he brushes Tsukihi’s teeth is also weirdly funny. I’ll leave that scene at that.
But the second thing this does for the story is that it paints Koyomi in a negative light. Duh, of course it does. And importantly, the author intends this. This is not some highschool male behavior that we’re supposed to indulge for the sake of the story. It’s a very prominent aspect of Koyomi’s character that tends to paint him as “evil.” For one, this again helps him eschew the hero title. But also, as Senjougahara explains early in S2, it covers up the fact that he is really a good person. I don’t want to dive too deeply into this aspect of the show here, but once you realize this it makes a lot of sense. He’s totally a good person at heart. Everyone around him recognizes this. Yet he makes continual effort to disguise it.
There is no doubt left about this. If the first season wasn’t enough, the second season convinces us of Araragi’s goodness. Apart from just how he behaves at times, consider how he saves Tsubasa from the tiger. Remember how I said he’s never the spectacular hero? That changes in an instant in this arc. Not even appearing for the first several episodes (occupied in what becomes another arc), he triumphantly leaps into the final scene with Hanekawa and the tiger, stabbing the tiger to death with “Shinobu’s sword” (a remarkable device). From there until the end of the scene, he speaks kindly and straightforwardly to Hanekawa, comforting her and loving on her, but ultimately rejecting her confession of love. But it’s all so kindly done, it’s very unlike him. Indeed, this is the crux of the matter. This is the goodness of Araragi. When it came down to it, and there was no other choice, he stepped out of the shadows and saved his friend. He broke character. He became her hero. All to save his friend.
For Araragi loves everyone. Completely, unconditionally, in every way we experience love. That’s why he can say things like “I’ve always done what I wanted” and mean it (differently than Shinobu does, but maybe not so much), yet still always act to help others. His brotherly love for his sisters, and the lengths he goes to for them, while hiding it under the guise of incestuous lust. Tsubasa and her difficulties drive him to throw away all the work he put into his facade as mentioned above, and he does it without hesitation. Visiting Nadeko Medusa over and over at the shrine, and returning wounded every time. Above all, the numerous times he accepts a solution where he dies and his friends live. Indeed, this is the heart of Shinobu’s one great attachment to him. No greater love has mankind than to die for someone. And his love for Senjougahara. I shall not describe that here, for words once again are not fit. But no matter what, no matter what evidence you can show from the series, I will never believe that anything but love motivates Araragi. He won’t even harm Kaiki for the trouble he causes. And we know he definitely could. The tiger is “the strongest apparition,” or something like that according to someone, and he takes it down in one hit.
As mentioned, almost every character could be viewed as tsundere in this show, and Araragi is no exception. The “tsundere” title gets thrown around a lot, so much so that it’s mostly tiresome when you see it. The pouty faces, the Freudian slips, the fake expressions of outrage, and usually the twin pigtails are all very familiar to us. And yes, it usually applies to girls only. There definitely are male characters who have these traits (including pigtails at times) that can be categorized as tsundere. But Koyomi, without a shadow of a doubt, is completely tsundere. He almost never shows his true feelings, or expresses his exact thoughts. Indeed, we actually get to see his exact thoughts sometimes, and they usually don’t match his words. Where do we see that, you ask? Remember all those frames of text that flash by, usually at the beginning but also scattered throughout each episode? If you spend time trying to catch those and read them, a lot of the times they’re Koyomi’s actual thoughts in his scenes. It’s quite fascinating when you manage to read some of these. But the contrast is intentional and totally makes him a full-on tsundere.
But is he the only tsundere in this unique tale? Oh no, he definitely is not. Definitely. Not.
Ah, Senjougahara! I had to start with Koyomi since he is the main character in the series. But this series is nothing, absolutely nothing, without this surreal character named Hitagi Senjougahara. Where can I even start with this lovable character? Let’s continue the tsundere theme.
Senjougarhara is a tsundere. Oshino points it out if we didn’t already realize it, but Senjougahara is wildly tsundere. And not in the typical ways at all. Instead, it takes a similar form to Koyomi’s, where she will say almost the completely opposite of what she thinks. And not just say the opposite, but her behavior and visage and actions all belie what she’s really thinking. When directed at Koyomi, it’s so obvious that she’s not speaking her mind that you’re able to realize what she’s thinking by interpreting her speech as opposite of what she’s saying. You’ll usually find that it makes complete sense to do so. It’s quite clever of the author.
So let’s posit this: Senjougahara is madly in love with Koyomi Araragi. Who but a total tsundere would therefore behave and speak to her lover as Senjougahara does? In one of the greatest exchanges in the series, and in anime in general, while Senjougahara and Araragi are studying together in one of the episodes of Bakemonogatari, she briefly launches into a monologue of how she would want to be the one who kills Araragi. Not only that, but her justification is that if someone else killed him, she’d have to go kill that person. Here we get the yandere side of her as well, which is definitely and in-your-face present in her. But there’s the obvious inconsistency here: if someone else killed him, she’d have to avenge herself on that person for his loss, yet she says she would therefore want to be the person to kill him. She would kill him. She wants to kill him. An act of hatred, no matter the culture anywhere on the planet. This is her entire motivation for this statement. Now, assume the opposite: she expresses ultimate hatred towards him because what she really means to say is how violently in love with him she really is. Hence the declaration of desiring vengeance is honest. Voila, she loves him so much she never wants him to die.
This is not a stretch. Senjougahara regularly speaks in this manner to him. She almost continually berates and derides him. Usually it’s about how he’s stupid (poor grades in school). A lot of that goes on during that same exchange. She says at one point she’s ashamed to be his girlfriend, playfully but nonetheless. And one of my favorite moments in the series:
Araragi: “I saw a weird guy in front of Kanbaru’s house.”
Senjougahara: “Oh? When did they hang a mirror in front of Kanbaru’s house?”
It’s instantaneous and without a second thought. If she really means the opposite, that she adores him and thinks the world of him, then it all makes sense. In her honest moments, she absolutely shows that she’s in love with him. That 12th episode of Bakemonogatari is devoted entirely to her setting up a romantic date with Araragi where she takes him to a secluded grassy clearing at night, and they gaze at the stars as she declares her love for him as only she can put into words. You hear her speak some of the lines that are in the closing music during this time, and you start to realize what you had been guessing. She really, really, really does love him, almost in a scary way it’s so strong, and your heart melts. That moment is probably the most beautiful in the series, and there’s a lot of beautiful moments.
Senjougahara is violent. Yes, violent. Our first introduction to her is after she falls and Araragi catches her, she accosts him outside his classroom afterward and stuffs a razorblade on one side of his mouth and a stapler on the other. She does ultimately use the stapler. Her tsundere-ness is immediately challenged right afterward, as Koyomi shamelessly follows her despite her threats, and as she sees that his wound has completely disappeared, her facade falls as she reacts in shock, the truth flashes in front of her, and she falls in love. Nevertheless, through all that follows, if there’s any constant with her it’s her violent tendencies. Her threat to kill Kaiki with pencils, her kidnapping and binding Koyomi in the name of protecting him, and her constant tsundere threats to kill him (or whoever actually kills him) mentioned above are crazy. We get to see her punch Sodachi in the third season. While I will defend my argument to the last that she means the opposite in regards to Araragi, she makes it oh so convincing that it could challenge even my certainty. There is zero room left to doubt about the viciousness in her heart as her rage bubbles up into the intensity of her voice and the overwhelming fury in her eyes. All the while her even temperament never loses its character. It’s so well done, you don’t wonder why Araragi is in love with her. Even these displays make your heart skip a beat.
Her violence is most prominently on display when she’s jealous, of course. These scenes almost always take the same track. She is with Araragi, she derides his stupidity and her shame of being his girlfriend, then launches into violent speeches about what will happen to him and other girls if he cheats. Her tsundere-ness is usually heavily exercised in these dialogues, but also her yandere aspect. It’s kind of strange for a character to successfully fit into two of these categories in a show, but Senjougarhara definitely does. It is death for anyone who tries to take Koyomi from her, or who Koyomi flirts with. She even includes Kanbaru’s grandma at one point, jokingly, but you get the point quite clearly from her.
Senjougahara’s jealousy gives us another example of her indirectness too. Almost never a jealous scene goes by where she either implies or outright says that she hates Araragi. It’s so sweet, because you know at this point she means the opposite. There are instances where she’ll follow this up with something so uncharacteristically direct that it makes you uncomfortable. And usually that’s some slightly veiled declaration of her love and commitment to Araragi.
Senjougahara is sexy. So much so at times it’s startling. She’s not drawn as voluptuous or super beautiful by any stretch, but she’s nonetheless astoundingly beautiful. Do I mean the dark hair that’s given a purple hue? Yes. Do I mean the look in her eyes as she sarcastically calls Araragi empty-headed? Yes. Do I mean the color of her eyes, the tone of her skin, her hair that’s constantly in motion, on and on and on? Yes. But here’s the best and most fascinating part. All of this is embodied, summed up, brought to its apex (climax?) in perhaps the sexiest part of Senjougahara: her voice. Senjougahara’s voice, courtesy of Chiwa Saito (marry me), is enough to drown every other thought. Silky smooth, completely even, utterly sarcastic, forceful and arrogant, and full of emotion. It’s a surreal experience to hear her speak. By sexy, I mean you can get excited just listening to her. That’s pretty hard to do. It doesn’t even matter what she’s saying, it’s extremely stimulating. How often she says “sou?” or the other variation “ara, sou?” and your brain stops functioning for a moment. This is one of those moments I promised where I can’t find the words to describe it. If you can fall in love with someone just by hearing them speak, it would be with Senjougahara Hitagi. Put down what you’re doing and go experience that right now, then come back and read the rest of this. If you’ve already seen the series, go listen again anyway. If you haven’t, prepare yourself. I am not responsible for what you will do next.
Should the head tilting be considered sexy? Hell yeah. Hell yeah. Originally in the series this is something somewhat unique to Senjougahara, but over time it spreads to other characters, and so lessens its uniqueness. But nonetheless, it’s associated with Senjougahara, and rightly so. It’s bizarre and often anatomically impossible or at least very uncomfortable, but it’s one of those things that indescribably makes this series what it is. My goodness, don’t watch this show if you have heart issues, because when she looks over her shoulder with her head bent so sexily unnaturally and utters that incredulous “hmmm?” your heart will stop for that infinitesimal moment in time where people fall in love. It’s an experience like none other.
I don’t have time or space or words enough for Senjougahara. She is at the pinnacle of female characters in anime, a place where only a very select few can dwell. As much as I’d like to go on, I don’t know what I would say. Oftentimes in anime someone will try to get a character to tell reasons why they love someone, but the character won’t be able to come up with anything. When Senjougahara asks this of Araragi, he gives the cliched but beautiful answer that it’s everything about her. When he asks it of her, she twice tells him something quite ordinary, but only one or two things, all the same in each instance, and she does so without any pause to consider it. She does that because she feels she has to say something along those lines. Because she doesn’t actually have a reason. And so if asked why I would fall in love with Senjougahara, I would say: it’s Senjougahara.
Tsubasa Hanekawa is probably the deepest character in the show. There are parts about her I love, and some parts about her that bug me. But overall, the quality of this character is transcendent. She has the most development probably of all the characters. Without a doubt the most visually beautiful character, she even more than Araragi is all about hiding what’s inside her.
Hanekawa is introduced to us a the ideal highschool student. We have some sense of a history with Araragi, which the later shows get into more. But overall, she’s mysterious, smart, beautiful, but above all she is quite obviously suppressing something internally. This doesn’t become a huge issue until they develop her character in the arcs that focus on her, but you can still tell even when she’s in a supporting role.
“I don’t know everything, I just know what I know.” We hear that probably a dozen times in the first season. It’s a fascinating and curious statement, a fun example of something called a tautology, a statement that’s always true. It basically defines Hanekawa completely, and in her supporting role as well as in Nekomonogatari Black and White it plays a significant role. It tells us she’s smart. Despite the blathering of Gaen in the second season, it is true to say that to realize one’s ignorance is a significant step in becoming wise. So this statement defines her wisdom to us. It also defines her weakness. She realizes she doesn’t know everything. In particular, we find out, she has no idea in the world how to right her difficult situation.
While all the female main characters have difficulties that usually result in the creation of the various apparitions, Hanekawa’s is foremost in its pain. Hanekawa outwardly is the best of people. Too good, the author likes to tell, us, which I dislike, but more on that later perhaps. We find out that this is what she’s suppressing: all the built up “frustration,” or anger, hate, rage, against the human adults she lives with. She calls them her “parents,” but she tells us at one point that her mother is her step-mother who remarried after her real father died, and therefore neither of these “parents” are related to her. In Nekomonogatari White, Araragi goes and visits Hanekawa’s “home” when the Sawari Neko has left for the night on one of its rampages. It’s a startling moment, because he climbs in an open window that the neko leaped out of, and immediately he sees something that starts his fear. His fear mounts as everything becomes confused and agitated, eventually ending in the maniacal screaming that usually happens at the end of scenes like this. You wonder what on earth he’s seeing. This is after the neko already injured the two “parents,” and you know she doesn’t have any siblings, so you wonder if it’s really some human carnage of random people or something that he’s seeing. He has that horrified look that characters have when they see gory dead bodies. But then the scene ends, he runs home and falls to his knees hugging his sister Tsukihi in terror, and he tells her this: that house did not have a room for Hanekawa.
It breaks your heart no matter how many times you’ve seen it, no matter whether you see it coming or not. The poor child has been living without a room, in her own house she returns to every night, for fifteen years. She comes to school, smiles, gets the kind of grades any parent would be proud of, is kind to everybody, never says a mean word ever, and when she finally does go home–she doesn’t want to, hanging out at the park all the time–she sleeps in the hallways. It’s so distressing it lights that murderous fire in the heart of every viewer.
This ultimately is what creates the Sawari Neko, or the Black Hanekawa, as Oshino names it later. All the stress and frustration she experiences from this situation. I think Kaori dying in YLiA is still the saddest thing in anime, but learning this about Hanekawa in this series is pretty hard. Her character explodes beyond what it was. All the thoughts and emotions you have for her become confused and jumbled, incoherent. As far as literature goes, it’s extremely well executed, and serves exactly the purpose it was meant to. You completely understand the monstrosity of the thing she has inadvertently created. As far as our human reactions go, it’s devastating.
Her emotional rollercoaster doesn’t end there. It’s pretty obvious that she’s in love with Araragi during the first season, and in the second season we’re overtly told that numerous times. However, consistent with her character, she never tells him. Or not until it’s all resolved, but that aside. She holds onto that painful emotion without ever allowing it to work in her. This creates the second iteration of the Black Hanekawa at the end of Bakemonogatari and the even more powerful tiger that we meet in the second season.
Now, this is one of the parts of the character Hanekawa that bugs me. Suddenly she’s created a second and separate apparition, beyond her control and disconnected from her almost completely. It’s fairly contrived in that way. And, as much as I agree with the idea that this suppressed love and the resulting jealousy, or envy, as the subtitles translate, could create a monster even more powerful monster than the neko, it’s essentially a copy of the storyline that worked really well for her last time. Repeating something like that is usually a little difficult in a story, and doesn’t usually bear great fruit. Monogatari is so good overall, it doesn’t hurt the series, but I personally think this is not a total positive for Hanekawa’s character. It almost takes away too much of the mystery of her, and makes her somewhat ordinary. But there, I just said it! What is it that Hanekawa really wants, as we’re told several times? To be a normal girl. And whether I like this plot device or not, it certainly helps accomplish that. Hence the greatness of Monogatari.
I have another slight personal problem with Hanekawa. Not an art problem, a personal problem. A quibble, a bone to pick. Stop being sexier than Senjougahara! When she first transforms into the Sawari Neko, the Black Hanekawa, I don’t know how Araragi recognizes her as Hanekawa, but she’s so hot it’ll make you sweat. Hm, maybe the lingerie is what does it. During that second arc that focuses on Hanekawa, the neko is always wearing lingerie. The plain black that she had on earlier in the day when Araragi got a glimpse, and then later the black with lace that she wears when having her extensive conversation with Araragi at the school, and finally the black with red when he springs his trap on her. I usually don’t go into detail about fanservice here, as it’s not particularly artistic and that’s what I’d rather focus on, but in this case I cannot ignore the beauty of Hanekawa. She is drop-dead gorgeous in these outfits. Between that, the seductive cat poses, her voice (more on that in a minute), the beautiful, disdainful golden eyes, and that mass of silver hair that seems to move in an environment all of its own, and her absolutely astounding figure…wow. Like I said, don’t watch this show if you have heart problems. This presentation of Hanekawa is one of the sexiest for any girl in anime. Revy from Black Lagoon, Kan’u Unchou from Ikkitousen, Albedo from Overlord, Erza Scarlet from Fairy Tail, and Rias Gremory from Highschool DxD are some of the sexiest girls to ever appear in anime, all making your heart skip that notorious beat pretty often. This first version of Black Hanekawa is right up there.
One area Hanekawa doesn’t challenge Senjougahara in sexiness is voice. Now calm down, I didn’t say I don’t like her voice. Quite the contrary, I adore the voice delivered by another of my favorites, Yui Horie (KonoSuba, Toradora!, Fruits Basket, Fairy Tail, and of course Kouko from Golden Time). As I watched this anime, I questioned this choice of actress. If you think about some of the characters she’s played, most of them are not very reserved. Often brash, sometimes unsure, but never mysterious, someone who suppresses their inner thoughts. Yui’s voice is very evocative and pretty and emotional, portraying a very confident exterior in her characters, and demands to be heard when she speaks. I was unsure why such a dominating voiceover would be chosen for Hanekawa, for all the time she remains in the background. Yeah, Koyomi’s VA can go toe-to-toe with anyone (Hiroshi Kamiya, AoT, Durara!!, Fate/, Noragami), as can Senjougahara’s, but still. And, her conversations throughout Bakemonogatari are some of the shortest usually. Once she transforms into Black Hanekawa though, you don’t wonder about the choice anymore. That voice is at you, ripping away at your mind and heart like a cat’s claws. Stunning, sharp, selfish, sensual, domineering, delightful. No one can top what Chiwa Saito does with Senjougahara’s voice, but Black Hanekawa is top-tier quality without question.
Monogatari focuses a lot on this idea of the real versus the fake, and which one is more “real.” Hanekawa does a lot to play with this idea. She’s outwardly projecting something that isn’t completely her, and suppressing her innermost feelings. This is the “fake” side of the coin (I think Shinobu says real and fake are both sides of the same coin…I might be misremembering who said that). More on the real vs. fake battle later perhaps. But a good question to ask is “why?” Why would Hanekawa suppress all that turmoil and outwardly want to appear perfect? I have a slightly complex but feasible answer to this. At some point during the series, there’s an extended discussion of two philosophical views that are opposed to each other: people are born good, or people are born evil. While this is a difficult philosophical matter, and one that both Eastern and Western cultures have argued about, it applies nicely to this situation here. Hanekawa recognizes that she is a bad person. “I just know what I know,” acknowledging her shortcomings, i.e., one of which is that she’s irredeemably evil. Additionally, of all the people Kaiki Deishu, an inveterate villain by his own account, talks to, he can speak most easily with Hanekawa, in my opinion. They’re both evil at the core. She knows the power of the monsters living in her heart. Why then project a good person on the outside? Insecurity, an innate human desire to do good, etc., all that is very interesting and presents intriguing literary possibilities for the character Hanekawa, but I think the answer lies elsewhere, and very nicely at that.
Who is it that Hanekawa suppresses her love for? Why does she suppress her love for him? The answer to the former is Koyomi Araragi. The answer to the latter is because she realizes that he is good. She even blatantly says that he’s a good person at one point, to his face, if I remember right. She was born evil, and he was born good. How could she hope to share life with someone who is her complete opposite? While admitting she cannot, she does have some hope. Indeed, Shinobu speaking of opposites being yet the same coin gives her ground for hope. Even if she wasn’t aware of that conversation, we’re aware of it for that purpose perhaps, and we can assume she might believe this in some measure. So she holds onto her love, and she expresses it without even knowing it by this simple behavior: imitating Araragi.
Two reasons. First, if she appears good, then she can share friendship, maybe even love, with him. Look at her scenes as Black Hanekawa interacting with Araragi, and see how her facade as the neko, an embodiment of her evilness, cannot stand up. Araragi tells her “How could I not figure out [that you were just creating a character]?” Because her pure evil cannot coexist in the same room even with his pure good. And as weak as Araragi projects himself to be, his good will never give way before evil. So even the neko cannot maintain its evilness around him. Second, it expresses her love, as imitation and admiration and love are coexistent at times. And the imitation is this: as Araragi, being good, projects an exterior of evil, an opposite, so Hanekawa, being evil, imitates Araragi by projecting an exterior of good, the other opposite. It’s the weirdest confession of love you’ll ever see in anime, but I think this is a plausible explanation for her behavior in this regard. As she explains at some point during Nekomonogatari White, she has loved him for a very long time, probably even before she became such a fake. So to answer the question why she suppresses her pain (and evil) and outwardly projects good, it’s to bring her closer to and declare her love for Araragi. It’s that simple. Maybe.
As much detail is put into Hanekawa, and as much as I like her personally, the more the series gets away from Araragi and Senjougahara, the less it does what it does best. So while I love Hanekawa and all the work put into her, I feel like the series devotes almost too much time to her. I know they wanted to address her unrequited love for Araragi, so I can’t argue with it in that light, but opening the second season with the reiterative storyline like I mentioned above is a little weak. The series does best when it centers on those two and their exchanges. Mixing in the other supporting characters as well, you get an ideal Monogatari.
Cue the gut-punch reaction sfx and the falling to the earth.
If you smiled during that exchange, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. Mayoi Hachikuji is an elementary school student turned ghost that wanders the streets of Araragi’s neighborhood. After meeting Araragi initially and being subjected to his sleazy behavior, this exchange occurs between them in some form almost every time they encounter each other. It’s so funny, and it never gets old.
Poor Hachikuji’s sad story is that she was going to visit her mother on Mother’s Day one year, since her mom and dad were separated through a divorce and she wanted to pay this special visit on this special day. Slipping out of the house on her own, she wanders the city trying to find her way, and through an unfortunate set of events, is hit by an automobile on her way to the house. And so she dies without accomplishing her wish. That being the case, she turns into a wandering apparition that Oshino calls a “snail apparition.” In short, she’s still looking for her mother’s house eleven years later, and she never can get to it. Interestingly, neither can anyone who accompanies her. Her first arc in the first season is one of the best uses of the supernatural in this series.
First, there’s the interesting aspect of her being unable to get where she’s going. When Araragi and Senjougahara accompany her, they keep going past the address without knowing it. It’s a little startling. Then, not long after, we get another startling revelation. True to her style, in a conversation with Araragi afterwards, Senjougahara rambles on in a seemingly unrelated fashion about the events with Mayoi, and then in a sudden and startling turn of events, admits she never saw Mayoi, but only played along because of her uncertainty of her senses following her ordeal with the crab. It’s extremely well done in the series. Following immediately after the initial Hitagi Crab arc, it firmly establishes the supernatural aspect of the series, leaving no room for doubt about the strangeness of the things we’re encountering.
She is never developed too much, but then she doesn’t have to be. She’s the wanderer that comes around periodically, but who also is hugely important in ways we don’t always understand. At least, not until we make time jumps and learn what happens in a separate timeline. That whole mess is a little strange. I get why the series would want to incorporate time travel. The series is not presented in chronological order in the first place, which adds to the bizarreness of the show, at least until you place everything mentally. And what’s with Oshino’s “niece,” Ougi, and her hints at time travel? So it makes sense they’d want to venture into this fantasy realm. But it comes off as overblown and a little ordinary, connecting events to Shinobu and all that aftermath. Mayoi is Mayoi, and has a role, but again as they try to get into her past more, it loses a little of its shine. It’s sad when she leaves, but I know the Japanese enjoy a happy ending to unhappy ghosts wandering in their regrets, and at least we get that for Hachikuji. Then she comes back, but oh well!
Probably my second favorite character in the series is Kanbaru Suruga. And not the least because she is super strong and voiced by another of my favorites. Miyuki Sawashiro has such a powerful voice, full of strength and confidence, she has brought to life so many strong if slightly unstable women in anime, like Sinon in SAO, Celty Sturlson in Durarara!!, Bishamon in Noragami, and Fujiko Mine in Lupin III. I love love love her as Kanbaru in this series. Her carefree voice without a doubt tells you the force with which this beautiful character lives her life.
Kanbaru is all about the proverb “be careful what you wish for.” She, like so many characters in Monogatari, is not outward with her true thoughts and feelings. Indeed, so much so that when she makes a wish outwardly, it’s simply a reflection of some raging unhappiness inside her that causes her to resort to violence to solve her problems. Wishing to become fast to win against four other competitors in middle school, she maims them instead. Wishing to be Senjougahara’s girlfriend–wait, yuri alert!!!–she sets out to kill Araragi. But she doesn’t even realize she’s doing it. Or does she?
Afflicted with the Rainy Devil’s monkey-like paw, this is one of the more visceral apparitions we see. It twists your stomach a little the first time you see it on her arm. There’s a lot of backstory to how she ended up with the paw, but she ultimately got it from her mother, and misunderstood it’s power even while using it. This makes for the basis of her unintentional/intentional misunderstanding about the effects it causes. Appearing first in Bakemonogatari, this story adds a great deal of tension to the series, and not just because of the bizarreness of the monkey paw and its violent results.
Yep, Kanbaru, at least according to her, is in love with another girl. That girl is Senjougahara. Who wouldn’t fall in love with Senjougahara? That aside, this is one of the things that is so fascinating about Kanbaru. I like to view the characters in this series as all being in love with Araragi, and either explicitly or implicitly we can prove this to be so. But of all the characters, you could argue that Kanbaru is the only one who actually isn’t in love with him. She’s in love with someone else, and a girl at that. Yes she regularly flirts with him. The whole “help me clean my room” thing is so obviously and overtly a front it’s almost funny, when she knows full well that he knows she’s laying there unclothed. But if anything to me, this is just another indication that she isn’t in love with him. For someone who isn’t in tune with their true intentions, she outwardly and shamelessly flirts with Araragi? That doesn’t indicate love from her. Indeed, at Senjougahara’s prompting, she avoids her because she loves her. At least, therefore, we could argue that Kanbaru isn’t in love with Araragi, of all the girls that are. We’ll leave the whole “I’ll be your mistress” thing where it is. We won’t go there.
Perversion is something present in lots of harem anime (did I say this was a harem anime? ahaha), but this show makes use of it instead of just including it for shock value. I’ll get into this in more detail later, but since we’re speaking about Kanbaru…yeah. Her “dirty mind” is a major part of her character. She does it shamelessly, and practically harmlessly. From lounging about her room naked to her yuri love for Senjougahara to her fujoshi tendencies to her lurid conversations with Araragi, she casts her perversion around like she does all those identical red books in her messy room. It keeps you on edge. I’ll touch on this again later, but I believe there’s a point to all the outward perversion she exhibits.
She is beautiful. Large brown eyes that are alive with energy and feeling, short hair that fits her character perfectly (I don’t like it when she starts to grow it), the unusual addition of the running shorts under her school skirt, and the mummy-like wrapping over her monkey arm make her tremendously memorable. Every great character in this show is made so by the combination of their voice and appearance, and usually their mannerism and dialogue, but Kanbaru goes beyond this level of beauty somehow. She prods your heart in ways the other characters don’t. Maybe not more than other characters, but definitely differently. Her deeper tone and her lively appearance and her choice of words make her almost as entertaining to listen to as Senjougahara. Stimulating too, but not in the same way. More it’s her words in Kanbaru’s case, whereas it’s just the sound of Senjougahara’s voice. But if it wasn’t coming from Sawashiro, it might not have the same impact. I adore her voice.
I’ve gone on about characters a lot at this point, but there’s so much to talk about for every character, I can’t do this work justice without some depth. Bear with me a little longer, or bookmark this badboy and come back to it later. I don’t want to interrupt your anime viewing for too long!
I could talk about the Fire Sisters a bunch if I wanted to, but honestly I find these characters confusing. Nicely designed, both obviously in love with their brother, individually quirky, and beautifully drawn and acted, they are fixtures in this series. But beyond adding two more girls in love with Araragi and contributing to the perversion aspect of this series, I don’t find that they add a ton to the series. Perhaps the aspect of family gets another dimension through them most importantly, but that is just a feature in this story. The themes about family are not the most interesting in Monogatari, if at times they are surely heartfelt, and therefore contribute to the beauty of the series.
I could talk about Ononoki, the tsukumogami girl who is Ms. Kagenui’s familiar and occasional muscle. “With a posed look,” as we are told via translation. I love her introduction and her initial encounter with the adolescent Shinobu. She speaks in that familiar emotionless monotone, and Kiss-shot brutally lashes back at her verbally in her power. Before of course brutally destroying her in combat, making sure she “can’t make a posed look ever again.” Which she never does, as the next time we see her, she emphatically declares she will never make a posed look again, to which Araragi deadpan retorts that she never made one in the first place, which is true. Her dialogue and behavior make her seem like an adolescent android going through a chuunibyou phase. This isn’t far from the truth, as she is called a “doll,” and it’s really funny. That and the palette of her appearance that looks like an ice cream cake for some gradeschooler’s birthday party. Her overt “cool” phrases bug the hell out of Kaiki, really funny to watch. She’s a really fun supporting character.
How about the trio from the Occult Studies Club? The apparition hunters, oddity specialists, onmyoji, whatever you want to call them. Meme Oshino is of course the primary force in this trio, and has the most impact on the series. Kaiki Deishu is a frustrating but interesting character, meeting a tragic end (sort of) due to his misdealings. The last is Yozuru Kagenui, a fairly uninvolved but entertaining character. None of the three of them are tremendously interesting individually. It’s the three of them together, and their differences, that make them so fascinating. I’ll be brief.
The three of these people represent three very different approaches to dealing with apparitions. Oshino takes the approach that he’s not doing anything more than lending a helping hand to those who need help with apparitions, with themselves ultimately doing the work. It’s very psychological in that sense. Him and his Hawaiian shirts. This is an aspect of the series I can’t make sense of. We even go through that bizarre extended sequence with Kaiki and Senjougahara where Kaiki is wearing a Hawaiian shirt, and it changes color and pattern every few minutes. But that aside. Kaiki denies the apparition even exists, or more correctly, insists that apparitions are fakes, and that he is a fake that deals with them. A bizarre but interesting assertion. Kagenui thinks herself a demon slayer. Called “narrow-minded” at one point, she explicitly states that her way is a way of “violence,” and so she deals with apparitions. I won’t get into all the possibilities that this dynamic presents, but a lot of it comes down to the “real” versus “fake” thing we see so often in the series, and which I will touch on in more detail later.
Without causing misery by going on too long, I should touch on the disgusting Nadeko Sengoku. And the only reason I will do that is to help set up something I’m going to state at the end of this review. Nadeko does two things for this story in my mind. First, she adds another facet to the perversion in this story. Being called “kawaii” is an insult to her. She rejoices when Kaiki upbraids her once. She loves somebody much older than her. She is content to just love and be unsatisfied. She wants to kill the one she loves. She is an embodiment of the evil that is perversion. In one of those Medusa arcs she maniacally squeals several things that are quite obviously making her perversely happy.
The second thing she does is much more subtle, and quite interesting. First, we all pretty much agree with Senjougahara that this person is disgusting. Acting the way a character in her situation is expected to act, behaving all cutesy all the time, she’s very ordinary this way she forces herself to be. This wouldn’t be remarkable at all, nor particularly explain why she is so distasteful as a character, if it weren’t for the little matter of her underlying pain being that she really, in her heart of hearts, really just wants to be a manga artist.
What? That’s what’s causing her to so easily embody the evil of Kuchinawa (the snake is an obvious but master touch)? How’s that making her so disgusting? For a very bizarre but simple reason, I argue. Nothing about Monogatari is “ordinary,” particularly by anime standards. It disdains that. It’s not even so much that the characters disdain it, but that the author, the anime itself does, and the manga before that. Nadeko is disgusting because she is trying to be the type of stereotypical cutesy anime girl that the author detests! Not only that, she’s doing so to cover for her heartfelt desire, to be a manga artist, something the author of course holds sacred. Of course this is a monstrosity to such an author’s viewpoint.
I’m about to do something really weird and say a bit of hair is a character. Now that you’re back in your chair after you fell in the floor after reading that, you probably can guess what I’m talking about though. That sprout of hair on Araragi’s head does a lot of its own work. Usually, it’s a stand-in for a different body part in its reactions, but it will do all kind of crazy things to tell us about what Araragi is thinking. It’s those kinds of little things that are pulled off so cleverly that make Monogatari such a great work of art. It seems so silly, but for an author to think to use a bit of hair to indicate reactions and add interest to scenes in pretty far-fetched, and it totally works. When the same kind of thing is done for his two sisters, I think it loses a bit, but being his sisters I understand it. It’s a lot of fun watching it go all kinds of crazy as he reacts to other characters.
As the series progresses, we start adding some new characters that are interesting but not a huge addition to the story. Izuko Gaen is added as another onmyoji, seemingly superior to our other three, and claiming to know everything. Sort of fun in the dynamic she adds, but all too convenient at times, although I can kind of laugh at the role I think she’s playing. Numachi Rouka, Kanbaru’s old friend, kind of interesting but doesn’t serve much more than to give Kanbaru a second big arc–which I love! When I was introduced to Sodachi Oikura, Araragi’s “childhood friend,” I seriously thought we were going to get a truly overt tsundere character (pigtails). That didn’t particularly turn out to be the case, though she probably is in love with Araragi on some level. But her character and story are remarkable once again in the sense that you feel her pain. Her voice actor does a great job again. But that ends unremarkably, and a little sadly.
Oh, Ougi Oshino, you say? If anything, by the time the third season rolls around, we’re pretty aware that one key person hasn’t been the source of an apparition himself, and that’s Araragi. And so we get Ougi, the mysterious creature that Araragi creates from his desire to criticize himself. It’s a little weird feeling overall, this storyline. But Ougi herself is an interesting character. A little inhuman, a little too knowledgeable, those weird dead eyes and the “smirking” smile, and her shirt sleeves are too long. She does seem to have her own personality though, even if it’s a little hard to pin down what that personality is. She’s kind of like an Ononoki version two. If anything, her twining storyline is a signal that it’s time for this series to come to a close, and that’s exactly the role she plays ultimately.
Wow what a monstrous section on characters! But it’s worth it, because characters and their personalities and interactions are what make Monogatari what it is. It does this way better than any other anime I’ve ever seen. Every character is worth mentioning on some level, and the main characters are magnificent.
Oh, did I forget somebody important? Somebody who oddly isn’t a main character, but actually is the central piece to everything? Oh yes, the one and only. As Yozuru Kagenui famously introduces her, “the iron-blooded, cold-blooded, hot-blooded killer of monsters and lord of the night, Kiss-shot Acerola-orion Heart-under-blade.”
The vampire in Japan is a fairly modern introduction. Kyuuketsuki are not a traditional Japanese myth, as far as I could tell from research. Yet for Japan to add to the extensive set of literature surrounding one of the most world-renowned mythical creatures out there is quite remarkable. And yet that’s exactly what we get in Shinobu Oshino.
As explained in later seasons, Kiss-shot arrives in Japan by somewhat of an accident. We are told she is a Western apparition at one point, which is of course true, and interesting. There are a few non-Japanese apparition legends used in this show (e.g., the xiangshi we encounter in one of Kiss-shot’s arcs), but as far as I know this is the only Western one. But interestingly, she arrives from Antarctica. We don’t know why she was there or anything. Oshino is apparently trying to figure that out himself, since we find out late in the third season that he’s been down there. Upon arriving, she sets off a chain of events that spans 400 years of time, beginning and ending on the island of Japan.
If we think of vampires, we think of Dracula. We think dark houses, blood-sucking, black and red clothing, and a sensual but icky kind of romanticism. Kiss-shot has some red and black clothing, and is indubitably sensual in her adult form, and we see that bats featured in the artwork in the arc that explains her arrival in Japan. But other than that, we don’t see a lot of traditional vampire paraphernalia. Yeah she sucks blood and has the prominent fangs, but that’s what a vampire is. She’s definitely not what we think of when we think “vampire.”
Shinobu exhibits the tsundere tendencies as well, but in a different way than most of the other characters. In a way, she often speaks directly and indirectly at the same time. Even if she’s indirect, it’s pretty obvious what she means. “The question of which of us is the master is a complicated one” she says (thank you subtitles), when it is perfectly clear what she really thinks about who is the master. It stabs right through.
In general, Kiss-shot’s dialogue is some of the most fascinating in the series. And often quite intense. During her first and second encounter with Kagenui and Ononoki, she doesn’t play around. Her dialogue is powerful and her speech dominating. Maaya Sakamoto (apparently there’s a second actress in one of the arcs, but I don’t think I’ve seen that) might be a little less known than some of the bigger names that grace this show, but we surely remember her more recently as Echidna in Re:Zero S2. The best part about the voice performance for Shinobu is that she speaks pretty much the same for every age we see her as, despite the age-appropriate tone differences. Haughty and self-centered, she definitely speaks like she knows more than everybody else. And she does, with perhaps the exception of Izuki Gaen, who of course knows everything (hmm).
I think Shinobu is a kind of representation of the monstrous in Monogatari. If you think about it, the story can’t possibly exist without her, but at the same time she almost doesn’t need to be there for this story to happen. Her child form, her cute desire for doughnuts, and her whimsical attachment to Araragi don’t really seem like they’re necessary for the story or for her. Yet without her, ultimately none of the events that take place would happen. And why would the author choose a Western legend for such an important role?
Because she is the monster. The entire world can agree that she is a kind of “king of apparitions.” She is the embodiment of the danger of not taking such things into account, and also the danger of thinking they’re real. In that way, she contributes to this tale of monsters in exactly the way we’d expect from a legendary creature like a vampire. She is Monogatari.
I could go on and on about her character. However, for two reasons, I will stop there about her for now. One, this review has to end at some point, and by framework I’m less than half done at this point. Two, there’s so much to go into, I would almost need a book’s worth of writing, or at least a more formal essay. She deserves that level of attention. There is a great deal of writing done about her out there, probably some more professionally so. If you’ve read all the manga then you know more of her backstory than the anime gives us, and all of that is kind of interesting to learn. And so I will leave her to hang over this review as monsters hang over the world. There in our imagination, not too real to warrant our attention, but never to be ignored. Such is Kiss-shot Acerola-orion Heart-under-blade.
Does it deserve such a high rating, you ask? The art is fairly simple, fairly undetailed. For the first two seasons, most of the background drawing is hugely expansive and out of proportion. Simple rooms turn into cavernous arenas with tall or nonexistent ceilings, multiple tall windows where you ordinarily couldn’t fit even one such window, and endless staircases leading to who knows where, There are unusual objects often scattered about the rooms, often moving inexplicably. The dilapidated “cram school” where Oshino hangs out is alive with hundreds of school desks that seemingly move on their own and stack up in impossible piles. The characters’ movements are simple and limited. Once you get to the third season, the rooms become a bit more normal and we even see characters walking between rooms at times. Everything is a little off color-wise. I’m not a scholar of types of art, so I will simple say the artwork has that “modern art” feel. At times, it doesn’t even feel like anime artwork. Why such a high rating then?
Because quite simply it does the work that art should do, and does so beautifully. That is art. Can you associate this kind of artwork with anything other than Monogatari? Sure I’ve seen other series use this kind of abstract (I use that word cautiously) and somewhat surreal artwork. But I associate it with this series. If I saw it in another series, I’d say “Ah, that looks like Monogatari.” And that’s just it.
The artwork in anime does what cinematography does in movies. How characters are presented, the environment they’re presented in, the lighting and shadowing falling on and around them, even the angle at which we view them from, etc. And the artwork in Monogatari does this exquisitely. I’ll give one example. Think of just the number of flash frames where we look at people’s reactions. These are most prominent with Araragi, where we get closeups on one of his eyes or that quirky hair very often. We see it a lot with Mayoi too, where she’s usually making a really derisive face at Araragi (“kamimashita”). It’s a little different with Senjougahara and Hanekawa. Usually those are not flash frames, but we tend to watch their reactions for a little longer. And in Senjougahara’s case, that usually includes some kind of unusual posturing of her head, often the infamous head tilt. Even little things like that make this artwork unique and quite fascinating. Reaction shots come to a major head with Ougi Oshino. To be that late in an anime series but still producing interesting character presentation using techniques that we’re already very familiar with is not easy. But Ougi’s blacked-out eyes and otherworldly smile are perfect for these reaction shots.
And the beauty is undeniable. Shall I go on about Black Hanekawa again here? Or Senjougahara’s startling blue eyes? Shinobu’s haunting and vicious golden eyes and overflowing blonde hair? And the dead never looked so cute as Mayoi and Ononoki take the words “ghost” and “zombie” and blast it right out of this world. Gray as a major and remarkable featured eye color? If you thought “Araragi,” you see what I’m saying.
Speaking of eyes, if you think about it, no one really has a remarkable eye color in this one. Anime almost always has characters with “unreal” eye color. Yet everyone has either blue, gray, or brown eye color. With the exception of Shinobu of course, who is an exception to everything. Her eyes are a glowing gold, very unusual. This “normalcy” in eye color gives me a good opportunity to wrap up this section. The theme of “real” versus “fake” is pretty prominent in this series, as it has to be given the subject matter. Eyes in this story give us something very “real,” even down to color. I like this, because while “real” and “fake” debates can easily take place about monsters, the author pretty obviously doesn’t take that into the human realm. If eyes are the window to the soul, and the soul makes the human, we’re left no room for doubt about the realness of these human characters. Real eye color. and its simple, true, inescapable beauty, helps us see that.
As mentioned, this show is first and foremost supernatural or fantasy. It essentially follows the characters through their various encounters with “apparitions,” ultimately concluding with a thread that runs deeply through the entire series. In that way it’s both episodic and continual. But as I will explore here, this show doesn’t ever like to fit just one category, ever. And it is very well done within that.
While it’s primarily supernatural/fantasy, this series loves to try and be a handful of other things at the same time. We could say this is harem genre because all the girls are in love with one guy. This is undoubtedly the case, even down to his sisters (notably perhaps Kanbaru, but the argument still could be made either way). But at the same time, we could say it’s purely a romance anime, following the difficult road of Araragi through his love for all the girls in his life, but particularly between Hanekawa, Shinobu, and Senjougahara. An interesting side note, once in the series we have Shinobu, Mayoi, and Ononoki all in the same room together, and they ask Araragi to choose which of the three he likes best, oddly reminiscent of an even more ancient legend than vampires (brownie points if you know what I’m referring to). We could say it’s slice-of-life, as it ultimately is just following Araragi through the trials of life during his senior year in highschool. Instead of exploring each of those possible genres in too much depth, I’ll focus on just the one that has the second highest claim on genre to this series, and that’s just as pure human drama. We see this most prominently in the individual stories for each character.
I mentioned Hanekawa’s heartbreaking backstory. It makes me sad remembering it now. But right up there you have Senjougahara, whose family disintegrated and whose mother nearly brought unmentionable trauma down on her daughter through her foolish brushes with faddish cults. We’re familiar with Mayoi’s sad tale of not making it to her mother’s house on Mother’s Day. Both of Kanbaru’s parents are dead. Nadeko hates herself in even her limited life choices. Rouka Numachi (Kanbaru’s basketball rival) broke her leg playing the sport she loved and couldn’t return to it, therefore she turned to this unsavory gathering of the stories of miserable people to derive some measure of happiness–but of course she didn’t. She actually was so depressed after leaving the hospital that she committed suicide and gathers those stories as a ghost. Even though late in the series, the author pulls it off one more time with the heartbreaking Sodachi, formerly a childhood friend of Araragi, who went mad with grief at her family’s abuse and disintegration, caring for her mom’s corpse for months not recognizing her mother was dead. The stories rip your heart to pieces throughout the show, and if it weren’t for the supernatural aftermath and the comedic breaks scattered throughout, as well as the completely heartwarming romance of Araragi and Senjougahara, this show would be utterly depressing.
Of course these personal stories serve a purpose in the show. Each person’s story and associated anguish is what gives rise to the apparitions that appear with them. And this is what gets us to the real crux of the entire story. For a very long time during this series, we have to doubt that any actual being called “apparitions” even exist.
“Bakemonogatari” is a clever combination of the words bakemono, usually translated as a kind of monster or, at least, mythical creature, and monogatari, a kind of story or tale. So we roughly have “monster stories” exhibited here. The second arc in the first season is called “Nisemonogatari.” Nise almost literally means “fake.” Unsurprisingly, this arc depends entirely on the appearance and actions of Kaiki Deishu, the onmyoji who claims himself to be a fraud, and treats apparitions as such also. So this title kind of means “fake stories” or “stories of fakes.” This theme continues throughout the show. Shinobu is one of the first to bring this up, saying things about how perhaps the “fake” can be more “real” than the “real.” Some of the onmyoji trio bring this up periodically as well.
This is the primary purpose the drama of these people’s lives serves. Their experiences cause them to conjure up these “apparitions,” and at times we are left without any certainty about their “realness.” While I usually don’t prefer this exploration of a somewhat elementary philosophical question in media, it is well placed in a show where the supernatural seems to intersect the “normal” so often. By the time we get into the second season, this answer is pretty much given, and we know the apparitions actually are there, but nonetheless this uncertainty is quite interesting. And in Monogatari’s case, it is quite well handled. I’ll tie that all together in the Overall section below.
Before I wrap up I will point out one of the more obvious things about the story. If you watch the show in any kind of order that it’s presented to us, it’s not chronological between the arcs. Even within the arcs we often get flashbacks. This is extremely confusing the first time you watch the show. Once you’re comfortable with who everyone is and where they fall in the timeline, this aspect of the show disappears, but that takes a lot of watching and probably rewatching. Time is definitely a theme in the series, one I don’t want to get into here. But still, I like the added tension this un-chronological presentation brings. I’d love to give a serious timeline for every arc for you readers, but for one thing I haven’t seen every single part of the anime at this point. True, the parts I haven’t seen are those little arcs that don’t affect the overall story, but simply add explanation or interest. Nevertheless, with knowing where those fall, I wouldn’t want to dive into the creation of a timeline. Second, not all of the manga has been made into anime, so even if I made a timeline for the anime it would be missing parts that the biggest fans of this series would recognize as missing. Since I wouldn’t want that level of incompleteness to cause confusion, and therefore do little to ameliorate the chronological issue, I’ll leave it to others to create a summary of that timeline in one place.
This is the mostly completely great anime I have ever seen. Whether the author intended it or not, so many aspects of the show can be tied together into interesting and compelling cases about the show. And that is a great strength in art.
I don’t have a section specifically for dialogue in my reviews, but mentioning it here allows me to start tying everything together. I mentioned that the conversations are long and detailed, and usually rather deep. That aside, something is quite prominent in the dialogue in this series that usually is minimal or, 99% of the time, nonexistent in other shows. There is an extreme level of focus on how some of the words they use, particularly names, are written in Japanese script, and the associated meaning behind each. For us English speakers, it would be like us making a point out of why a word uses “ph” instead of “f,” or how if you spell a word backwards you get a different meaning, or how if you changed a single letter you get a different but interesting word in context, etc. The best example of this is Shinobu, a name referring to swordsman and swords generally. My knowledge of Japanese is extremely limited, but I know it to be the case that “heart-under-blade” comes literally from how these symbols are presented in kanji. The symbol for “heart” literally is written under the symbol for “blade” when her name is written out. There are lots of instances of things like this, usually mentioned prominently in dialogue, that are quite unusual and add a dimension to this show that few shows have.
So what of this? Why this extreme effort to be extraordinary? What of all the themes in the show? What of the long conversations characters have? What of the avoidance of a genre classification? What sense can we make of all this? Why?
Because this is anime.
What is “real” and what is “fake?” Doesn’t anime often present to us the “real” while quite obviously being “fake?” Doesn’t its “realness” at times appeal to us, but at times often its “fakeness” as well? Isn’t this tension between realness and fakeness part of what makes anime what it is? This is the greatest example, but I should go on.
What of the perversion we see? I mentioned that earlier. What of Rouka’s desire to gorge on the “misery” of others? What of Kanbaru’s bizarre sexual overtness? Why does Araragi engage in such wanton displays when that’s clearly not how he is at heart? Why does Nadeko twist good into evil? Why is redemption for her to take the path of becoming a manga artist? Because in the midst of all this perversion, we see a common thread: voyeurism. The watching of people and all the gory, unfiltered details of lives. Rouka and Nadeko’s cases make this most obvious. And that is what anime is, to peek into the sometime difficult, sometimes mysterious, sometimes intriguing, sometimes disgusting, lives of so many beautiful characters.
And we do it shamelessly. We don’t think twice of intruding on the lives of Inuyasha and Kagome, or of every successive generation of Jojo, or of Tatsumi and Kaneki and the desperate unhappiness they witness, or of Violet Evergarden as she seeks to learn what it means to live and love. Just as Koyomi will grab at a girl inappropriately with no shame, so we dare to watch the lives of these people. Because that is what anime is, and it is beautiful because of that. While shameless, there is no shame in that. There is no shame in that which is good.
Perverse like harem, mysterious like fantasy, dramatic like slice-of-life, powerful like action, and so very Japanese. It is that hyper-focus on language, and the symbols, mentioned above that tells you, in no uncertain terms, that this is Japanese. You cannot remove that brand from this show. Nor can you remove it from anime. Oh we like to debate what is and isn’t anime (what is “real” and what is “fake”), and the Japanese will often categorize anything “animated” as anime. But the thing called “anime” is Japanese. It is a thing unto itself, and it is theirs. By using these almost academic points about Japanese script and language, the writers leave a mark on this series that cannot be removed, making it undeniably Japanese.
I think the writers are very aware of this effort as well. Speaking of being shamelessly what it is, think about all the references in this show. It’s almost like Gintama the way some of the characters occasionally refer to themselves or others as if they were aware they’re part of an anime. The characters regularly reference other famous anime (the author must have a fondness for Doraemon) like it’s just a normal part of their lives to do so. Side note, there’s a lot of references even to non-Japanese media in this series. I can’t remember all of them now, but as an example, there’s two James Bond references in the series. The depth of the author’s literary knowledge is quite obvious. But that aside. The continual reference to other anime and poking fun at itself shows that this series acknowledges what it is. It is anime, and it will not try to be anything else. It is, shamelessly, what it is.
And so this is anime. Maybe some shows represent “anime” better. Maybe other shows better embody what we think of as “anime.” But this show will take its own path. It will not be ordinary. It will define itself as anime and anime as itself. It will throw that in your face and let you deal with how to treat it. Some of us will take Deishu’s path, and say this isn’t the real thing. Some of us will take Kagenui’s path, and violently and narrow-mindedly insist this is anime as it should be. Or some of us will take Oshino’s path, and we’ll let it come to us, and we will treat it with the care and respect it deserves. We will let it do it’s own work, it’s own telling, it’s own saving. We will let it be what it is. “Did something good happen?”