Never before have I had such uncertain expectations for a show as I did going into Bakemonogatari. On one hand I had heard it was a unique artistic masterpiece, a fine work that searched deep into the human psyche with alarming clarity. The other side of popular opinion though told me that it was sexist, gross, fan service ridden show that hid it’s empty pretentiousness under a layer of otaku jokes and the artistic direction from certified loli-con pedophile Akiyuki Shinbo. This left me kind of bewildered at what to expect from the series, besides typical SHAFT animation and lots of over the top snarky dialogue.
So what did I think of Bakemonogatari’s first two episode arc: Hitagi Crab? Well I’m somewhere smack in the middle of the two major opinions. I don’t hate Bakemonogatari so far, it has some spectacular shot composition, and some interesting themes behind the artifice and quipping characters, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t start to hate it. At the end of the day, Bakemonogatari is a strange beast in that it features so many things I hate, and yet many of the other elements are so good that I can’t really make up my mind.
Anyways, that’s enough jibber jabber, let’s get to the main synopsis of this arc’s story. Our story begins with a panty shot, oops, I mean our main protagonist Koyomi Araragi, a former vampire who was turned human again by the strange homeless man named Meme Oshino. One fateful morning, classmate Hitagi Senjyogahara falls from the top of the school’s staircase and Araragi catches her in his arms. When he catches her, he finds out that she’s surprisingly light in weight, and this sparks an inquiry in Araragi’s mind. Eventually, after a bit of finagling and getting a staple stuck in his mouth, he learns Hitagi has only weighed 5 kilograms (11 pounds) since she met a mysterious crab last year after her parent’s divorce. Now it’s up for her and Araragi to talk to Oshino and fix her supernatural problem!
Now this arc is admittedly in a little bit of a tight spot, since it’s the first arc it not only has to introduce the world and characters, but it also has to deliver a satisfying story arc to match up with it. In many ways it succeeds, delivering interesting exposition by combining it’s world building text with character building conversations between Senjyougahara and Araragi. Of course while it may be interesting in execution, it still can’t but help but feel a little forced at times. Like, for example, there’s a point in the second episode where they have a flashback exposition dump of what had just been explained to us. They only add a few details in the scene, so it comes off as rather annoying, despite the interesting visuals.
In fact that’s probably the only other thing that’s going to keep your attention in these exposition heavy episodes, the animation and direction here is very striking. Let me get this straight though, just because it’s striking doesn’t mean it’s good. I’ve always found Akiyuki Shinbo’s direction to be a quite overbearing in many of his works, and his tendency to fall back on his typical quirks often feels more like a way to keep asses in front of the TV, rather than adding actual artistic merit to the show. The only times his direction has ever worked for me is when it’s matched with exceptional writing material, or at least writing that fits his type of visual flamboyancy.
The shot composition here is intense!
Bakemonogatari’s animation however is a strange mix of both extremes, much like my opinions on the show. It is indeed over directed, full of annoying overly complicated art design, quick cuts, dramatic head tilts, random interspersing of subtitles, etc. But, in the case of Bakemonogatari, it creates such a distinct visual cohesion and atmosphere, that it almost becomes part of the show’s personality. Combining that with some truly interesting visual symbolism and some amazing shot composition, and you’ve got yourself one of the most visually intriguing shows you’ll ever see. This is especially amazing to see considering how mediocre the budget is. It’s obvious from the very beginning of the show that in order to hide the low budget, they decided to limit motion, and instead replace that with visual stimuli and talking heads.
But once again that’s just the visuals and, like I said before, in these first two episodes that’s all there is besides the character building to really hold your attention over all the crazy exposition dumping. However, there are some interesting themes here, even if I think they’re execution is a little sloppy. On a basic level these episodes of Bakemonogatari are about the psychological problems of Hitagi haunting her. Said psychological problems are represented by a supernatural grab God, who both literally and mentally lifts the weight of her problems away. It’s a profoundly powerful metaphor, and it’s quite a relatable problem. Sometimes you feel burdened by things you think you caused in the past, and you just want to the weight of that burden to be taken away. The crabs spell is the most literal representation of this, and in that sense I think it makes these episodes very smart and clever, even when there bogged down under the endless amounts of over direction.
However, despite this great visual and sub textual theme, it doesn’t work very well for me due to one reason. I can’t relate to the characters; they’re just so alien. Hitagi especially bothers me, she has one of the most impossible personalities in history. She’s a strange combination of the tsundere, yandere, and kundere archetypes put into the body of an extremely hot girl with purple hair. It’s like she’s the combination of literally every market tested otaku fetish in history. This strange perfect creature of otaku fetish marketability becomes unrealistic because of this, and her character arc suffers from that. It’s honestly kind of sickening.
Now before you start to huff and puff, yes, the show does try to pull a Persona 3 and 4 by fleshing out the characters to make them more than just the archetypes they seem like on the surface. It turns out Hitagi has huge emotional scars from her parents tumultuous divorce, and that, and this is the real shocker, her mother joined a cult when she had a deadly disease, and a member of said cult assaulted and tried to rape her!… Ugh. If there’s one thing I hate in writing it’s the sympathize with me because I was sexually assaulted and raped method of character building. It’s really disturbing yes, but if handled wrong it can be really, really jarring, and not in a good way. In Future Diary for example, a girl gets raped because some girls at her school wanted to teach her a lesson. WHAT!? It’s this kind of writing that comes off as illogical and forceful, making things seem fake and edgy.
Of course that doesn’t mean this isn’t handled completely wrong. I totally understand the guilt and pressure she feels from her parent’s divorce. She feels like it’s her fault that her Mother got involved in the cult, she was the one who got sick after all. She thinks she caused her parents divorce, because if she hadn’t avoided getting raped by the cult member and had kept quiet, maybe her parents would still be together. Hitagi is completely misguided of course, but it’s a realistic look at the kind of pressure and guilt many people can feel with modern society’s high expectations, especially for young girls and woman. But because Hitagi is so based in uncomfortable otaku fetish archetypes, this level of depth comes across as disingenuous to me.
Then again, despite my problems with Hitagi, she’s not as bad as our protagonist Koyomi Araragi, who also fits into an overused character category that I despise: The Light Novel Protagonist. Yes, Araragi is nowhere near as bad as Kirito from Sword Art Online or Tatsuya from the Irregular at Magic High School. Araragi isn’t overpowered, and he definitely has a snark and slight personality to him that makes him more fleshed out than your average self insert protagonist. But the key word here is slight, beyond that thread of a personality he’s still a rather bland character surrounded by a harem of archetypal girls who constantly take advice from him.
Speaking of that, can I just talk about how annoyed I am by that part of the show. In many ways Bakemonogatari could be considered a progressive anime, Hitagi and the others (At least from what I’ve heard) have fleshed out problems and constantly expanding character development. However in no way can Bakemonogatari be considered a truly feminist or progressive work, because it so heavily employs sexual archetypes into their female characters core personality. It also fails because, despite many lines in the show that state the contrary, these girls do not solve their problems completely on their own. It has to be Araragi who pushes Hitagi to go to Oshino to fix her problem. It has to be Oshino who helps her out in a life threatening situation during the ritual to get rid of the crab. Yes, Hitagi in the end does get rid of the crab on her own, but she still needs Oshino and Araragi to help out in the process.
This is a shame because there are many brilliant lines in these episodes that suggest otherwise. For example, when Hitagi she first meets Oshino asks, “Can you save me?,” and Oshino responds with these lines:
To me, this represents what the show wants to say about Hitagi’s will power. That, at the end of the day, it’s her who makes the jump, she’s the one who saves herself. It’s a shame though, because, while she technically does this, it’s undermined by Araragi and Oshino’s involvement. I understand that Oshino has to teach her the spiritual gobbledy gook, but why does Araragi have to be there for her? Emotional support? I just think it ruins one of the core messages of the story!
More amazing shots.
Despite this though, I still didn’t really hate Bakemonogatari’s first arc, even though they contained many things I absolutely despise in storytelling. In the end the show was just too unique, the art direction was over the top and created a distinct atmosphere, the dialogue was full of ridiculous snark, and underneath that were some truly brilliant elements that commented on the modern day psyche, and messages of female inpowerment. It may be messy, but it’s something I’ll never forget…
Anyways, I’ll see you next time on a hopefully much shorted post on Bakemonogatari’s Second Arc: Mayoi Mai Mai. See you then!