Originally I wasn’t going to even write an introduction for this new post series, but I figured I should explain what’s going on here. You see, I’ve been pretty annoyed in the past months because the other two review series I had going were incredibly difficult to maintain. Gonzo Hell would have involved me buying a majority of the shows I listed for coverage, and Journey through Gundam was much the same. So instead of continuing those, I decided that it would be better to review the anime and manga that I actually own.
And so here we are! In each of these Shelf Review posts, I’ll be covering a light novel, book, or anime series that I have personally bought. This will not only force me to use the things that I buy, but it also will hopefully make my review output on this site more consistent. Anyways, that’s been enough stalling; on with the review!
Light novels get a bit of a bad wrap. Even though there are plenty examples of good and successful light novel adaptations out there, most anime fans (especially those in the reviewing circuit) see the medium as trashy and trope-ridden, featuring heavy otaku pandering and barely edited writing/prose; and they’re not entirely wrong! From Sword Art Online, to low grade harem schlock like Infinite Stratos, it’s easy to see that what makes money in the light novel industry usually aren’t the more creative or ambitious properties. However, if you wanted to make a counterpoint to this, I’d look at none other than NisioIsin’s infamous Monogatari franchise.
Say what you want about its actual quality, but the Monogatari series is one of the most interesting and thought-provoking anime and light novel conglomerates out there. It doesn’t always provoke positive thoughts mind you, but provokes them nonetheless. Personally I love the series, if only because it took a character who started out as a way too perfect stereotype, then showed how that perfection was only achieved by bottling up her stress in unhealthy ways, and then developed her character over multiple arcs where she learns to be honest with herself and take charge of her own actions. The way the series subverts tropes and turns them into actual people is very compelling, even if the overall experience is filled with numerous caveats (I’m looking at you Nisemonogatari).
Anyways, the reason I’ve brought all of this up is because of today’s topic, aka Vertical’s release of Kizumonogatari: Wound Tale by NisioIsin. It’s the first official English translation of the Monogatari light novels in the United States, and it was hotly anticipated due to being the source material of the oft-delayed Kizumonogatari movie adaptations, along with being the prequel that finally explains how series’ protagonist (and resident horny teenager) Koyomi Araragi first came into contact with the vampire Kissshot Acerolaorion Heartunderblade and student council president Tsubasa Hanekawa. Of course, this was somewhat undermined when the movie adaptation got a trailer around the time of the book’s publication, but it was still pretty big news when it was announced. Initially I wasn’t planning on picking up it up at all, but after some positive feedback from my Twitter feed, I felt confident enough to finally take the plunge. And in the end I had a very enjoyable, if slightly uneven experience, to the point where I’d recommend the novel to pretty much anyone… Who likes YA fiction.
Because if there’s one thing I want to make clear right off the bat, it’s that Kizumonogatari is not a masterpiece of literature. It’s stylistically interesting, and NisioIsin has a distinctive voice, but it can become a bit of a double edged sword at times. These stylistic downsides become apparent during the more slow paced chapters in between each of the story’s major battles, where the intensity of Araragi’s inner voice gets a little out of hand. He’ll repeat certain descriptive words, start in one place and then backtrack to a different one, and occasionally go off into some pervy trains of thought. It can get kind of clunky prose wise, and it was during moments like this that I could tell NisioIsin probably didn’t have an editor. I understand that this kind of stuff is inherently part of his style, but if there’s anything I’ve learned from my writing classes it’s that if something feels extraneous or doesn’t add anything to your story, you should probably cut it. Whether it’s overused adjectives or clunky side setting details, clean writing is often more effective than a wordier alternative.
Still, when the style works, it works wonders. At its best, the interiority of the text helps build Araragi as a character, showing how he thinks and humanizing some of his more careless actions. Each conversation between him and Hanekawa feels like an active puzzle, and seeing them through his point of view helps emphasize his ignorance toward basic social interaction. It can also help create comedy, albeit inconsistently. Some of the puns and references work, but most feel lame and detract from otherwise emotionally effective moments. The first panty joke was alright, I guess, but do you really need another one after one of the most intense fight scenes in the book? The answer is no. No you don’t.
And oh god the boob scene at the end of chapter 16! After a good twenty pages of heartwarming dialogue cementing the central themes of the story, NisioIsin decided to write one of the grossest and longest scenes of fanservice in the book. I won’t spoil it here, but if you do read this novel, I recommend that you skip to the last page of the chapter and pretend that section doesn’t exist, because wow, it is Monogatari at its worst. And it happens right before the final battle too, just to add insult to injury.
Speaking of fight scenes though, that’s another aspect of this book improved by its stream of consciousness style. When I learned this book was going to revolve around a set of duels, I assumed they’d just be shonen manga fights poorly translated onto the page. However, while the battles are pretty anime-esque, the story is self aware about it, and their pace is quick and breezy. You never really have to strain to understand an attack, and since the characters are all super powerful, you don’t have to think about whether or not they make any logical sense. My favorite part about them though is the constant mental juggling involved in each encounter, both in the opponent’s conversations and tactics against Araragi. They’re not spectacular, but they get the job done surprisingly well.
And this all ties back into the YA fiction comparison I made earlier in the review. Kizumonogatari: Wound Tale isn’t the best written book in the world, but at its best it’s an incredibly fun and occasionally poignant read. Part of that is because of the subtle set up for future Monogatari arcs sprinkled throughout, but it’s also because when you remove all of the crazy vampire fights and fourth wall otaku gags, Kizumonogatari is just a sweet story about an anti-social kid learning to confront his problems and connect with others. At the beginning of the novel, Araragi doesn’t want to get involved with anybody. He doesn’t want to care about anything, but through his interactions with Hanekawa, Mémé Oshino, and even Kissshot, he learns that connecting with others is okay and that running away from your problems will only make them worse. It’s okay to want to protect those you care about, even if it hurts you or makes you vulnerable.
Admittedly speaking, that’s not the most complex message in the world (in fact, these ideas are even subverted in future Monogatari arcs), but it’s one that can easily resonate with your average teenager. Like the best YA fiction, Kizumonogatari succeeds by being light and entertaining, while also taking time to teach important life values. And that, to me, makes Kizumonogatari more than just another crappy light novel.