Bakemonogatari – A Review

Palindromically-stylised author NISIOISIN’s Bakemonogatari (Monster Tale) is the collective title of five story arcs published over three volumes (two in the original Japanese print) that is the origin of the now-expansive Monogatari series. Like the title suggests, they are stories of monsters, ghosts, and other supernatural beings that its protagonist happens to encounter and subsequently deal with. The aberrations in question draw from various mythologies and folklores, ranging from obscure Japanese tales to more well-known Western publications. This is no horror story, however; Bakemonogatari is best described as equal parts occult mystery, comedy, and in-depth analysis of the human psyche.

Bakemonogatari vol 1 cover

Bakemonogatari Vol. 1 cover (Vertical Inc., 2016)

In the first volume, we are introduced once again to our protagonist, Koyomi Araragi. Or, more accurately, we are first introduced to the aberration-ailed subject of Bakemonogatari’s first story arc. This sets the precedent for the arcs to follow in all three volumes; each begins with an introduction, after-the-fact, of the girl beset by the supernatural at the centre of each story to come. First we are introduced to an icy, acid-tongued loner who weighs nothing at all, then the next arc introduces a precocious 5th grader who can’t seem to get home. Of course, they’re not alone. Three characters return from Kizumonogatari (or, technically, debut here, since Bakemonogatari was published first in the original Japanese print) to provide support, although one is little more than set dressing with no spoken lines.

In the second volume, we’re presented with two more characters with their own aberrant afflictions. One: a basketball star, simultaneously courteous and crass, who develops a sudden, stalker-ish obsession with Araragi, and two: a friend of Araragi’s youngest sister with a disturbing hobby of mutilating snakes at a disused mountain shrine. The former, Suruga Kanbaru, prominently appears in both arcs, and is easily my favourite character—the back-and-forth banter she shares with Araragi (in contrast to the one-sided tongue lashings dispensed by the first volume’s Hitagi Senjogahara) unfailingly makes me laugh, while her candidness about her sexuality is refreshing for a female character. On the other hand, the latter barely appears in her own arc in favour of examining Araragi’s relationships with the previous characters and his own future, so her character has little chance to be fleshed out at this time.

Finally, the third volume focusses entirely on an established character. Its single story arc is the longest of the five, rivalling Kizumonogatari’s sole story arc, Koyomi Vamp, in length and depth. Having built on the characters over the course of each of the previous story arcs, the author is able to focus immediately on the subject of the story and her accompanying aberration rather than putting half the legwork into breaking in a new character. It also allows each of the previous characters to ease in and out of the story as needed with minimal diversion, culminating in the involvement of all five girls in the final act. To say the ending is cathartic is an understatement, especially with the additional background afforded to readers of Kizumonogatari. Also worth mentioning is an extended segue into Araragi’s relationship with Senjogahara, made manifest way back in the first volume. It serves as both a clever second epilogue to her arc and a key event in this arc’s goings-on.

I should note here that each arc makes certain to allude to the events of Spring Break and Golden Week. The former is of course the subject of Kizumonogatari, and the latter is unexplored—save for a brief flashback—but stated to be directly tied to the third volume’s subject matter (indeed, it can be found in Nekomonogatari: Kuro (Cat Tale: Black), to be published later this year). These statements are repeated often, along with the reintroduction of each character, in each new story arc or even each chapter. I suspect this occurrence is likely because the stories of Bakemonogatari were originally serialised in a monthly magazine, only later being published in a collected print volume. It may become frustrating for some readers to have characters or plot points described that they had just finished reading about in the previous chapter. This may be alleviated in future titles as they were published in full as novels first.

Bakemonogatari vol 2 cover

Bakemonogatari Vol. 2 cover (Vertical Inc., 2017)

I remarked in my review of Kizumonogatari that the small cast size enabled stronger characterisation. In these volumes, each story arc bar the last introduces a new girl with a new problem, totalling four new characters. There is a tendency for each girl to receive nearly all of their characterisation in their introductory arc and reserve further appearances to mere cameos in other arcs. I would not yet call this a problem, but I can already see that each character’s individual prominence will likely be reduced in subsequent stories. I will give credit for the diverse array of female characters, however it leaves us with the unfortunate case that Araragi has a distinct lack of male characters to interact with aside from Mèmè Oshino, who himself is written out of the story in the final volume. On one hand, the number of prominent female characters could be seen as a positive, but when the unifying character is male, their interactions almost universally occur with that male, and there aren’t many other males present, the cast begins to look more like a harem, lessening the positivity somewhat. Your mileage may vary there.

That aside, the writing is more or less as strong as Kizumonogatari. I should note again that unlike that title, these volumes are distinctly not horror-focused. While there are some horror themes and violence (most prominently in Kanbaru’s arc of the second volume), these stories are, for the most part, slower and more personal, opting to explore the psychological issues of each character by way of the supernatural phenomena that manifests around them as a result.

The clever word play is still present, but there are noticeably more Japanese words or references involved and being explained in great depth, especially in the first volume. The density of these explanations can be attributed to the folklore in focus (names are an intricately detailed thing in Japan), but it may prove too dense for some readers. Outside of these lengthy explanations, a few instances of Japanese do pop up, but are mostly limited to either words with non-English nuance whose meaning can be inferred in context (e.g. “yokai/spirit”, “dogeza/religious prostration”) or which are common enough among Japanese media that their use has become ubiquitous (e.g. “moè/the quality of drawing affection”, “tsundere/outwardly aggressive but inwardly loving). In addition, a few references to Japanese television programmes or games such as Doraemon are made, but I felt they were sufficiently explained in context for their inclusion to be meaningful even to one unfamiliar with them.

The character interactions on the other hand are as strong as ever, with each character’s interactions with Araragi having their own distinct flavour, developing unique conversational memes that recur over the series. It is often the case that an offhand remark or entire conversational sidestep will have a call back in a later passage, chapter, or even volume, and perhaps not even with the same character! The ability to even imbue non-sequiturs with Chekhov’s Gun is certainly very impressive, and calls to mind the performances of a western comedian or a Japanese rakugo master. It would be nice, however, to see more interactions between two characters that aren’t Araragi or that involve more than two participants; there’s an annoying propensity for circumstances to ensure that almost all conversations are exclusively between Araragi and one other character, even if other characters are (or should be) present. In fact, the opportunity to see events from another’s point of view would be immensely satisfying, but that may not arrive until the ‘second season’ of books, yet to be confirmed for publishing in the West.

Bakemonogatari vol 3 cover

Bakemonogatari Vol. 3 cover (Vertical Inc., 2017)

It would be remiss of me to skip over the design of the books, having done so once already in my previous review. The covers are stylish and sleek, with minimalist geometry-on-black designs fronted by the artworks of the popular Taiwanese artist VOFAN. Each volume also includes several pieces of character art by him, highlighting the subject of the relevant story arc. It lends the volumes a sort of perceived literariness that might not be there if they were more transparently ‘one of those Japanese anime comics’ that are oh-so readily dismissed as children’s entertainment.

Make no mistake, the content of these volumes is not for children. Mature themes run through as the underlying trauma at the heart of each girl’s aberration, from the more benign heartbreak or divorce to the more distressing implications of attempted rape, pedophilia and domestic abuse. The overall comedic tone of the volumes does little to diminish the impact of its subject matter, but, pleasingly, they are not fetishised or laughed at by it; rather, by connecting each aberration to a person’s inner demons, they can be allegorically explored, diagnosed, and dealt with. You could even go as far as to say that the aberrations themselves are not the true antagonist of the stories; it is we humans, our traumas, and how we act on them that are the real monster tale.

Bakemonogatari is a pair of volumes published from November to December 2006.

It was published as three volumes in the west by Vertical Press, Inc. from December 2016 to April 2017, with a translation by Ko Ransom.

It was adapted into an anime by Shaft in 2009.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s