Monogatari Series and Level-Setting

The Monogatari series are available to stream on Crunchyroll, Hulu, and Amazon.

Monogatari is fairly hard to recommend out-of-hand. It’s relentlessly artistic (excessively in many instances), the series’ title swaps in a new prefix every few books (which makes it a right pain to seek out in a bookstore or via internet search), and the dialogue moves whip-quick (a death knell for a series that you’ll almost certainly be watching with subtitles on).

(Note: Ore Monogatari, subject of yesterday’s post, is not part of this series.)

It’s also not-so-secretly a personal favorite of mine. It has a broad and well-balanced cast, every single episode is a visual treat, and in retrospect the anime is possibly the most one-to-one adaptation of a source material I’ve ever seen that still takes proper advantage of its new medium.

While there are other strengths to the show, it’s how those three things in particular reinforce one another that makes Monogatari grab you and never let go.

From the very start, Bakemonogatari (as the first season is titled) drops you into the fourth story in chronological order (out of twenty-four so far in just twelve years). It’s almost off-handed in how it introduces you to its nameless city setting, the casual rapport between the main character and his classmates, and the fact that he is partially a vampire.

All three of those things are treated with equal weight.

Or, in Senjougahara’s case, weightlessness. Wocka wocka.

It’s odd – for the usual stereotype of an anime, you’d expect that the last of those three elements would overshadow the first two in importance almost immediately. But not really – if anything, it’s the dialogue with characters constantly bouncing off of one another that takes the lion’s share of the focus.

For instance: Tsubasa Cat, the fifth core story arc, comes in at around 222 pages. The paranormal antagonist, meanwhile, is only truly present in the last 47. The other 175 are spent hopping between other conversations and inner monologues, with being only as action-packed as a Saturday afternoon running errands and having a back-and-forth with close friends.

Just shooting from the hip, that sounds way out of balance. If you’re going to have a supernatural being possess a major character in the cast and serve as the namesake of the story, normally you’d want to explain exactly how this happened, show the greater consequences, and generally give the reader a grasp on the tangibility of the situation so that the resolution feels satisfying.

Yet Monogatari is only interested in any of these things as far as they directly affect named characters.

Most of the setup and rising action is in that biking around town, having roundabout conversations about ideals and hypotheticals on a high-school level of engagement (which, to be fair, isn’t as far below adult conversation you might think), and slowly dropping in hearsay about the title character. That, informed by our previous engagements with these characters over the last two books (or twelve episodes) does way more to create context and lay the stage for the key element of the climax of the story:

What the demon actually wants.

It’s actually fairly common to how these stories are written, especially as the series progresses. A fair number of them – including, arguably, Tsubasa Cat – don’t even involve a physical confrontation at all; Monogatari manages to put its money where its mouth is and reserve violence as an actual last resort, or for the properly-rare aggressive spirits. Instead, it takes the approach that the folklore-based antagonists of each of these stories have as much potential depth and agency as the nuanced human characters, leaving conflicts often a matter of bargaining and treaty-making rather than ghostbusting.

But those supernatural elements are only half of what these stories are about, at best.

Each of them is set up as a full narrative – the different arcs in Monogatari typically consist of three-to-four-episode stretches that scarcely acknowledge the episode breaks in their pacing – and confronting the antagonist regularly only happens in the final fifteen or twenty minutes. The rest of that time is spent in the aforementioned snippy back-and-forth chats between the main cast.

And that’s how life is, isn’t it? Most of these stories take place over the span of about a year, which means that a novel-worthy event happens about once every two weeks at best, most happening inside of a single day. And those are a big deal, to be sure. It also leaves the entire rest of the time that every one of these twelve or so characters have to live in the world, deal with the relentless tide of their schoolwork, and navigate the social world with and around each other. Taking down snake demons isn’t there everyday job, after all, more of a once-in-a-while extracurricular.

Monogatari is one of the very rare instances where I feel like that’s actually reflected in how the story is told.

Other series leaning into the fantastic will give you an occasional breather episode, and movies and books will similarly give you scenes of downtime that are used to flesh out their cast, sure. But these are brief before the audience is returned to whatever action or high-stakes drama is required of their setting. We don’t really see on-screen that the MCU’s Falcon has rent to pay or relatives to keep up with; we just kind of assume he has other things going on outside Avengers-ing and maybe that one weekly support group. Monogatari instead weaves this sort of detail in-line with the rest of its story.

And the show gives these equal weight, not just in screen time, but in the effort put into their presentation.

All screenshots from one fifteen-minute conversation, after which we finally meet the titular character. I don’t think the artists are even capable of  the”shot-reverse-shot” technique.

As visually-spectacular and clearly exaggerated as all the fights are – Nisemonogatari shows a sibling scuffle as demolishing a city overpass, which in the absence of follow-up is clearly an embellishment of the protagonist’s imagination – Shaft seems to pour every bit as much effort and visual flair into the everyday conversations that make up the majority of the series’ run time.

Dynamic angles, vivid colors, impossible architecture, and simulated lens effects.

Dashes of storyboard directions, diagrams, imagine spots, and lines of text pulled directly from the source material.

You name a trick and they’ll pull it out of their magic bag to make darned sure that every single shot of the show has something going on to keep the viewer enthralled and enraptured. It’s like the visual style of Brad Bird (director of The Incredibles, among other Pixar works), but turned up to eleven.

That also makes it very difficult to keep up with, especially for viewers where Japanese isn’t their first (or any) language. Half of the visuals don’t seem to take place in a real space, text can flash onscreen for only a few frames at a time, and the characters’ blocking is constantly in flux (blessedly, conversations are overwhelmingly one-on-one, which makes continuity a bit clearer).

It’s a lot to take in, even before the quick wit and abstract ideas of the text itself kicks in.

It’s also much messier and feels overwhelming compared even to the apparitions that haunt these stories.

Which is just perfect.

Monogatari is, first and foremost, a show about teenagers. Some of the top things on a teenager’s mind are how they can fit into society, how that affects their worldview going forward, and how to get the attention of that cute classmate.

All of which are provided just as much screentime and eye-catching appeal as the monster in the shrine on the north side of town.

The priorities here are definitely weird for the fantasy-mystery tag that this show gets hit with. They’re also just perfect for establishing just how much these things actually matter to those involved. They all relate to one another, and they all matter, even the moments that could otherwise seem incidental.

It’s a show with a different sense of perspective, and perhaps one more appropriate for a story supposedly containing actual humans. And, if nothing else, it’s resulted in a cast of characters that are closer to actual, nuanced people than ninety-nine out of every hundred stories I take in.

PS – Just for fun, the timeline of the series, courtesy of user Simok123 at the fan wiki.

That messy one on the bottom is the series’ chronological order. Not recommended.

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