Review: Does "Bakemonogatari" Deserve Your Time (and Money) Investment?
Possessed by a sexually-charged cat demon. Painfully wrapped by an invisible snake. Slowly turning into a rampaging gorilla. These are just a few of the supernatural elements that Araragi must face off against to keep sanity in the city and his school. Why him? Beyond all these afflictions happening to people he interacts with, he’s got a bit of luck on his side: he can recover from any injury, and he’s friends with an exorcist. He may not be the most heroic person, but he’s the person for the job. Bakemonogatari is the surreal and esoteric story of this man and his friends, adapting the first in a series of light novels from Japan. The series has been lauded for its animation and unique storytelling. This series hails from 2009, and was released in America in 2012. The first 12 episodes aired on television in Japan, with the last three limited to streaming. Is it worth all the praise? Even more important, is it worth the substantial price?
The plot and writing are extremely good. Realistic dialogue coupled with semi-realistic characters and substantial drama, with no real heroes or losers, make this show stand out from many of the substantially-generic shows that flood the market. Given the plot, it’s easy to see how this could have become a kid-oriented “monster fighting” series, but they kept their heads high and released a substantially adult story. While there’s not (exactly) any sex, it’s mostly a mature story with light moments spread amongst a not-linear plot. You’re thrown into the sea that is the plot without a life raft, and have to figure out why our lead can’t be killed, what the real meaning behind many bits of dialogue is, and even how truly dark some of the backstories of the characters may be.
Visually, the show is amazing, but not without fault. To start with the bad, some of the characters do fall into some tropes; large chest for the shy girl, awkwardly sensual posing for the young girls, and even get a cat girl and tiny vampire girl at points. Each episode features no more than three or four characters on screen at once (and you’d be surprised to find an episode with more than six characters in total), which does allow you to focus on the action at hand, but it makes the world they inhabit feel completely empty. There’s no background cast, or even people inhabiting the world. While it may seem unique, the fact that you only ever see one of Araragi’s eyes at a time even serves to greater generalize his already generic design.
Beyond these faults, there’s not a show in this era that’s challenged visuals as much as Bakemonogatari, with the only contemporaries being the works of Hideaki Anno. Frequently, text appears on screen to explain time passages, backgrounds, or even just pertinent facts related to the action at the moment; you can deduce much of the plot if you go through the episodes and actually pause on these quick-fleeting dialogue dumps. Creative camera angles and visual experimentation are all at hand with this series. Characters may quickly morph into comic strip designs, find themselves posed like the “IGN Reaction Guys”, or even turn into live-action at times. The intros and endings get to go completely off the rails when it comes to designs, as they can be as stylized as they wish.
Nothing in the set is dubbed; the box is completely in it’s original Japanese language. Purists, and probably about half of the people checking this set out, will appreciate it, but those who can and do enjoy dubs will miss out. The Japanese voices are fine, but if you’re not one to tune-in to what’s actually being said or zone out on reading subtitles, you’ll be a little undecided on if they’re excellent or acceptable. The music is nice; each arc has its own theme song, and you’ll undoubtedly find yourself humming or singing bits to yourself at points.
All together, you have a show that’s short and oh-so sweet. In the murky mires of Japanese animation, some shows might get praise for creativity and design (Kill La Kill in recent months), or even solidly dark stories (Madoka Magica), or just for being crazy out-there fun (the Toonami premiere series Space Dandy); you might latch on to a show because you like superheroes (Samurai Flamenco) or model kits (Gundam Build Fighters). There’s nothing in particular about Bakemonogatari that should appeal to anyone, unless you like exorcism tales. It’s slow-paced, with minimal action and cast, and that’s why it works. It savors every moment, forces you to pay attention, pause, rewind, and rewatch. It rarely goes into stereotypes for the sake of it, and works easily as a break from the humdrum. It may be a bit dense; you might want to limit yourself to an episode or two at a time (buckle down if you want to watch an arc in one sitting; it’s most likely the best way to enjoy it, but it might get tiring).
The six-disc set is just stocked to the brim with content, surprisingly so for a Japanese cartoon release (which tend to be on the lighter side as far as bonuses go). All 15 episodes feature in-character commentaries with at least two cast members, leading you to rewatch the entire series at least once. These commentaries are entertaining, though a bit odd that the commentators are fully in-character because they act as if the events really happened while still acting like they’re part of a show. It’s an odd balance that might not have been seen since the commentaries for Tropic Thunder (in which Robert Downey Jr. is replaced by his character) and UHF (with Michael Richards showing up on screen to watch the show), but it’s well-appreciated, and easily doubles the length of going through the set. If anything, it’s a good way to better appreciate the animation and stylization in the series, and watching it for a second time might make things a little more clear. Each ending and intro (with about a half-dozen for both) have a textless version, and every episode has both two sets of previews… which seem to be exactly the same. Finally, there’s a “2008 Spring Promo Video” that is mostly text. In the hard box are three Blu-ray cases, all with reversible art. There’s a nice art book that includes a synopsis of each arc alongside character bios, designs, and even some unique art pieces. It’ll only take you a few minutes to go through (and you’ll catch a spelling error), but it’s a nice treat as always to see characters designs).
Is the set worth it? Aniplex might not understand the American market; this six-disc Blu-ray set, while nice, is about $150 (if you can find a retailer). For comparison sake, a few hundred episodes of Power Rangers would be comparable in price on DVD, with an equally-built box set and booklet. The Marvel Phase One Blu-ray set, six major Hollywood movies spread out over ten discs in a premium briefcase design, costs aaround the same. It’s completely understandable that it’s a “target audience” thing, but if you compare this to other anime on shelves, you can get a FUNimation set for a quarter the price with twice the episodes and English-language tracks. They may not be the complete equivalent in physical production, but by the numbers, any FUNimation box set would beat this in value. You’d have to be a substantial fan of Bakemonogatari to purchase this set; if you’re looking at the show for the first time, look for rental or streaming options. Even if you’re obsessed with the show, you might just not find yourself having gotten your money’s worth.