There comes a time in every reviewer’s life when he or she meets an obstacle they just can’t get past. In my head I conjure the image of a passive stone bear blocking my prose-path. The bear gives it the personification of being an organic issue or obstacle of character. The stone is the immovable element. The passive is…well, that’s what stones tend to be. I can push, I can shove, but this stone bear won’t move. It’s not the stone’s fault, it’s not my fault, it’s just an unwanted block. One could say its unbearable. Perhaps not. Moving on.
The name of my pain, the name of my passive stone bear, is Bakemonogatari – a vibrant two part season collection from MVM Entertainment on Region 2. For good or for ill, this DVD set has sat for many a day in my DVD drive as I ponder it. It genuinely has me stumped.
The story concerns a young boy Koyomi Araragi who spent Spring Break as a vampire – but he’s better now, thanks to the mysterious and far more interesting side character, Meme Oshino. He still has a few benefits from his time as a vampire, like being to pick staplers out of his mouth with minimum discomfort, or pick up his entrails and stuff them back into a body cavity the size of a cannon ball. However, it seems more often than not, he spends his time musing, getting flustered, hitting girls, falling over and looking flustered some more. In Bakemonogatari, Araragi encounters a new girl each story, and in each story he gets flustered and falls over a few times – sometimes on his own accord, frequently at the behest of the woman in question. Each girl has a tale that has some roots in mythology, occultism or mysterious deity, and Araragi helps them through their problems with the occasional help of Oshino.
On the surface, this sounds blatantly straightforward, and in a lot of ways, Bakemonogatari is just too straightforward. Each arc runs for for several episode, each with its own very neat title sequence that represents the girl of focus for that story. However, in tandem with the shows spacious and static visuals, often nothing really happens in the story until the last episode. The rest is Araragi trying to sort out his thoughts, feelings, and throbbing sexuality, ably aided by multiple gratuitous knicker-shots.
Now this is where I come a-stumbling. This is a very stylised and smart production. It carries many unusual visual/written cues, some so fast even a fluent reader of Japanese would miss the random on-screen text. The visual design is often beyond striking — often spartan, but beautifully so. There’s a feeling of space and scale throughout this production. It is a treat for the eyes, and the direction never loses a chance to place with these visuals. Monologues are broken up by fast cuts between scenery, characters and info-cards. It’s smart, and sometimes devious, in its visual storytelling. It is bold and very, very confident.
The problem is that it doesn’t touch me. At all. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad product or a weak one. Personally I list Brazil as one of the worst viewing experiences of all time. I found Batman & Robin more enjoyable – but I would never go so far to say Batman & Robin is a better film than Brazil. Some tales just don’t speak to you, either in their content, their tone or their pacing. I have issues with all three on this specific show. There are some interesting moments where Oshino delves into some of the causes of the weird events that surround these girls, but in relation to a story, most of it is focused on Araragi talking/flirting/reacting to the girl-of-the-episode in question. We’re talking a ten to ninety split in favour of Araragi waffle.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that I don’t find Araragi the slightest bit likable. He carries all those teen archetypes in anime: awkwardness around girls, dominated by girls, failed attempts to placate girls or out talk them. So there’s nothing new really. His vampire attributes play very low in the mix and on top of that, he’s quite happy to punch a kid in the face, and perhaps accidentally grope them from what I thought I saw. Different cultures and all, but in my stuffy Western brain, this doesn’t make him someone I carry any resonance with. I don’t like him, and I didn’t connect with him throughout his character journey. He bores me – and yet this show is smart, and the manga it comes from is smart. I know it’s deftly written, yet I just don’t get it. It occasionally carries some of the mystical value you’d find in Mushi-Shi, but that is so rare in the sheer pace and content of the episodes, you have to wait a long time to get a payoff for that aspect.
So where does that leave us? The stories are smart, with some of that touching Mushi-Shi Eastern magic, but its so caught and suffocated between the character interplay, it makes for a rare nugget in the scale of the piece.
But like I said, this is far from a bad show. It just doesn’t work for me, and I suspect it won’t work for many people. The second tale on the first collection, “Hitagi Crab,” dragged for me, yet carried a poignant, beautiful single moment in its resolution worthy of Mushi-Shi. So even on a tale that bored me, I’m left feeling oddly impressed.
Would I watch it again? Hell no. Am I left dwelling on the nature of some of the story resolution? Well, yes.
So far as the product itself goes, you’ve got a nice collection of varied tales spanning 15 episodes over two DVD collections. There is a commentary subtitle track and English subs. There is no English dub. You have a limited array of extras, though if you’re hooked on the splendid opening and closing credits, you can watch those with alternate versions as extras.
As a reviewer, I’m wary to warn against a DVD that isn’t poor quality, isn’t unfaithful to its source material (in this case, its manga origins), or simply isn’t worthy to waste your time – and with high sales you may just have to conclude the wrong reviewer got Bakemonogatari. That being said, I don’t think I’m particularly unusual. I enjoy anime and I enjoy a good story, so I think my position will resonate with many readers. In that light, its only fair to warn you Bakemonogatari might not be for everyone. If you enjoy a slow paced, introspective teenage focused show with a hint of mysticism, a dab of heavy violence, a little awkward titillation and some sheer bizarre, wonderful moments in both character and direction, there’s probably a big hook here for you. If you’re looking for anything else, try before you buy.