A mystery anime about a semi-vampire high school student who encounters strange phenomenon and people with supernatural powers.
I have watched anime passionately for the past four years. My #1 favorite anime remained to be Madoka Magica. That anime helped me see that anime could tell incredible stories and really got me to watch anime with as great storytelling. I was hooked by the theories the fan base created, reading shipping fan comics of Homura/Madoka, grossly invested in the soundtrack, and praising the symbolism with each main character’s back-stories. I asked myself in the inside, is there a work that could surpass Madoka Magica?
Then I saw Bakemonogatari this year, and my mind expanded into horizons that have never been reached before. Monogatari is a work produced by the same studio (Studio SHAFT) that made Madoka Magica. Based on a long-running light novel series written by Nisiosin, this anime breaks so many boundaries of the anime medium to a level that I consider to be an art form.
Monogatari‘s story is about a high-school student, Koyomi Araragi, who faces oddities surrounding in his town. Oddities are, to some extent, like youkai in Japanese folklore, but with an interesting set of complexes. They exist in Araragi’s world simply because people around the world believe in them. For people to keep believing their phenomenon, oddities naturally affect or attack people in various ways.
These oddities do not affect people just because. Oddities have to constantly make their presence known to a portion of humanity over time in order for them to continue existing. Oddities can also affect others because that is what these people want deep in their subconscious to cope with their hidden problems. These mysterious entities can also be slain by exorcists if they are requested to by people. But, they are not really exorcists as in slaying oddities with weapons. They act more so as a guide to people, giving them hints and advice to help people fix their subconscious problems. These elements of oddities bring a lot of interesting story and mystery to Monogatari.
I always loved strange phenomenon in media. They play an element of mystery to the story that keeps me hooked to keep me guessing and wondering what is going to happen next. Monogatari plays with this premise with oddities in so many creative ways (Through visual presentation, directing, writing, and story) that these ways would have to be bundled up into its own encyclopedia.
Through out the anime, the protagonist tries to find solutions and gives advice for humans haunted by these oddities. Most oddity problems generally involve characters trying to solve their problems on how to be true to themselves. The interesting part about this is that the anime uses characters you would typically see in a harem anime. At first, characters do seem very cliché, and it can be potentially off-putting for some watchers. Typically in anime, when harem tropes are present, they are there to appease the viewers and distract from the main story objective. These story tropes being heavily present in an anime usually causes immediate bad reception for some people. This is not the case for Monogatari as these tropes are used differently.
While Monogatari does feature clichés such as fan-service and having a male protagonist that seemingly has every girl attached to him, the anime utilizes character/story tropes to progress the narrative and create various end-points. For example, what you would typically expect in a scene talking about a girl’s bra and panties gradually ends up making a point to the protagonist about a character’s weakness. Fan-service is not utilized in these stories for the sake of it, it is used to create a message to the viewers and to the protagonist about the possessed character.
As the anime gradually progresses, the mysteries of these possessed humans are slowly revealed. These possessed humans begin to express their true identities with the oddities aside them. They are no longer the typical character trope and have a layer of three-dimensional depth. These characters you would expect to be cliché turn out to be more than just typical. In a way, Monogatari is a deconstruction of the harem genre in the same manner Madoka Magica is a deconstruction of the magical girl medium. For me, it is very interesting to see how each trope character is subverted and how each contributes to the overall themes and narrative. It makes for a very compelling watch that enhances the mystery of Monogatari.
The relationships he creates with these possessed humans are very unique and complex at the same time. As the story progresses, Monogatari delves deeper into these character’s motives, their relationships, and their inner problems that further explains the mystery of the oddities. Each character arc feels like a complete, focused story and has a lot of content within.
The story gradually shares a new, interesting mystery for viewers to uncover, and this constant roll of mystery and character stories helps Monogatari feel like a grander tale. This anime keeps viewers imagining and guessing on what oddity or character will come next in the story. There are also more important factors that make the anime stand out: that is the visual directing and the visual presentation.
The visual presentation presents itself with an artistic utilization of various colors, constantly changing visuals scene-by-scene that ignite different emotions to the viewer. These visuals are usually ambient, but can also range from surreal, minimalism, to abstract styles. There is also the utilization of text dialogue, where it is typically used to share the main character’s thoughts about a situation. Sometimes, they show hidden things in scenes that go by quickly that foreshadow future events to come. These scenes, whether text dialogue or visuals, go in such a fast pace, that it evokes the feeling of mystery and keeps the viewer intact. Character designs are also stand out, particularly with the female characters. These characters have colorful, soft designs that define and nail their personality, attracting the viewer in different ways.
The animation is another factor, more-so on characters specifically. The way animation is used in Monogatari is more like an apprentice to the narrative and dialogue. Characters express different emotions in scenes to keep the conversations flowing. Sometimes, these characters change their design briefly in one scene to a different art style (often referencing other anime). Sometimes, in scenes, characters can briefly do unconventional things during the conversation. And sometimes, Monogatari enhances the animation in certain scenes to emphasize the importance or mystery of the character. These scenes have variety in them to constantly evoke different, specific feelings to the viewer, which highly enhances the narrative. The presentation and animation have a lot of interesting experimentation in them that fits in just right for Monogatari‘s story.
Directing is the second-most important factor that holds these elements together and helps to create an immersive experience. Tatsuya Oishi, Tomoyuki Itamura, and Akiyuki Shinbo are the three main directors for the Monogatari anime. These directors emphasize heavy utilization of camera movement and framing. Each director has their own personal way of emphasizing characters, expressions, backgrounds, and other things in a scene. These directors often change through different installments to make the experience refreshing, but in general, these directors maintain the same mysterious vibe that makes the Monogatari series intriguing to watch. It is all thanks to Shinbo, whose role is to check if Oishi and Itamura maintain the Studio SHAFT style of animation and directing.
Oishi, unfortunately, has only directed the first installment of Monogatari, but his influences of directing carried on with Itamura. And the style of directing Itamura has consistently improved with each Monogatari installment since then. These directors helped create the immersive narrative of Monogatari and made the anime stand out.
The music also helps the narrative too, with the thanks of Kei Haneoka and Satoru Kōsaki. Generally, these composers have a consistent ambient, sometimes romantic tone during conversations. While on the other hand, when it comes to serious and building tension, they can really nail the tone and emotion to make a scene feel powerful.
The most important aspect of Monogatari, more important than its directing and music, is the writing. The dialogue is partly written by Nisiosin and the anime writers (Fuyashi To, Yukito Kizawa, and Munemasa Nakamoto). The writers really know how to set a specific tone to the dialogue that makes viewers curious about the characters, adding a glitter of foreshadowing to the unlikeliest of conversations. The writers give every conversation a purpose. These writers create a strong feeling of mystery that is maintained throughout most scenes. The directors and writers really pay attention to the tiniest of details in these conversations and visuals. It makes Monogatari worth rewatching to analyze the big mystery and put the pieces of the puzzle together. Monogatari goes beyond just a light novel adaptation, and it tells the story in the most intriguing ways possible.
The only thing that might not come across smoothly is the Japanese wordplay and culture heavily present in Monogatari. There are a lot of things in dialogue, visual text, and references that potentially will not come across well to an international viewer. Usually, this comes from a heavy use wording specific to the Japanese language that other languages just are not able to translate well. However, I believe the other elements (characters, directing, visuals, writing) are already of strong enough quality for people to continue Monogatari, even if they do not understand most Japanese wordplay/culture.
To share my inner personal opinion, I consider this anime to be literal art and a miracle. As someone who is studying to become a digital artist, I personally say this with 100% certainty. Never have I seen an anime that utilizes art in such a way that makes each episode feel more impactful. But, it is not just art makes Monogatari incredible. As someone who has a wealth of knowledge of Japanese mythological and otaku culture, I really appreciated how the anime heavily utilize these aspects to tell its story. As a result, I have become even more attached to the anime more than SHAFT’s other anime. Monogatari is an anime that encourages me to pay attention rather than require, and it is never overwhelming and always maintains a strong presentation. All of this together creates an anime that goes beyond my expectations.
I also can tell you this information too. When I reached the end of the current story (Owarimonogatari Season 2), the conclusion felt extremely satisfying. I would argue that last recent arc is as satisfying as the end of Code: Geass R2 and the entire movie of Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya. It made me completely attached to Monogatari. Now, I have a strong motive to collect all of the English novels and buy all of the anime Blu-Rays of Monogatari (Even if the Blu-Rays are very expensive with Aniplex’s pricing). This anime will never part away from my brain ever, it is an anime to cherish.
How Do I Start the Monogatari Series?
This simplified chart below will help you get started with Monogatari. I know the different titles might confuse people to the point they may not watch it at all, but all you have to understand really is this chart:
The key to getting the most out of Monogatari is to approach this anime arc by arc slowly. Monogatari is divided into small arcs, where it mainly covers one character’s problems and/or new character development. I highly recommend not to marathon an entire season, but rather, watch one arc per day. By arc, I mean each character arc. Each arc is usually a small set of episodes, but also has a lot of content packed into it as well.
For example, after you watch the first arc, Hitagi Crab, save the next arc, Mayoi Snail, for the next day. This way, you are not overwhelmed and you can really savor the story AND get used to the way Monogatari presents itself. It might take a few episodes to understand Monogatari‘s motives and sense of mystery. But, I believe after you finish the first mystery Araragi encounters, you will be hooked by the complex character relationships and the premise of oddities. The anime organizes its arcs really nicely so that a viewer can slowly savor each arc.
*You can watch almost the entire series legally on Crunchyroll for free, with the exception of lacking Bakemonogatari’s Episode 13-15 and the lack of Koyomimonogatari.
That was definitely a lot to praise about Monogatari. To be able to explain so many things about Monogatari shows how incredible this anime is. The intimate care put into Monogatari‘s writing, characters, visuals, and directing creates an anime unlike any other, with a story that feels very grand. There are so many creative ideas put into this anime that can inspire another generation of future mangaka/anime creators. There are so many mysteries to solve that the fan base and yourself can analyze and gush about for many years to come. Monogatari is definitely one anime that has to be experienced before death, and I urge you to give this anime a shot.