If I had to choose a word to describe Bakemonogatari, it would probably be ‘faux-ironic’ – and I don’t mean that in a positive sense.
To describe Bakemonogatari’s plot simply: it’s a harem anime. The show features our ~mysteriously charismatic~ hero, Arararararagi-kun (sorry, my tongue slipped) as he somehow manages to charm a whole load of girls – whilst, at the same time, he battles with the supernatural to sort out their problems. Minus the ‘supernatural’ aspect (which seems kind of like a cheap gimmick, to spice up this ‘harem’ style story we’ve surely seen countless of times before), there is nothing special about Bakemonogatari.
The characters all fall into certain archetypes (harem lead / sporty lesbian girl / bratty loli / cool and aloof tsundere-type / intelligent and reserved student council president / moeblob), and none of them seem multi-faceted or particularly interesting. A lot of them are used as vehicles for jokes and ‘witty’ dialogue, but that’s about it. When their back stories are revealed, they’re brushed right over, and no time is spent on them at all – but a great, great deal of time is spent on meandering dialogue that tries to throw as many jokes at the audience as possible (using wordplay, repetition, common straight man / the clown routines, etc, etc), hoping at least some of them will be funny. The characters, also, are mainly constrained to their own scant few-episode long ‘arcs’, and don’t really do all that much outside of their own allotted time period – which makes it feel a little mechanic, like these girls are just being cycled through; right, we’ve finished the storyline with a loli-girl, now onto the lesbian…! Keep throwing pretty girls at the audience so they don’t get tired…! So, I didn’t think all that much to characters; they’re pretty standard – and although there were a few entertaining exchanges and jokes, these are lost amongst the deluge of random stuff that just keeps coming from everybody’s mouths.
So, what makes Bakemonogatari so ‘unique’ – if not the plot or the characters? Well, that would obviously have to be the art.
Bakemonogatari is animated in a very odd way, which is kind of expected of Shaft – but it seems to have been taken into extremes here. Odd camera angles are used, placing the characters far away in the screen; strange colours; real-life photography is inserted here and there; there are frequent split-second cuts to large walls of text that are impossible to read unless you pause; and there is very little actual ‘animation’ to be found – instead, the show keeps jumping around to numerous, static cuts (static save mouths flapping open), in a very indecisive way that sometimes gets irritating to look at.
The art in Bakemonogatari is certainly interesting – but at times, it seems clear certain methods were used to save money. The slideshow like effect, of jumping between static scenes frequently, looks pretty cheap – regardless of how ‘odd’ and ‘unconventional’ it is. In fact, it’s easy, when watching this show, to calculate how much each scene would have cost. If there’s actual movement on your screen, then probably, this was more expensive than most of the other scenes (this is a fun game you can play when watching it – ‘I wonder how much this cost…’) And the fact the characters are often placed at the side of the screen, very, very small, feels a little alienating.
Furthermore, although the backgrounds might be unusual in the anime, the character designs are all very, very standard for harem anime. The girls are all conventionally pretty and attractive; the main lead looks like an average guy. Unlike the anime of Satoshi Kon, or Masaaki Yusa, which often use somewhat odd imagery but also feature characters that are not conventionally attractive (some of them are very old, some of them have large chins, some of them are overweight, some of them look like gremlins), Bakemonogatari is actually playing it far, far safer than people seem to be giving it credit for. As a harem anime, the main draw to the audience is attractive girls – and, although Bakemonogatari does have slightly odd directing, the girls are all attractive (and often seen wearing swim suits / in the shower / their breasts pressing against the back of the main character / etc), and all meet ‘typical harem standards’. If Bakemonogatari really was as ‘daring’ and ‘edgy’ with its art as people seem to assume, surely they would have tried to give some variation the girls’ character designs? But, of course not – this is a harem anime, and pretty girls sell. So, even if the art does look unusual, I feel this is pretty superficial, because the most important aspect of the art – the character designs – is very, very typical.
The characters, too, often engage in conversations that break the fourth wall. Senjougahara, especially, often calls herself out on being a ‘tsundere’, and talks a lot about ‘moe characters’, ‘sporty characters,’ etc – at one point even saying ‘I have a fantastic voice actress’. Araragi, in turn, will retort ‘so we’re suddenly characters in an anime?!’ or some such thing – the joke being, of course, that they are, and we know it, but the characters don’t (or do they???) There is also humour surrounding the large amount of fanservice in the show; Araragi will sometimes joke about being a ‘lolicon’ around the resident loli character, or he will launch into a long debate with the sporty character about how odd it is she reads so much yaoi / is she wearing underwear under her shorts / why do you own a school swimsuit and a pair of bloomers anyway, isn’t that unusual?
A lot of people praise this kind of interaction as being amusing; using it as ‘proof’ that the show is ‘self-aware’ and mocking its own harem genre, by poking fun at the fact characters are often consigned certain roles, that their personalities are usual cookie-cutter, and that fanservice can come seemingly out of nowhere, without making much sense.
However, I would argue these aspects are exactly what makes Bakemonogatari ‘faux-ironic’ – and, ultimately, a rather soulless and empty show. ‘Irony’ is somewhat similar to sarcasm, and often used to assert something blatantly wrong as though it is true – in which case, humour arises. However, in the case of Bakemonogatari, this ‘irony’ is utilised not only to make the audience laugh, but also to protect itself from criticism. As lots of the humour arises from the characters being uncannily self aware they are one-dimensional archetypes acting out commonly done ‘tropes’ in the anime medium, it is actually – rather than being ‘clever humour’ – a lazy way for the authors to rely on one-dimensional archetypes and commonly done ‘tropes’, whilst, at the same time, poking fun at them. It’s a kind of laziness that suggests ‘You know this story / these characters have been done thousands of times before, and I know that this story / these characters have been done thousands of times before, so let’s laugh mockingly at how similar so much anime is nowadays whilst, at the same time, this show is the exact same as so much anime nowadays – but you can’t mock this show, because it’s self-aware!’ It seems incredibly lazy; as though the author wanted to rely on clichés, but didn’t want to be criticised for it, so decided to mock the very foundation of the story when putting it together.
And, this heavy use of self-aware humour has several downfalls. Not only can it not hide the fact Bakemonogatari is, itself, the exact kind of show it’s mocking (‘but you can’t mock us because we’re the ones pointing it out – we’re not exploiting it at all!’), but it also makes the whole show feel very empty. If the whole show is devoted to making fun of its own nature, then what does that make the show itself, exactly…? It makes it seem very disingenuous – and it’s hard to like anything in particular about the show, because it’s so cynical of itself, and seems to be regarding its audience as people who won’t realise it, itself, is relying on harem anime clichés to keep itself afloat – or maybe it doesn’t care if people realise, because its art and direction is so ‘artistic’ it can deflect any criticism…?
Regardless, I found Bakemonogatari a rather prickly and unpleasant show, that isn’t necessarily ‘trying hard to be clever’, but, by the use of its own jokes, constantly seems to undermine itself – often making me think ‘what’s the point in watching this, if even the show itself acknowledges it’s cliché, overdone and unoriginal?’ If you want to watch an ‘artistically interesting’ anime, then watch something like The Tatami Galaxy of Paranoia Agent – but not this. Although you might be fooled by the odd art direction and the long streams of dialogue, it’s really nothing new at all.