Review: Bakemonogatari, Part 1 by NisiOisiN

Posted by DarkChaplain at 2/26/2017
There’s a girl at their school who is always ill. She routinely arrives late, leaves early, or doesn’t show up at all, and skips gym as a matter of course. She’s pretty, and the boys take to whispering that she’s a cloistered princess. As the self-described worst loser in her class soon finds out, they just don’t know what a monster she is.

So begins a tale of mysterious maladies that are supernatural in origin yet deeply revealing of the human psyche, a set of case files as given to unexpected feeling as it is to irreverent humor. So begins the legendary novel that kicked off the MONOGATARI series, whose anime adaptations have enjoyed international popularity and critical acclaim.
I've been looking forward to reading this one for a while. I finally got around to it, squeezing it in between review copies I got on my desk. Thankfully, light novels aren't as time-intensive as most western novels, and the dialogue-heavy nature of NisiOisiN's works made me breeze through it.

The Story:
"There’s a girl at their school who is always ill. She routinely arrives late, leaves early, or doesn’t show up at all, and skips gym as a matter of course. She’s pretty, and the boys take to whispering that she’s a cloistered princess. As the self-described worst loser in her class soon finds out, they just don’t know what a monster she is.

So begins a tale of mysterious maladies that are supernatural in origin yet deeply revealing of the human psyche, a set of case files as given to unexpected feeling as it is to irreverent humor. So begins the legendary novel that kicked off the MONOGATARI series, whose anime adaptations have enjoyed international popularity and critical acclaim."


The Review:
Bakemonogatari is an odd one for certain. Well, I guess that is actually a given for any one of NisiOisiN's works. He is a strange writer at the best of times, and the Monogatari series could be considered his magnum opus in terms of peak strangeness. The series is as divisive as I can see any piece of media with a cult following getting. Some love it to bits, others will hate it to their very core. Some may appreciate the witty wordplay with little moving parts beyond metaphors and rolled eyes, while others will be floored by how little actually happens in the included stories.

To dial back a little, this is only part one of Bakemonogatari. Unlike the japanese original, which was split into two volumes, the english release is a three-parter. As a result, this one here only includes the stories "Hitagi Crab" and "Mayoi Snail", but not "Suruga Monkey" like in Japan. To cross-reference the highly popular anime adaptation from 2009-10, this release covers episodes 1 through 5 only. I'll also have to say that, if you've already watched that particular anime adaptation, you can mostly skip reading this book, because unlike with Kizumonogatari (which got a dreadful 3-part movie adaptation), most scenes are copied pretty accurately, despite some liberties the animation studio took with scenery and keeping it visually busy.

However, taken on its own, I enjoyed this first volume. It was a good way to refresh my memory of the series which I watched many years ago, and some things are a little less mindboggling than in the anime, due to giving the reader more introspective sections and time to piece things together without the dramatic visualizations, flashing screens and rapid-fire of dialogue lines. Watching the anime in japanese with english subtitles is certainly entertaining, but can get quite overwhelming with how much information it conveys. The book is easier to digest in that regard.
It also helps that the translator tried to localize some wordplay and references to the point where they'd be understandable to an english-speaking audience - there are still a few japanese language-related subjects in here, like the way you could interpret and read certain character combinations and how the meaning of a name can change drastically depending on perspective and circumstance, but I felt it was well-handled here. So kudos to the translating and editing staff at Vertical for the solid job here, as with Kizumonogatari, which frankly wasn't nearly as tough in this way.

Looking at the stories, "Hitagi Crab" explores the traumatic life of Senjougahara Hitagi, who had her "weight" stolen by a Crab a few years earlier and lives an isolated life trying to hide the fact. Araragi happens to find out and offers his help in solving the oddity. Senjougahara is a difficult, sharp-tongued person with more thorns than petals, and her relationship with Araragi borders almost on abusive.
In "Mayoi Snail", Araragi comes across a lost grade schooler on Mother's Day, while he is reluctant to return home himself, and together with Senjougahara they attempt to take the kid to its destination. The child, Hachikuji Mayoi, is funny to read about and offers a neat counterbalance to Hitagi's sharpness.
Both stories are rooted in family-related drama for all involved, straddling the line between comedy and touchy subjects.

Either way, if you expect action, you'll be disappointed. Sorely so. Unlike with Kizumonogatari, where the protagonist Araragi had to fend off three vampire hunters and the vampire Kiss-shot Accerola-Orion Heart-under-Blade, this is a more passive pair of stories that relies much more on dialogue and simple character interaction. In fact, large sections of "Mayoi Snail" take place sitting on a park bench, or walking around looking for a certain address, before returning to the park bench.

The focus is squarely on the dialogue, the banter, the wordplay and tension between the characters. Environments and outside descriptions are mostly absent, unless they directly concern the characters in some way. You'll be unlikely to get lost in the setting, like you could with many western fantasy authors. Instead the author aims to get you into the characters' heads, and develop an understanding of their circumstances. A lot of the dialogue and Araragi's inner monologues aim to elaborate on those points specifically, putting them into various different contexts and deliberating back and forth. And as convoluted as the chatter can be here, the prose itself, the style of the narrative, is very straightforward and often simplistic.

To me, this is an interesting thing to read about, but it is also plain to see that it will not be enough for a lot of readers. If you don't enjoy the characters for what they are and represent, your enjoyment will suffer greatly.

And let me get one more thing out of the way: This isn't a book for children. The cover may be inviting and anime/manga still have a reputation of being "for kids" in the West, but this is anything but a kids' story. Bakemonogatari deals with the characters' traumatic experiences and their reactions to them, and while there's always a sense of comedy and tongue-in-cheek writing here, some subjects can be pretty sobering when they surface.
Beyond that, there is also a degree of sexual topics in here; while Senjougahara's story deals with those in a rather frank manner, it may seem too much to some readers, and downright offensive to others. It makes certain cultural differences between the West and Japan stand out quite strongly. Even accounting for that, I feel that NisiOisiN elaborates a little too much on these touchy subjects here, though they still serve to underline the characters here and there.

Despite a bunch of points in my review seeming negative, I do want to stress that I enjoyed the book. I'm hoping the second part will be with me next week. The close-up on weird, eastern folklore-inspired abberations and very personal dramatic experiences is very appealing to me, even with all its quirks. There's neat trivia in here that I didn't know before, and the squabbling between Araragi and the rest is entertaining and can even shift your perspective on your own past actions at times. The witty dialogues are often refreshing, easy to visualize and made me laugh more often than they made me cringe.
I still enjoyed the more directed nature of Kizumonogatari more, having a real sense of danger that didn't really exist here, but for as different as they may be, both Kizu- and Bakemonogatari share three important aspects: They are engaging, entertaining and introspective. If that's your thing, like it is mine, then you'll be in for a treat!



Bakemonogatari, Part 1 on Goodreads

About the Author

I'm known as DarkChaplain across the internet, and call myself a passionate gamer and book enthusiast. I have been blogging mostly about games for a couple of years, but finally found my way to reviewing a different medium: Books. Honestly, I prefer that job so far.
Follow Me on Twitter @TheDarkChaplain


The Reading Lamp

0 comments:

Leave a Reply

DarkChaplain's bookshelf: read

The Dragon Engine
Tomb Raider II #7
Star Wars #22
Star Wars: The Force Awakens Adaptation #3
Deathwatch: The Last Guardian
The Harrowing
Whacky
The Awakening
Blackshield
Poe Dameron #5


DarkChaplain's favorite books »