By Andy Hanley.
Author Nisio Isin has worked on many prominent titles over his career, from spin-off novels based on Death Note and xxxHOLiC to the popular Shonen Jump manga Medaka Box. However, for most fans he’s likely to be associated primarily with one-thing – the Monogatari series.
While this franchise began as another of Nisio Isin’s light novel outings, it’s thanks to its anime adaptation that the popularity of the series really reached the stratosphere. Animation studio Shaft took snappy dialogue and eccentricities over anything that could be called “action”, and made this series of talking heads into a visual tour de force, not only bringing out the best of the source material but also a uniquely eye-catching anime show. With the adaptation of the first set of novels – titled Bakemonogatari as a portmanteau of the Japanese words for “ghost” and “stories” – Shaft managed to turn the limited animation techniques of anime into a thing of simple beauty, with lots of intricate yet clean architecture, and vibrant characters allowed to stand alone in an otherwise desolate world, save for the occasional passing car. The result was a smash hit, which provided Shaft with the kind of budget and stature that fed future successes for the studio, most notably Puella Magi Madoka Magica.
Bakemonogatari’s unique environment also lets the characters and their stories flourish. The protagonist is Koyomi Araragi, a high school boy who is himself a perfect example of the contradictory “have your cake and eat it” writing style that is particularly apparent within Nisio Isin’s Monogatari series. Isin’s writing is often knowingly subversive and incredibly self-aware, throwing out the kind of fan service he knows anime fans want with teasing glimpses of underwear and female flesh, while simultaneously dismissing or poking fun at such base, low-brow content. It shouldn’t work in theory but it does on the page or the screen, allowing Araragi to be both warm-hearted hero and lecherous pervert without one side of his personality ever overshadowing the other.
But the success of the series relies upon the female cast – various girls with problems seemingly of a supernatural bent, but that often also have a grounding in real-life teenage insecurities or deficiencies. Of course, they all have a soft spot for Araragi, but to call Monogatari a harem series would be far too dismissive – eventually, they all gain their own independence and ability to resolve problems for themselves without needing a knight in shining armour, to the point where some story arcs barely feature Araragi at all. Having established such a likeable set of oddball characters, Nisio Isin’s stories almost begin to read more like those of a worried but proud father as the cast grow up, mature, develop and move forward with their lives.
The one important thing that we haven’t mentioned here is why Koyomi Araragi is the star of the show, and this is where Kizumonogatari comes in. Actually the third book in the series, now adapted into three films, it is a prequel to Bakemonogatari and very much Araragi’s origin story. In it, this loner sees a surprising friendship blossom in the midst of a terrible Golden Week holiday period. The good news here is that going into the Kizumonogatari films blind shouldn’t be a problem – you’re witnessing the story that begets so many others, with no prior knowledge needed.
If you are already a Monogatari fan, you won’t need to stoke the fires of your excitement about these films – this anime adaptation of the story was announced in 2010 and has seen numerous delays. Thankfully, 2016 finally saw Kizumonogatari arrive, with January playing host to the first of three instalments in Japan, promising to take the beloved visuals of its television anime adaptations to new and spectacular heights in the process. This evolution of the Monogatari aesthetic can be squarely attributed to director Tatsuya Oishi – although many credit Shaft’s particular visual stylings primarily to the better-known Akiyuki Shinbo, it’s actually Oishi who can take much of the praise for its stand-out elements, and it’s clear that Kizumonogatari has been a labour of love that should bring that to the fore.
Whether you’re new to the series and just want to find out what so many people see in the franchise, or you’re a die-hard Monogatari aficionado, there’s equally good reason to be excited about an opportunity to see Kizumonogatari on the big screen and view the origins of a smart, slick and decidedly contemporary anime powerhouse through a new lens.
Kizumonogatari is screening at this year’s Scotland Loves Anime.