Light Novels: Bakemonogatari
Full title: Bakemonogatari 1
Author: Nishio Ishin
Label: Kodansha Box
Year of publication: 2006
Full title: Bakemonogatari 2
Author: Nishio Ishin
Label: Kodansha Box
Year of publication: 2006
It’s been so long since I last posted that I barely remember what button you submit with. The reason for the delay is partly because Bakemonogatari is an exceptionally thick light novel at nearly 450 pages, which in addition are split-page format that allows for 50% more text, so it’s almost three times the length of regular volumes. Mostly, however, it’s because after reading the first, I couldn’t figure out what the series was actually about. Thus I dove straight into the second novel and spent another ten days turning pages. It didn’t really help.
The author behind it is Nishio Ishin, who debuted with the mystery novel Kubikiri Cycle back in 2002, when he was still 20 years old. It was the beginning of the Zaregoto series, and has managed to get published in an English translation. Since then he’s written so many novels I can’t even be assed to count them all, but some notables are a Death Note novelization, an xxxHOLiC novelization, the Katanagatari series (to be animated next year), and of course Bakemonogatari, which currently has an anime adaptation running on TV. This series stretches across five books so far, with two more planned for 2010. The illustrator attached to the project is VOFAN, a Taiwanese comic book artist.
These first two books are divided into five arcs, and cover a month of protagonist Araragi Koyomi’s life, where he encounters supernatural beings. It all begins one day in May, when a beautiful but strangely light female classmate falls into his arms. No, it doesn’t — it all begins one day in late March, when he runs into a beautiful vampire, but that event is handled in the third book, which is a prequel. Even so, details about Koyomi’s vampiric adventures are given throughout the pages of Bakemonogatari, as he tries to help five girls with their paranormal problems, aided by increased regenerative abilities and heightened senses, and a weird hobo. In short, it’s your common high school romance mystery comedy action harem drama. Perfectly normal.
Koyomi tells the story in first person narrative, very similar to the format that worked out well in the Zaregoto series. In fact, it’s so similar that I started worrying that the author may not be able to write anything else, but I’ve been reassured that some of the other series are done in the third person. In any case, you’re constantly guided by Koyomi’s stream of thoughts, as he inwardly comments on-going conversation, reflecting what’s said against his memories of people’s previous actions. This helps to keep us in the loop of things by filling in details on backstory and setting in a natural way, all the while remaining very funny with Nishio’s creative dialogue. In contrast the anime cuts out half the dialogue and 90% of the narration, so watching it almost feels like having the training wheels come off, since the viewer has to try to puzzle everything together on his own.
The story arcs themselves could almost be described in two sentences, and what truly powers the entire series is the interaction between characters, who can be counted among the most colourful I’ve seen in a long time. At the core the series is a comedy, and the humour takes the form of an endless escalation of outrageous remarks and insults, deeply entrenched in otaku culture. Decent folk may snort in contempt, but personally I nearly fell off my chair laughing. Despite the absurdity of things said, conversations flow very naturally from one topic to the next, and as you progress between arcs, it’s surprising to notice how many of the seemingly trivial jokes end up carrying significance later (or earlier). Most of all, it’s apparent that these are characters who genuinely enjoy talking to each other.
My hat goes off to Nishio, who is a gifted writer of dialogue, with wit and freshness I haven’t seen in light novels before. His action sequences, however, I don’t like as much. The depiction of battles feels muddled and hard to visualize, in spite of the excessive detail used to try to explain exactly how a hand flies this way and hits that way and spins round thus. It often loses tempo and these parts of the arcs (particularly the third) can feel like a chore to get through. On the other hand, it gives me a reason to watch the anime. At times the in-depth explanations on supernatural phenomena also go on for several pages, which can get tedious.
Every arc ends with an epilogue, where Koyomi explains the “twist” of the story. Much like Hollywood director M. Night Shyamalan‘s movies, there are details hidden from the protagonist (and us) that once unveiled turns everything on its head, leaving us to see the story in another light. The way it’s handled is reminiscent of detective novels, again bringing the Zaregoto series to mind, further messing with my attempt to put a genre on it. Overall it works out fairly well, although the concept peaks early with the conclusion of the second arc. It will be interesting to see if he manages to twist the prequels.
Romance is a big element in Bakemonogatari, but unlike other fiction it shares shelves with, these characters are completely aware of all the clichés. Nishio uses it to parody the traditional development of the harem genre, quickly shocking us by breaking away from the beaten path. Yet while this is a refreshing change from what we’re used to, it also causes an unbalance in tension when new girls are introduced. How this affects your appreciation of the series probably depends on your mindset when you try to settle on what type of story it is, but in my case I was left a bit disgruntled.
I loved reading these books. It’s a highly enjoyable collection of words from a brilliant writer, and I am looking forward to reading the rest of the series, and many other novels the man has written (16 in my bookshelf so far!), and I just placed an order for the latest volume yesterday. But… overall, I still don’t know what to think. Amazing dialogue, dull action, great characters, long-winded explanations — it’s a mixed bag. I won’t know how to judge it until I’ve finished the entire set of books and have a proper grip on the overarching story. Nevertheless, the biggest problem, perhaps, is how hard it is to go back to reading other authors after this.
Small rant: The Kodansha BOX editions are about three times the cost of regular light novels, and while they’re certainly bigger and fancier than their cheaper brethren, it isn’t worth the price. Not that you have a choice. Once out of the shiny silver package, they have a boring red cardboard cover, and it’s sad to see that the plastic film outside is starting to peel off after a single read-through.