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Light Novels: Bakemonogatari

Full title: Bakemonogatari 1
Author: Nishio Ishin
Illustrator: VOFAN
Label: Kodansha Box
Year of publication: 2006
Pages: 445

Full title: Bakemonogatari 2
Author: Nishio Ishin
Illustrator: VOFAN
Label: Kodansha Box
Year of publication: 2006
Pages: 401

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.

Amazon links: Japanese v1 | Japanese v2

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.

August 7, 2009 at 10:26 am
  • August 7, 2009 at 10:36 amWondering

    I wouldn’t imagine they do but thought I’d ask. There wouldn’t happen to be an translated version to this to buy?

  • August 7, 2009 at 10:43 amPatrik

    Wondering, I’m afraid not. There’s Kubikiri Cycle, Death Note and xxxHOLiC, though: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/search-handle-url/ref=ntt_athr_dp_sr_1?_encoding=UTF8&search-type=ss&index=books&field-author=NISIOISIN

  • August 7, 2009 at 10:58 ambrianleung8912

    :| her hair’s not purple ~”~

  • August 7, 2009 at 11:26 amJCz

    Nice review. Although I’m very interested in buying it, I’d like to know how hard will it be to understand the puns & jokes. My Japanese proficiency is just soso(5 years in a Jap Uni). It’d be a waste reading it without understand thoroughly its contents. Anything to help me clear this doubt will be greatly appreciated, thanx!

  • August 7, 2009 at 12:38 pmSergio

    Thanks for sharing about it. I guess I’ll get the novel next time I order Japanese books. I’m really liking the shaft adaptation and seeing that you comment that the novel also relies a lot on the characters and dialogues, it promises to be very interesting in written form as well.

    Plus, from what I can gather it may be the hardest thing I read in Japanese to date, which I always see as a challenge

  • August 7, 2009 at 12:56 pmremm

    I really, really wish I could read japanese.
    I found the raws for the novels but I know nothing of the lenguage…
    I wonder how much it would cost to get Sahadou to translate the novels…

  • August 7, 2009 at 1:01 pmPatrik

    JCz, if you’ve lived in Japan for 5 years I don’t see why it would be too hard. It is advanced, though, so you shouldn’t expect to fully understand every single joke. But who does?

    Sergio, timing and tempo make the books better than the anime, in my opinion. Go for it.

  • August 7, 2009 at 1:14 pmDelwack

    sounds pretty neat. I enjoy the anime and wish I could have a look at this too, but alas I cannot read Japanese; and I doubt this would be a good introduction even if I had the time to learn.

  • August 7, 2009 at 4:31 pmMeery

    Thanks, Patrik, nice review. I’ve been curious about this series for a while, especially since I researched it after seeing the covers in one of the earlier LN articles. I think your review reflects the same basic feelings I’ve been getting from the anime, which I’ve been enjoying very much.
    Thinking of how much more, and better developed, content there is in the book really whets my appetite for a (good) EN translation. Based upon the dialogue I’ve been reading (haha) from the Shaft’s show, I think more of it would make up for the general lack of action found in the books.

  • August 7, 2009 at 6:02 pmTim

    I’ve always had trouble buying off of amazon for things like this, I can never figure out how to select the United States and my own address, otherwise I would have purchased TONS of stuff years ago. :(

  • August 7, 2009 at 8:54 pmRemy

    So far, I love the storytelling of the series. It’s the overly crisp and pointlessly detailed background, foreground, and filler art that puts me off on the series.

    I admit, I thought this was going to be another Rosario Vampire, where the main guy gets chicks falling for him left and right. Though similar, it’s not that difficult to understand why some girls might be drawn to his character, either out of being curious or having been approached by him themselves.

  • August 8, 2009 at 6:59 amKraker2k

    I’ve read the English version of Zaregoto and a bit of Nisio’s other story Magical Girl Risuka, I do say I like his style of writing. I can relate to you when you mentioned the “twist” bit, the one in Zaregoto volume 1 really had me impressed.

    Though I have read that Katanagatari isn’t really all that great, a much poorer piece of work that gets really formulaic and bogged down as the story progresses.

  • August 8, 2009 at 1:31 pmBalfegor

    I’ve always had trouble buying off of amazon for things like this, I can never figure out how to select the United States and my own address, otherwise I would have purchased TONS of stuff years ago. :(

    I think Amazon Japan has an option to switch the purchase process to English. That said, though, just buy from Kinokuniya USA — the order process is quite easy. When I bought from Amazon Japan two years ago, shipping prices were fine, but I made the mistake of buying some novels a few months ago, and the shipping prices were outrageous — as much as the books themselves. Cheaper to order from Kinokuniya, since they ship domestically from their stores.

  • August 8, 2009 at 6:07 pmWestlo

    “Though I have read that Katanagatari isn’t really all that great, a much poorer piece of work that gets really formulaic and bogged down as the story progresses.”

    Did you read that Katanagatari blog post by Andrew Cunningham? While not saying he’s wrong he is rather extreme with his views.. you see him jump from calling Basara one of the best anime shows of the year after ep 2 to dropping it by 4 lol. Still the shit he mentioned in that Katanagatari blog post is more than likely true and I find myself agreeing with him more often than not.

  • August 8, 2009 at 8:10 pmOnizuka-GTO

    I really, really wish I could read japanese.
    I found the raws for the novels but I know nothing of the lenguage…
    I wonder how much it would cost to get Sahadou to translate the novels…

    Yeah, If only there was some sort of light novel translation group who would be willing to translate this, I mean after watching the aniem you would think someone would be all over this…..

    Show Spoiler ▼

    …guess not…

    *walks away dejected*

  • August 8, 2009 at 9:07 pmLlora-chan

    I can’t wait to read this ^^

  • August 9, 2009 at 1:28 amTim

    Balfegor, Thanks for explaining! I was hoping someone would come along and help me out on that problem. I’ll go check out Kinokuniya for now.

    Thanks again!

  • August 9, 2009 at 1:46 pmNyagato

    I bought the first book recently, and while i don’t usualy read light novels but tend to like heavier books better this seemed intresting so i bought it. I haven’t read too much of it yet but i really like the really strange weird types of books so i hope this was a good buy. It seems intresting at least.

  • August 11, 2009 at 1:43 pmnoririn

    nice wikipedia picture

  • August 11, 2009 at 1:48 pmPatrik

    noririn, what?

  • December 13, 2009 at 11:40 pmOng YT

    I Might Buy It Though i only learn japanese for bout 2 months still it proves to me quite a challenge but i am willing to take it on