Red. Black. Red. Black. Red.Black.Red.Black.Red.BlackRedBlackRedBlack. Studio Shaft and author NisiOisiN forced anime fans to become intimately familiar with these two colors when they aired their surreal exploration into the supernatural, Bakemonogatari. Its bewitching characters, mesmerizing imagery chockfull of symbolism, and avant-garde storytelling manages to take viewers’ imagination and curiosity hostage and never let go. The series is a dreamlike experience that feels as ephemeral as the aberrations it features and to this day, there’s still nothing quite like it.
The trickery of Bakemonogatari begins right from the name itself. The word is a combination of two Japanese words: “bakemono” (化物), meaning “ghost,” and “monogatari” (物語), meaning “story.” Both words contain the “mono” (物) character and can thus be combined into “BakeMONOgatari.” Funnily enough, the same applies to its English translation, “Ghost Story,” which can be written as “GhoSTory,” adding an extra little nuance to the show’s supernatural nature.
Bakemonogatari follows high-schooler Koyomi Araragi who has been left as a half-vampire after certain events he alludes to but never fully explains (that’s a separate series). During his life he encounters individuals afflicted with various anomalies that are often caused by some sort of supernatural apparition.
On paper, this sounds like your usual high school occult club shenanigans seen in plenty of media even outside of anime. These apparitions, however, are less the kind that goes “bump” in the night, and more manifestations of characters’ various psychological distress, much like the recent Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai. Figuring out the “How” and “Why” of these apparitions is made a captivating endeavor thanks in one part due to Shaft’s animation style and one part due to scriptwriter Fuyashi Tō’s adapted author NishiOishiN’s original novel.
While Shaft had been around for some years and seen some success with shows like Sayounara Zetsubou-sensei and ef: A Tale of Memories and Melodies, it wasn’t until they brought out Bakemonogatari in 2009 that they truly established an identity for themselves that was later cemented with Puella Magi Madoka Magica.
All of the techniques that have practically become synonymous with the studio — dramatic head tilts, super zoom-ins, fast cuts, wide-screen aspect ratios, and focusing on inanimate objects instead of characters — materialized in full force and caught many viewers off-guard at the time, and still do. The result is scenes that are stuffed to bursting with visual information to process and take in, not unlike a feverish dream.
Every shot of an eyeball shifting, every billboard in the background, every cartoonish tangent holds some sort of purpose and meaning towards the emotional state the characters are in and it’s up to the viewers to desperately piece together whatever they can. It’s not uncommon for someone to have their hand hovering over the pause button while watching, ready to stop a scene at any given moment and pick apart everything that would otherwise only be shown for a second. And let us not forget about the aforementioned black and red scenes, which continued to spark endless debate years after the series finished airing.
As if the rapid-fire visuals aren’t enough to contend with, Bakemonogatari’s topsy-turvy script ensures the viewer never quite finds their footing. Characters talk circles around each other, constantly trying to gain the upper hand in the conversation with nary a breath in between. Their dialogue is filled with double entendres, logic traps, and dictionary-twisting wordplay that often leaves the viewer grasping at straws to suss out their true meaning and intent.
These exchanges demand one’s full attention, which can sometimes be draining. Yet despite that challenge, it’s difficult to not feel mystified by these battles of words that often hide themes of modern societal woes that range from the stress of the city to even religious cults.
There’s a sense of isolation persistent throughout Bakemonogatari as the only people ever seen are the characters immediately relevant to the story; background characters are nonexistent and only referred to off-handedly. Much akin to a case of Stockholm’s Syndrome, that sense of isolation is amplified through Shaft’s careful and deliberate cinematography and the multi-layered writing that forces the viewer to establish an intimate relationship with the characters, both physically and emotionally. This allows the creation of captivating episodes that sometimes take place almost entirely in a single location like a park or bedroom.
Koyomi interacts with others in completely irrational ways based on our own reality yet it’s entirely consistent and believable within the contexts of the world that Shaft and NisiOisiN have created. That, in turn, creates incredibly dynamic relationships that culminate in one of the most heart-warming, sweet, and iconic romantic scenes in the anime medium. Bakemonogatari makes the viewer work to get to that point, though; this is absolutely not a show one can watch passively while getting ready for bed. Those who put in the effort, however, are rewarded with a visually and mentally stimulating spectacle that leaves a lasting impression for years to come.
Watch Bakemonogatari on Crunchyroll