I was in Japan over the 2012 New Year. Nothing happens during December 31st, since people go to visit temples on January 1st, and I was left cooped up in my room waiting for the New Year to arrive.
Flipping through channels I ran into this odd show. A guy languished around a spartan ivory room, a spare anime version of the suite at the end of 2001. There seemed to be nothing else in it other than him, the bed, a commode of some sort, a window, and a evanescent cat-girl.
There was some back and forth between them I didn’t understand. I’m not a Japanese speaker, but it went beyond that — the cat-girl retreated, then approached; perched herself on the window, then balanced impossibly on some edge. The rhythm seemed to be constant, and I changed to a different channel for a while only to return later and find the pair in the same situation. I might be misremembering, since there was sake involved, but the entire situation felt diaphanous and ephemeral, like a fever dream that’ll vanish when the fever subsides.
I know now that I was watching Nekomonogatari, the third part on the Monogatari series. I can also add, having watched Bakemonogatari, that subtitles for the dialogue help get a better grasp on the proceedings… but does not make it feel any less surreal.
As Bakemonogatari starts, Araragi Koyomi happens to catch Senjōgahara Hitagi, a girl who steps on a banana peel, trips and falls down multiple stories. Even though she looks normal, he is surprised at how weightless she appears. She later explains that she weighs only five kilos, because of the time she met a giant crab that took her weight away, and to appear normal she stuff her clothes with staplers, scissors, rulers and other stationery items.
In order for him to keep her secret, she threatens him with a box cutter then staples the inside of his mouth. Which doesn’t matter, since he heals faster than most people because of that time last summer when he was a vampire, so he doesn’t mind. He takes Senjōgahara to see Oshino, a 30-year-old dude in a Hawaiian shirt who camps out at an abandoned cram school — the same dude who cured Araragi of his vampirism back then, and who might be able to help her deal with her crab problem.
No, I am not making this up as I go.
Neither is palindromic author Nisio Isin, or if he is, he’s good at hiding it.
The initial sense of disconnect we feel from the story is caused by the fact that we’re showing up late to it (judging from the signs, about a year). As Araragi and Oshino deal with more cases of strange spirits and anomalous appearances, and we get more acquainted with its cast of cursed oddballs, we find ourselves sleepwalking into their world, coherent in its own way.
At this point we can either give up, throwing our hands up in exasperation at the style, or we can give in. We can choose to flow with the series’ dense liquid narration, the constant droning river of words and wordplay (which I’m sure I’m missing out on whenever a character doesn’t highlight it); the continually flickering, gorgeous visuals with clean design and repeated motifs that keep you hunting for details. They layer and intertwine, a folded Escher quilt, creating an impression that’s not unlike being on indica — the sections of their diorama fit together, a crazy idea makes perfect sense, and yet you are mostly unable to articulate the why to someone else later. The glue is missing when you’re not under it spell, the pieces threaten to come undone.
By the time the series reaches its end, we are on board. We know these people. We are willing to accept the stationery-stuffed tsunderes, the muscular murderous monkeys, the snarky school snails, the violent vengeful vipers. So obviously, the series closes with a naturalistic, tender episode that instead goes to the heart of Araragi and Senjōgahara, leaving aside all the supernatural trappings and showing them as teenagers attempting to wear adult clothes, still confused about where they fit in, their behavior as much a representation of their personality as an act.
There are many ways in which something this baroque, which flirts with fan service while providing an unearthly narration, could have gone off the rails. The fact it didn’t might be more baffling than anything else that happens on the series.
They saved every one of those possible derailments for Nisemonogatari, though, so don’t get too comfortable yet. I’ll go into that next week.
Originally published at filmsnark.tumblr.com.