The other day I concisely twittered with Tim from Thoughts That Move about the Monogatari Series, an anime that I have been bewitched by ever since first laying eyes on it. Tim eloquently exhibits one of Monogatari’s greatest strengths in his analysis series (spoilers), pulling apart many of Bakemonogatari’s visuals and then defining why they’re there. Analysis of the Monogatari series is very gratifying because valid reasoning can be found behind even the most unremarkable of shots.
Monogatari is known for its dialogue-riddled episodes, which are preeminent throughout the series. Entire seasons are pivoted around two or more characters bouncing witty comments off each other, with little to no movement involved. Shaft and Monogatari’s directors counteract this stagnation with their rapid and eccentric shots. While in reality there’s usually not much going on besides the conversation, lots will be happening on the screen to keep the viewer’s eyes occupied. A lot of the anime’s decriers view this as a negative element, saying that the episodes are sleep-inducing, and that its erratic shot composition is pretentious and frivolous, but I don’t think this is the case at all.
Much of what you see in Monogatari is not supposed to be taken too literally, but messages can be found within this faux imagery. It’s doubtful that two adolescents would spend their afternoon fooling around with playground equipment, but simply watching them sitting on a bench for an entire episode would be boring, and thus we are shown two adolescents spending their afternoon fooling around with playground equipment. Fortunately this odd spectacle is exalted by its symbolism, on which Monogatari heavily relies. Most of Monogatari’s visuals tell a larger story than initially meets the eye, whether it be foreshadowing or a mere reflection of the currently audible dialogue. The observant viewer will be able to spot this.
In Bakemonogatari for example, there is an episode in which the anime starts to show a predilection for shots of shadows, notably different perspectives of shadows. A large reveal is then made when the perspectives of our two protagonist are compared—what originally seemed like something to only keep us moderately entertained, turns out to be much more intricate, and Monogatari will stop at nothing to throw in these allegories whenever it gets the chance.
The anime utilises this ‘faux imagery’ through other means as well. Certain arcs are narrated by someone other than Koyomi, and this change in viewpoint brings significant alterations to the scenery. When Koyomi narrates, the streets appear vacant, with not a soul around, but when Kaiki narrates, other humans are suddenly present. This is meant to show that Koyomi only worries about himself and those directly around him, while Kaiki, who is more mature and sees the bigger picture, has already realized that the world does not revolve around him. Something else we see when Kaiki narrates is an emphasis on money, a large part of his character. This difference in entourage gives us insight on the character narrating. In Koyomi-narrated arcs lots of construction sites are shown for instance, this is because Koyomi is still young, and has yet to build a full understanding of the world around him.
Furthermore, the unimportance of consistency between visuals comes with another merit: directorial freedom. As some may know, the production of the Monogatari series has been steered by multiple directors. Akiyuki Shinbo, being the face of Shaft, is always active behind the scenes, but it is mostly Tatsuya Oishi and Tomoyuki Itamuri who are credited for directing the anime. Oishi set the standard for the rest of the series with Bakemonogatari in 2009, but he fell into a slump and it was Itamuri who took the reins in continuing the adaptation. It wasn’t until 2016 that Oishi made his return, bringing with him the vastly different Kizumonogatari trilogy. With Kizu, Oishi took the liberty of revamping many of Monogatari’s key locations, making both the abandoned cram school as well as the Araragi residence almost unrecognizable. This is not a bad thing however, since it quickly becomes apparent what these unknown buildings are meant to depict. Conversely it creates an entirely different sensation for the Kizu films, with a novel atmosphere that brandishes their mood and defines their unique position within the series, as the Monogatari in which the beloved story begins.
Lastly, the foreshadowing in this anime is not to be overlooked. Those with a keen eye will be rewarded, and can uncover many things about later instalments. Nisio Isin, the writer of the Monogatari novels, was already prone to burying foreshadowing within dialogue. But with Shaft’s anime adaptation came an explosive potential for foreshadowing hidden within the backgrounds. Rewatching this anime is amazing, and the foreshadowing is partially responsible for this. Unfortunately I can’t really go into detail on this, since it would be tantamount to spoiling, but for those that have seen the anime I would recommend this video.
Now I have to come clean here and admit that a majority of the examples I have listed above have never been confirmed, they are no more than my own conjecture. But I firmly believe that this is exactly what makes Monogatari so intriguing. Monogatari’s oddity may deter some, but I find joy in studying the shots, contemplating for a few seconds, and realising some potential ambiguity in them. The visuals aren’t a true representation, and in that sense the anime can be compared to a book, where much is left up to the imagination. But the amount of thought that noticeably went into the visuals, is what sets the anime apart from its parent novels. Monogatari is brimming with thought provoking imagery, and the best part is that they’re only the tip of the iceberg.