Monday, 19 March 2012

Review: Nisemonogatari

Wow. There were 52 March Madness games last week, and I watched at least some of all 52. And somehow found the time to repair, re-stain and re-finish one of the shelves I built myself. And finish up Nisemonogatari, and write a review of it. I also posted it on the AniDB, but here it is, in it's entirety.

Nisemonogatari: A Post-Mortem

People will be happy if they think what's in the museum is the authentic one. Delusions such as pictures and money don't have value. They're all illusions.
--Kyouka-sama, Kyouran Kazoku Nikki

What happens if you set out to tell a ‘fake’ story and succeed? Should a successful telling of fake story be rewarded? Well, let’s leave philosophical paradoxes aside, and discuss the truth: regardless of intent, Nisemonogatari is a weak story, and it is a disappointment. In short, this show fell flat. It failed to capture the magic of the first season, and spent too much time on character cameos and incest-ero and not enough actual story.

Before I start, I need to set the framework. I generally enjoy the work of Nisioisin. His style is somewhat esoteric, and he delights in wordplay and unusual diction, but I find these traits endearing. And I believe that Bakemonogatari is one of the best anime ever made. In my ‘Giant Spreadsheet of Doom’, there are 348 anime titles listed, in order of quality. Bakemonogatari is entry number 2. So when I discuss Nisemonogatari, keep in mind that I know full well what this franchise is capable of, and to what standards I am holding this show to.

The Good

Here is a case of when having too much of budget can be bad. The animation of Bakemonogatari was beset with Shaft’s usual budget crisises, and so a lot of the strange atmosphere and animation cuts where more forced than planned. However, somehow, they managed to turn this disadvantage around to Bake’s biggest strength, creating an eerily beautiful and surreal landscape and a truly unique animation style. In Nise, there is plenty of cash on hand, and therefore the animation is more polished, but it loses the sense of charm that original had. The animation is style very good – both fight scenes and landscapes retain the good parts of Bake, but there is no innovation, nothing new. And there the director fails to make good use of the Red Scene/Black Scene cuts as compared to the first season. It might be more shiny, but it is less filling.

When Nisioisin is on, he is on. The true greatness of Bake lay in its ability to weave an engaging story out of a simple conversation between two characters. Some of the best episodes of Bake are nothing more than Araragi trading sarcastic barbs with another character. These scenes return, and there are some notable ones, especially the opening episodes and every time Hachikuji appears. But they have a different feel to them than in Bake. In Bake, these scenes exist to provide information on the character, to define their personality or to advance a plot point. Here, they are more like slice-of-life comedy shorts, something that wouldn’t be out of place in Lucky Star or Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, but are for the most part pointless. Their only purpose is to satiate the fans of these characters, to give them some airtime to please the fanbois of the original. Often, they feel more like cameos, or that they were wedged into the story to sell more character products. It creates and odd situation. The original five girls have the best writing, but they don’t advance the story, and so all this good writing goes to waste.

The one other place where the writing shines is the endings of the two arcs. The final showdown with Kaiki is brilliantly anti-climatic, and is supremely well designed. And the closing episode again shows off Nisioisin’s command of the written word. It is not a typical anime ending, nor is it expected. But it is a perfect fit, to both the tone and style of the show. This is a fake story after all, and it is only fitting that it receives a fake ending as well.

Again, we have one of the best vocal casts out there at the peak of their game. Take everything I said about the first season and at it in here. And there is a new cast member, one Sakamoto Maaya as the voice actress for the loli vampire Shinobu. Shinobu is a demanding role, but she gives a commanding performance. There is little more to be said about the cast, this is perfection. On the music side, the OPs exceed the already high expectations set by the first season, but the ED is a letdown. I found it to be a poor fit for the tone of the show.

The Bad

There are eleven episodes of Nise. These eleven episodes contain about four episodes worth of plot, spread between them. The remainder is filler. Now, in Bake there was a lot of sitting around and talking, but that those scenes meant something. They developed a character, or advanced a plot. Nise's scenes, as I said before, are more like slice-of-life scenes. Not bad, in their own, but pointless in the greater scheme of things. And there was no moderation to it. In a low point for the franchise, there was an episode devoted to Araragi brushing his sister’s teeth. It was truly bizarre, lasted way too long, and failed to have any meaning. It seemed as an attempt to create a fetish out of thin air, and the only thing worse than a fake fetish is a fake meme. And this leads me to the next subject:

The Chemistry
Or complete lack of it. In Bake, the strong chemistry between the characters turned potential filler into engaging and important episodes. But in Nise, the chemistry between Araragi and his sisters is near zero. Part of this is bad design—the relationships between Araragi and the five girls are new and therefore need to be established, but the relationships between Araragi and his sisters is old, and therefore already established—but the viewer does not know of this relationship. They don’t need to build a relationship, it already exists, but this negates Bake’s greatest strength. And no chemistry is generated with the sisters within the content of the show. A lot of this is due the character of Araragi—he remains stern and protective of his sisters, while friendly and playful with the five girls. The result is that the interactions between Araragi and his sisters often feel forced, while the interactions between Araragi and the original five remain natural. A similar problem happens with Shinobu. Again, her relationship is already established, in the yet to be animated prequel. However, this problem is overcome, mostly due to the fact Araragi treats Shinobu like an equal, unlike his sisters. However, the focus of Nise is on the sisters, and the failure to generate chemistry undermines the foundation of the show.

The Ugly

Bake had its moments of ero, but they did not dominate the show, like they do in Nise. And the ero is not necessary to the show. It is pandering for the sake of pandering. And that is insulting. I like ero as much as the next man, but there needs to be moderation. Most of the filler I mentioned earlier consists of ero scenes. And the really irritating thing is that these scenes are unnecessary. Generally, ero scenes like this are the last refuge of a failing show that needs to make up viewership at any cost. Nise is guaranteed to sell at least 50k, so that can’t be the reason. The original Bake was a well written show with deliciously subversive eroticism. It deftly wielded the ero to enhance the story. Nise’s ero has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It substitutes ero for clever writing and style, and that never works well. It is lazy writing, and that is polar opposite of what a Nisioisin story should be.

A lot of the reason that the ero fails is that it is incest ero. Not only is it completely unrealistic, but it is pandering to the otaku core. It is cheap, and completely stupid. The problem is that any time invested in incest ero scenes is wasted, since there is no possibility of the characters actually following through. You could imagine Araragi ending up with any of the five girls, but the possibility of the one of the sisters is zero. Yet, in the course of eleven episodes he kisses both and strips both. This cheapens the show and cheapens the character of Araragi. This franchise is good enough not to prostitute itself like this. It was highly disappointing.

Nisioisin must have some weird haircutting fetish. In Bake, Nise, and Katana, there are four separate instances of girls getting their hair cut. Stop this foolishness. The longer the hair, the cuter the girl. It is a fundamental maxim.

The Conclusion
Nisioisin sets out to prove a philosophical point with Nisemonogatari. Can a fake be more valuable that the real thing? The answer is left to the viewer, but it is clear that Araragi has made his choice. But while he succeeds at proving his point, the overall this story is not as good as Bakemonogatari was. Nise is still a solid show. If this was an original show, if it was not a sequel, I probably would have rated it higher. But I know what this franchise is capable of, and this is a disappointment. I expect quality, and I got average. Not good enough.

In Bake, things are gained. Araragi works to restore the girls to where they want to be. In Nise, nothing is gained, only preserved. Araragi works to prevent loss. Bake ends with an increase over the starting point; Nise ends at the same point where the story started. This fundamental difference in design prevents Nise from matching Bake’s greatness. But it did itself no favors either, with its flawed chemistry and ero-incest filler. As a sequel, it is acceptable. But it could have been better. It should have been better.

Plot: B
Art: A-
Sound: A-
Character: B-
Enjoyment: B
Value: {
Watchability: B+
Re-Watchability: D+
Historical Value: A }

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