Nisemonogatari and the art of ambiguity

Nisemonogatari, the anticipated sequel of 2009’s Bakemonogatari, has recently finished airing. I didn’t become as enamored with Bakemonogatari as a lot of others did, but I found it to be a unique and memorable series nonetheless. It was a rather strange and ambiguous anime too, though not necessarily in a bad way. And, much to some fans’ pleasure and other fans’ dismay, Nisemonogatari ups the ambiguity even more…

Bakemonogatari’s memorable traits – Shaft’s surreal animation spiced up with flashes of symbolic on-screen text and figurative scenery, direction and writing that had a knack for being filled with ambiguity and subtleties despite the lengthy dialogue, and a cast of quirky characters with equally quirky conversations with each other – are what made it so appealing to fans who are into anime with unconventional techniques. While Nisemonogatari basically has the same mood and style as its prequel, I felt that it unwittingly took the things that made Bakemonogatari bizarre and intensified them.

While Bakemonogatari is a weird but interesting anime, I felt that Nisemonogatari was more weird than anything else. For starters, I don’t remember Koyomi being such a, well, pervert as he was in Nise nor his relationship with Hitagi still being so masochistic as it seemed in episode 1. In fact, most of the episodes, especially the early ones, simply feature Koyomi having “weird” encounters with the girls. But the ambiguity of their encounters again seemed to be magnified compared to Bake: his rather inappropriate way of greeting Mayoi upon meeting her in episode 1, sticking around with a naked, seductive Kanbaru and then a seductive Sengoku, not to mention the many instances of his questionable physical contact with his sisters…with all these cases, the ambiguity is just off the charts. I was constantly asking myself, “Am I supposed to feel creeped out and unclean by what I’m watching, or am I supposed to feel good about it for being so deliciously artsy and savvy?”

The infamous tooth-brushing scenario in episode 8 is a prime example of this kind of weird ambiguity that Nise is so good at provoking. Again, while watching that whole scene, I was weirded out by what I was seeing, the incestuous undertones nipping at my eyes and ears. But then the episode ends with this great sense of satisfaction that now the bond between Koyomi and Karen is so much stronger. Was that supposed to override the incestuous means they used to reach that point in their relationship? Like most of the other scenes in Nise, I came up rather blank at the end of this one, begging the question, “Was I supposed to be charmed by what I saw, or disturbed?” You know a show is weird and ambiguous when, for a given scene such as this, I can imagine one person saying “Wow, what a great episode. Such style, such depth, such art. What a creative means of portraying the bond between the two siblings,” and someone else saying “Oh my god, this guy is a pervert! What the heck was he doing to his sister? Someone call a therapist, these kids need help”…and I can understand where both are coming from. Of course, not all the Nise episodes were borderline incestuous/pedophilic – the concluding episode 11 was more or less straightforward for instance. But just about all of them had scenes worth raising an eyebrow about.

Throughout watching Nisemonogatari, I felt like I was inside someone’s fetish-pleasing dreams, and not just because it features a lot of young girls acting seductive or getting aroused. For one thing, really pay attention to the dialogue in Nise and ask yourself if the majority of it sounds like conversations you’d hear any people in real life have. Do the interactions between Koyomi and his sisters make any sense outside the realm of wild fantasy? Then you have Shaft-animated stylized backgrounds, with the scenery constantly rearranging itself to symbolize whatever’s going on with the characters at the time, and locations obviously making no attempt to look like any kind of real-world setting. Then of course, there’s the ambiguity that comes with dreams: Am I supposed to smile at Koyomi for being such an interesting character and dedicated big brother, or am I supposed to cringe at the weird way he treats his sisters? Does the merit of well written dialogue and art-aware animation override disturbing incestuous and masochistic tones? Nisemonogatari is one series where I understand the story/plot fine, it’s the presentation I question.

In the end, does all this weirdness and ambiguity make Nisemonogatari a bad show? Well, it certainly takes away a lot of universal appeal it could have had beyond the otaku audience like many other anime. But that’s obviously not its goal, and if Bake and Nise’s goal is to bring something memorable to the otaku audience strictly, I’d say it did its job well. The ambiguity is most likely the series’ appealing point. Those who interpret it the “bad” way (it’s weird and disturbing) won’t like it, but those who interpret it the “good” way (it’s well written and artistic) go beyond in their praise for it. I personally prefer the (slightly) less bizarre and more structured Bakemonogatari and found Nisemonogatari to have some enjoyable points, but mostly not my cup of tea. But since I can see why people like it, I don’t think it’s a bad show. If you want to find it creepy and disturbing, fine, if you want to find it brilliant and creative, fine. Perhaps the thrill of being both creeped out and pleasantly impressed by a series at the same time is what people like about it. I would say Koyomi and his girls have mastered the art of ambiguity quite well.

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Just an FYI, it’s my birthday today but I didn’t feel like making a birthday post since I don’t have much to say. I’ll be spending the day at Disneyland per my usual birthday tradition =) I’ll be back with another new post later in the week~

27 Comments… read them or add your own.

  1. animekritik says:

    Gah I wish I were in Disneyland right now!!
    Happy b-day :)

  2. Alterego 9 says:

    Nisemonogatari is like a Rorsach test of anime. It doesn’t actually mean anything, but what you see into it tells a lot about you. Are you a prude? A weeaboo? an elitist? Do you like romance? comedy? Action?

    Your reactions to Nisemonogatari will reveal it all, and you might not even notice it.

    • Yumeka says:

      That’s a good way of looking at it – such an unusual series can reveal something about what kind of fan you are. The ambiguity makes it so that there’s no right or wrong answer about what you’re supposed to feel for such an anime.

  3. Cirris says:

    I tried not to think about it TOO much. I also felt awkward at times watching the show. But for me it wasn’t about the incestuous interactions between Koyomi and his sisters. I just chalked that up to to the Araragi family being a bit closer than normal families. In the last episode, Koyomi posed the question to Karen about “dying for each other” which she quickly replied “Yes”. Koyomi responded in kind. It spoke to a special type of bond the siblings have.

    The thing that bothered me was the fact that they were willing to show Shinobu naked for half an episode in her child like form. Even though the seen in it’s context was anything but sexual, It still tried to portray Koyomi and Shinobu’s relationship as one of a couple. Yes, Shinobu in theory is a 400 year old vampire remnant stuck within Koyomi’s shadow. But still nudity of anyone the it preteen is NO-NO in my book. That scene creeped me out.

    Another aspect to the series is Koyomi’s naivety in regards to the relationships he has with woman. Something Kanbaru even quipped to him when they chatted. Sengoku is obviously crushing on him hard and was rather provocative in her attempts to get Koyomi’s attention. Koyomi’s “aren’t you glad I’m thinking pure thoughts comment” was the perfect dialogue moment to showcase Koyomi’s passiveness. The reality is we all knew that Sengoku wants exactly the opposite to happen. I think the moral argument the writers are making here is that you should be more mindful of the situation you put yourself into. You could give people, especially girls, the wrong impression of you.

    I will say this, I wouldn’t argue with someone who said Nisemonogatari was nothing a ecchi harem comedy disguised as a supernatural mystery, because they would be right. This series was more about the interactions between Koyomi and the women in his life than it was about the Fire Sister’s conflicts with outside forces. I think Nisemonogatari goes about the story in such a abstract approach that most don’t seem to mind being suckered in.

    P.S. would totally have been in favor of seeing “high school” version Shinobu naked instead of “loli” Shinobu. It would have been the bath scene much more tolerable.

    • Yumeka says:

      I did feel that there is a strong bond between Koyomi and his sisters; it’s just a…weird one. One minute he’s groping Karen, then they’re violently beating each other up, then they’re declaring their unfaltering dedication to each other…just a bit bizarre to me.

      Actually that scene with Shinobu was strangely one of the few scenes where I didn’t feel uncomfortable. Even though she was naked, there wasn’t anything creepy about their conversation or interactions with each other. Besides, since she’s bonded to Koyomi in such a way, I didn’t feel any awkwardness with the two being naked together (why should she wear clothes if they’re in the bath?)

      Good call about the episode with Sengoku. I didn’t think of it that way. Nise does indeed seem to be more focused on Koyomi’s naive interactions with the girls, with the storyline of the supernatural entities being secondary, while Bake was the opposite.

  4. Myna says:

    Happy birthday! :D

    Aside from the incest (which was a bit unnecessary) and the meandering in the first few episodes, I freaking loved watching this show. Even the toothbrush episode in which I was also slightly disturbed by was pretty great. It’ll be ingrained into my memory.

    I think your penultimate sentence summarizes it the best. It fills me up with so many different conflicting emotions, and I can’t remember when another show has done that. In a good way.

    • Yumeka says:

      Thanks for the birthday wishes~

      Nise does certainly give you a variety of ways to feel about its ambiguous scenes. It’s disturbing yet fascinating, intellectual yet pandering, charming yet creepy – like you said, there’s a lot of conflicting emotions to be felt, and that’s the thrill of it for a lot of people.

  5. Cely_belly says:

    Happy birthday Yumeka!

    This series sounds interesting. Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten around to it. It sounds rather uncomfortable to watch, but I can be pretty open-minded.

    • Yumeka says:

      Thanks!

      You’d want to watch Bakemonogatari first since Nisemonogatari is the sequel. But yes, Nise could be an uncomfortable anime to watch even if Bake isn’t. You should be able to tell by the first couple of episodes.

  6. Kal says:

    Happy Birthday! March is a great month to be born (talking out of experience) :D

    Well, I did not see any of those 2 series. Since I was slightly put off with the first episodes of Oreimo (although, I did like it in the end), I do not think this series would be to my liking at all. I’ll stick to your previous recommendation of Wolf’s Rain in that case.

    Have a nice birthday!!

    • Yumeka says:

      The problem with March birthdays in California is that you never know how the weather will be. Some years it was 90 degrees on my birthday, others it was raining and 50 degrees =P

      Bake/Nisemonogatari are quite different from OreImo in terms of style, story, characters, and other things. But if you have an aversion to incestuous themes, then yeah, I wouldn’t watch them. Either way, I recommend Wolf’s Rain more ^_^

      Thanks for the b-day wishes!

  7. Soran says:

    Happy birthday to you,and yes bakemonogatari and nise,are not your usual anime,but i certainly do find them interesting and quite intelectualy deep enough to want more and more, i do hate watching ecchi anime,especially the new ones( this season),where nakedness is everywhere and story and development is nowhere but strangely enough while watching nise i didn’t even take notice of the ecchi parts, as i was already entranced by the storytelling of the anime,and i’m pretty sure if an anime can manage to do that,it deserves all the praise it can get.Every episode was so funny and fulfilling,i couldn’t ask for more,especially the last episode,where we have some serious deep philosphy,the which you would study only at university,what is real and what is fake..such a dilemma ..how all human being are good by heart,they just need someone to show them how ..great

    • Yumeka says:

      I do think Nise had depth to it and it definitely has a way of pulling you into its unique method of storytelling and avant-garde art style so that you can overlook the ecchi-ness you normally won’t tolerate. The last episode was probably my favorite, for the reasons you mentioned. While it’s not my ideal type of anime, I still think it’s a praise-worthy one.

  8. Mushyrulez says:

    Happy Birthday! I didn’t feel like making a Nisemonogatari comment since I don’t have much to say, and also because I didn’t watch it.

    I will throw out though, that simply because we don’t understand something, doesn’t mean it’s deep. Sure, there might be symbolism all around the place, but when the symbolism doesn’t symbolize anything… what’s the point? What if the director merely threw bucketloads of symbolism around because he didn’t know what else to do, and even he didn’t care about what the symbolism symbolizes?

    Then again, the director’s intention doesn’t really matter when analysing anime; even a small creek, when flooded, becomes deep.

    tl;dr: I don’t know what I’m talking about, happy birthday, don’t bother replying to this comment just enjoy your birthday like a person who was born on this day

  9. Logopolis says:

    Funnily enough, “weird and disturbing” sounds rather like a compliment to me, when it comes to art.

    Well, there are two sorts of “disturbing”, really. There’s “the fact someone thinks this is a reasonable thing to write and broadcast is disturbing”, which definitely is bad, it’s the sort of thing you’d say about something with a thinly-veiled racist subtext, for example. And then there’s “it made me think seriously about something about the world which is seriously screwed-up”, which can often be a very worthwhile goal.

    But I didn’t really see either in Nise. It’s so obviously unreal, that real-world considerations of its underlying premise seem irrelevant. I mean, if a show were implying “incest is a normal, healthy goal for the masses to pursue which won’t screw up the gene pool at all if it becomes institutionalised”, then that would be an issue. But since nobody is going to believe that, say, being punched through concrete road bridges in a fight or arranging for a morphing pencil-tower to match what you’re talking about is a healthy part of everyday life, the dangers of implying that seem relatively slim. So I was able to just sit back, drink in the artistic side, and enjoy the ride.

    • Yumeka says:

      What you said is precisely the reason why I didn’t hate Nise nor think it’s a bad show. While I don’t like it as much as others, like you said, because its mood, style, dialogue, and just about everything else about it is so fantastical, it can’t be too faulted for casually conveying themes that would be questionable in real life because it’s so obviously not trying to mimic real life. Some of the disturbing themes did bother me, as I guess I’m someone who wants anime to mirror real life to an extent, but in terms of a review I couldn’t say it’s bad.

  10. Happy birthday! That’s a great birthday tradition you have there, going to Disneyland! ^_^

    I agree that the presentation of Nisemonogatari was a bit questionable, since it certainly did feel a bit odd and yet bold to me at the same time. It doesn’t shy away from the strange and sensual scenes, but I do love the emotions, dialogue, and visual quality nevertheless. I certainly enjoyed this series more for its overall enjoyment and unique factors, even if it didn’t live up to Bakemonogatari’s reputation.

    • Yumeka says:

      Thanks for the birthday wishes! I had a magical time at Disneyland, too ^_^

      Yeah, Nise certainly isn’t a shy series in terms of exciting our senses with strangeness. Despite what I said about it, the bizarre but unique dialogue and Shaft-animation are what kept me watching.

  11. xueqir says:

    happy birthday! :)

  12. KRILL says:

    Happy belated birthday!!! Disney Land eh? Sounds fantastical. I hope it was fun and everything went well. I haven’t been there in a while but plan to go soon with some friends as a nice trip to Southern Cali and then I’ll return a few months later for AX 2012!

    As for Nise… I can’t lie. I saw 2 episodes with out having seen Bake. Watched that to see if I’d like it better. Nope I hats them both. I just don’t get the appeal. For myself, the dialogue I feel is superficial and tries WAAAY to hard to seem “smart” which just makes me think they are over-talkative gossiping hens. I’m already not a big talker and the characters spent in the 3 episodes I’ve ever seen 18+ minutes to say ONE thing 8 different smart a$$ ways. It’s pointless. 24 minutes of semantics just to say something in as least concise a way possible. Made me sick. And it has alot of Japanese allusions and jokes I don’t get, and turned out being chalk full of pervey antics and tasteless fan service. Nothing redeeming for me. The art was just about the most boring you could ask for. I would better spend my time reading a book of my choosing. BUT I digress!

    In it’s defense, many find the talking I take for jibber-jabber bullsh*t as a battle in the less tangible form of words. I just didn’t get it. I like to think I’ve got an eclectic taste but man, couldn’t get into this one. I’ll stick to my Metal Gear Solid cutscenes which I find AMAZING if I want to read walls of texts with confusing plots.

    • Yumeka says:

      Disneyland was a blast – it was the perfect day to go as it wasn’t too crowded. I’ll be going to AX this year, too =) Are you from CA too or somewhere else on the West coast?

      LOL, well that’s one of the extreme ways of looking at Bake/Nise and I can understand such gripes. While I don’t think the shows are as pretentious or as baseless as you said (especially Bake), I can understand someone not having the patience for them. Being turned off by the first three episodes of Nise is no surprise as those are the most uncomfortable episodes, but if you feel the same way about Bake, then most likely these two series just aren’t for you.

  13. Bio D says:

    Happy Birthday!

  14. Nopy says:

    I think the ambiguity in Nisemonogatari comes from a lack of purpose. While Bakemonogatari had Koyomi constantly trying to save each girl from a different curse, Nisemonogatari seemed more focused on pandering to fan desires. I’d rather see some goal in mind than Koyomi “playing” with the girls, which is why I’m part of the “Nisemonogatari was bad” camp.

    I know this is a month late, but Happy Birthday!

  15. Walao says:

    The fanservice in Bake was good, like really good. There’s all these wild camera-angle shots that make me, the viewer unusually self-conscious. For example, there’s the scene in the park when Senjougahara leans forward, I find myself unconsciously backing off from the screen. It was so damn well executed. I can’t remember of any other show managing that.

    Nise was… Actually, I don’t even remember much about it. The sexuality was toned up a lot and yeah, that’s about it. Except for the toothbrush scene where Koyomi and his sister drift to the UUNIIIVEEERSEE.

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