Usually, I don’t like to do side by side comparisons of anything. I try to judge every movie, TV show, book, album, game, or anime on its own merits, and not judge it against another subject in the same genre. Just because two anime might fall into the same genre doesn’t necessarily mean they should be given a direct comparison. However, after recently watching these two series, I found that they have so much in common, I can’t help but compare them.
I’ve been in a major anime slump lately. Everything I have watched I have either dropped from sheer boredom, or found the show to be a complete and total pile of shit. I had been checking the usual sites for episodes of new (and old) series that I had never seen before. One night I watched the first episodes of Tatami Galaxy, My Hime, Mononoke, and Bakemonogatari. They were all chosen completely at random with only the knowledge that other people had recommended them. I really had very little concept of what any of these series were about. Mononoke and Bakemonogatari piqued my interest the most, and I continued to watch them.
Every time I sat down for a viewing I would watch an episode of Mononoke followed by an episode of Bakemonogatari. It worked well as the former series has 12 episodes and the latter has 15. Coincidentally, I discovered that both series fell into the same genre, had similar formats, similar subject matter, and even shared a voice actor, Takahiro Sakurai, who played the wise Medicine Seller in Mononoke and the wise Meme Oshino in Bakemonogatari.
What are these two series about? Mononoke chronicles the journey of a traveling medicine seller throughout feudal Japan. During his travels he encounters various mononoke, or vengeful spirits, whom he must defeat. But there isn’t a drag-down all-out shonen style brawl. Instead, the Medicine Seller must work like a detective to discover the mononoke’s form, truth, and regret. Once he has done that he can unlock the spirit sword and exorcise the demon, usually in a single blow. Bakemonogatari features the exploits of a high school student named Koyomi Araragi as he encounters various girls in his hometown, each of which is possessed by a different animal spirit. Araragi must work like a detective to discover some secret of the girls’ past, and often times provide physical and emotional intervention, which will allow the girl to be freed from the spirit. In both series, the main character encounters demons/spirits, deduces a way to get rid of the demons/spirits, and enacts a plan to get rid of said demons/spirits. Essentially, they are identical. Even the format is similar. Mononoke features 2-3 episode story arcs for each demon, and Bakemonogatari does the same. This is why I feel like I can compare the hell out of these series.
So, how do they compare? To be perfectly honest, Mononoke beats the hell out of Bakemonogatari. This is unfortunate because the former series is little watched and relatively unknown while the latter is highly watched and incredibly popular. But that’s the way it always is. While both series have similar subject matters and formats, and even similar pacing styles, Mononoke just seems to pull everything off effortlessly, while Bakemonogatari struggles from the get-go, and is more of a slog to get through from start to finish.
In Mononoke the Medicine Seller shows up in some random feudal Japanese town just in time to find people haunted by a mononoke. Convenient, huh? Anyway, while he interviews the humans involved and inspects the area, the mononoke will periodically attempt to attack or frighten the involved parties. Overall, events are propelled forward at a comfortable pace. There are enough hints dropped here and there to always keep things moving. It is mostly talking, and there is very little action. Despite that, the series is far more interesting than Bakemonogatari. That series has very little action as well, but compared to Mononoke it has Bleach levels of action. Anyway, Mononoke is more of a drama/thriller that always keeps you wondering what is going to happen next. And when the Medicine Seller discovers the mononoke’s truth, form, and regret, the explanations are almost always satisfying and coherent.
Bakemonogatari, on the other hand, languishes in what seems to be indecisiveness on the parts of the creators. I’m sure that in book form it worked a lot better, but in anime form, it moves at a snail’s pace. This show seems to focus more on conversations, wordplay, and meta-”humor.” I use that in quotations, because meta-”humor” is never actually funny. While there is nothing wrong with conversations, the conversations in this series really do very little to propel things forward. Mononoke was mostly conversations, yet they were always relevant to the story and/or characters, and as a result were never boring. In Bakemonogatari, the conversations do not reveal any sort of plot, they rarely give us glimpses into the depths of the characters, and they are least of all entertaining or informative. They are just sort of there, filling time. Eventually they do get around to talking about the latest girl tormented by an evil spirit and how to save her, but it’s hard to pick out amongst all the bullshit. It is never very clear how they are able to come up with a plan or what that plan is. Araragi and his girlfriend Senjougahara try some random shit, and eventually something works and they free the possessed girl. It lacks consistency and rules, and that kind of shit is annoying and makes for weak storytelling. They probably should have laid down some defined rules for their universe before plunging in to making the series. But that fault probably lies with the writer of the novels more than the anime series creators. As a result, and as I mentioned before, the anime creators seemed to be indecisive in what kind of series they wanted to make: action? suspense? drama? horror? dramactiorrorspense? It is never really clear. That’s not to say that every series has to fall into a distinct pre-existing category, but when I watched this anime, it was apparent the creators weren’t quite sure what they wanted Bakemonogatari to be.
Production values for each series seem to be on par with one another. Mononoke has a very unique style. It is slightly akin to Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo in that the moving characters are colored in on top of a non-moving background. The background appears to be parchment paper, evoking the look of an ancient Japanese scroll. The character designs are extremely non-traditional, and overall this does not look like a typical anime. The visual aspect of this series is unique (and perhaps experimental) to say the least. For the most part it works. While the style can be jarring at first and may initially turn people off, the stories told in the series are strong enough to overcome that. And once you get used to the unique style, you don’t notice it anymore. And in fact, I eventually came to love it. It really gives the series a flair you don’t see in most of today’s generic, moe shit-fest anime. The animation is not fast paced and there isn’t a lot of action, but characters are animated well enough, and things are always happening on screen, which helps make it feel like you aren’t watching a bunch of still pictures.
Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for Bakemonogatari. It seems to be a reverse image of Mononoke. In this anime, the characters have a more traditional anime look to them, and they are extremely well drawn, move fluidly, and are painted with bright pastel colors. Again, the animation is not fast paced and there isn’t a lot of action, but things do have a more natural movement and style to them than that of Mononoke. However, even though Bakemonogatari has nice fluid animation, most of the time it opts out of that and just cuts a shitload of corners. Instead of animating characters, it will fixate on an image of a characters eye, or hair, or a piece of scenery. Not to mention that (and this is not an exaggeration) half of the series consists of a black or red frame that says “black” or “red.” This punctuates the end of every sentence, and pops up in scene transitions, as well as character movements. For example, instead of showing Araragi stand up from a bench, it will show him sitting on the bench, flash the “black” frame, and then show him already in an upright position. It’s ridiculous and gets old really fast. It’s jarring, it isn’t clever, and further slows the pacing. Essentially, most of the time you are watching a bunch of still pictures. So even though the animation quality is better in Bakemonogatari, they probably cut less corners and have less annoying gimmicks in Mononoke.
Neither series has an overarching storyline. As I mentioned before, they are each comprised of 2-3 episode story arcs. The only thing that threads all of Mononoke’s episodes together is that the Medicine Seller is in all of them. Similarly, in Bakemonogatari, only the characters are consistent with no other major plot to keep things moving. Despite a lack of an overall plot, by the time I finished Mononoke, I felt that I had completed some kind of epic journey. Conversely, when I completed Bakemonogatari, I felt that I had just watched 15 episodes of a TV show with a lot of talking and not much depth. I loved to become immersed in the world in the former series, while with the latter series I kept checking my watch to see when that shit would end.
The music of Mononoke is very subdued, largely uses traditional Japanese instruments, and is meant to evoke feudal Japan. There aren’t really any memorable tunes, but the music is done in such a way that it helps you become more enveloped in the world the series has laid out. The music of Bakemonogatari is mostly generic and has a few J-Pop numbers thrown in for good measure. The music’s only purpose here is to fill an otherwise void of silence. The quality of the music between the two series is a draw. However, Mononoke uses music to its advantage, while in Bakemonogatari, the music is just there. Similarly, the acting quality between the two series is even.
Overall, I walked away from Mononoke feeling like I had just watched a great series, and I was hungry for more. When Bakemonogatri ended, I shrugged and moved on to the next anime. Mononoke excelled in every aspect, while Bakemonogatari did not. The former of the two series has left a lasting impression on me, and I will always remember it as a unique anime. Conversely, my memories of Bakemonogatari have already blurred with so many other middling series. Now, I’m not saying it was a bad series. It wasn’t. It just wasn’t great, and certainly didn’t excel in any area. It was mediocre in every sense of the word.
Being a mediocre anime is often times worse than being a bad anime. With something mediocre, it is ultimately forgettable, which is probably the best word that could be used to describe Bakemonogatari. At least if something is a putrid pile of shit, you’ll always remember it. After all, I will forget Bakemonogatari’s mediocrity long before I forget the godawful moe piece of shit that is Kanon. Some things you wish you could unsee.