It’s probably fair to say that there is no piece of fiction for which I have had such turbulent emotions and fluid opinions than Nisio Isin and SHAFT’s eclectic Monogatari franchise. Ironically one of its main themes, if not the very core theme, is authenticity, and authenticity now forms the central facet of my thesis on this bizarre work.
I’m not particularly proud of what I wrote on Nisemonogatari, nor of how I wrote it, but for what it’s worth, that post fairly accurately represents my opinion of the franchise up until the Monogatari Second Season. My opinion now is pretty radically different, and this can be attributed to many factors. First and foremost is that the Second Season was actually good. Scrap that, it was bloody fantastic, back to form and then some, culminating in what may be one of my favourite finales of all time.
However, there’s another factor in play that may well define my changing opinion of the Monogatari franchise more than how much each instalment happens to appeal to me. If you read my Anime Christmas post, or even my Liebster Award post, you’d know my whole outlook on anime, and really, fiction in general has gone through a pretty radical frame shift of late.
Reading Azuma I stumbled upon many interesting ideas, but the one in particular that applies here is how Azuma distinguishes between an original and simulacrum. According to Azuma, when reading an original piece of work there’s an inextricable connection to the creator and the process of creation, much like how part of an artisan bladesmith would be reflected in their creations, as would be expected of a master chef etc. I’m sure Azuma is not the first to use this definition, but it’s the first place I’d encountered the idea. If most modern anime are defined largely by being simulacra, that is, themselves not copies of the real, but copies of copies of the real, them we can’t expect to feel much connection with the creator. After all, a mish-mash of database elements can’t be expected to have much of a “soul”, so to speak, and there isn’t much room left in this model for the auteur.
“Ok, but how does this relate to Monogatari?” Well, to me, Monogatari is undoubtedly primarily a mish-mash of database elements, a piece of simulacrum, yet it manages to be so entirely reflective of its creator it feels like an original, and I find this absolutely fascinating. Simply put, Monogatari may be the most authentic piece of writing I’ve ever viewed. From the fanservice to the wordplay to the meta commentary on the industry itself, everything in it comes across as a genuine expression of Nisio Isin’s creative will, if tempered somewhat by Shinbo’s own unique, highly idiomatic direction.
This is a piece of work that conforms to so many standards of the industry, itself barely escaping the genre trappings of a standard harem show, yet behind it there’s a glimpse of something else, something akin to a grand narrative. It feels like such a contradiction, a piece so utterly self-indulgent it’s hard to imagine how it ever achieved any mainstream success. Something written by Nisio Isin, for Nisio Isin. Heck, the man himself has said as much.
I’ll admit, perhaps this would all be peripheral if there wasn’t a lot in the Monogatari franchise that personally appealed to me. The gorgeous art direction, incredibly apt soundtrack, philosophical musings, coming-of-age contemplation, symbolism and meta-commentary are all right up my my alley. That said, there’s plenty here for me to dislike too. The jarring fanservice, awkward tone-shifts, frequent failings to escape its genre trappings, but the overall package is made so compelling by its bald-faced conviction to its own universe and beliefs that it’s much easier to overlook the less desirable elements.
At the core of the story is the idea of authenticity. Its value, the different forms it takes, and the way it affects our own view of the world. It seems no coincidence that the core facet of this story is the key defining aspect of its writing. The Monogatari franchise is born out of an almost paradoxical mix of love for all things Otaku, and keen recognition of the less savoury aspects of the culture, yet no part of it feels disingenuous. Monogatari feels, to me, like a desperate proclamation that wonderful things can be done within this paradigm, perhaps all we need is to add a little authenticity.
You might consider this a belated response of sorts to Froggy-Kun’s somewhat polemic question.