When the anime adaptation of Nisio Isin's original Bakemonogatari light novels set the fandom (and, more importantly, the sales charts) ablaze, it wasn't all that surprising to see the production studio behind this success - SHAFT - look to leverage it by adapting further novels in its series. However, despite being announced during the height of that success in the summer of 2010, it's taken until 2016 for prequel novel Kizumonogatari to gets its own animated adaptation. For years rumours have swirled around the status of the film, before last year finally saw word that the book would be split into three hour-long films, the first two of which have now been released and, importantly for this review, screened in the UK courtesy of Scotland Loves Anime 2016 weekend. We're often told that the best things come to those who wait, but is that the case here?
Let's start with the basics - that is, the show's story, although to be honest Monogatari fans who have been impatiently waiting for these films to arrive likely already know the score on this count. Anyhow, if you're a newcomer or have lost all your memories and don't fancy poking around in your brain to find them, Kizumonogatari is the origin story of Koyomi Araragi - an ordinary boy (albeit a loner), who finds himself turned into a nigh-immortal vampire having made the decision to save Kiss-shot Acerola-orion Heart-under-blade, herself on the brink of death having been ganged up on by three vampire hunters.
While Araragi expects that saving Kiss-shot's life will end his own, his escape from this mortal coil isn't quite that painless - instead, he's now become Kiss-shot's "servant" and needs to defeat those three vampire hunters to regain her lost body parts, and with them her powers. If this isn't difficult enough, Araragi has also found himself caught up with a girl in his class - the intelligent and beautiful Tsubasa Hanekawa, who has seemingly taken a liking to him after a decidedly awkward introductory encounter. For a horny teenager like Koyomi, perhaps it's Hanekawa who is more terrifying than the vampire hunters...
If you've ever watched the original Bakemonogatari anime - or were in its vicinity when it aired - you'll know that its appeal came as much from its visual treatment as its story, thanks to its striking architecture and world overlaid with memorable character designs and many of the flourishes which have made most of SHAFT's output so easily recognisable. While much of this aesthetic is often laid at the feet of Akiyuki Shinbo, it's actually Tatsuya Oishi who is the real mastermind of Bakemonogatari's success, and given that Oishi disappeared to work on Kizumonogatari subsequent iterations of the Monogatari franchise have simply been copies of that template with little deviation. With that in mind, it takes mere moments to see what Oishi has done with the time and money at his disposal for these films, taking his fascination with architectural detail to spectacular new heights and creating a world for Kizumonogatari's characters to move in that is jaw-dropping to see. Within that world, we have newer, more detailed versions of the characters we love, filled with even more expression and movement to sell every scene's dialogue and narrative.
In short, these first two instalments of Kizumonogatari are incredible to watch, particularly on the big screen - all of the visual trappings which made Bakemonogatari unique are there, but brought to life in new and improved ways which enhance the drama, action and comedy of the films in equal measure.
Meanwhile, these two films are a departure from other Monogatari iterations in a very different way narratively. While the franchise has become well known for its love of packed dialogue and talking heads, the first part of Kizumonogatari in particularly is shockingly sparse and reserved in terms of its dialogue, cutting out huge swathes of the light novel's chit-chat and dialogue and drilling down to the core of its story and character moments. In comparison, the second film is perhaps a little closer to what you might expect from a Monogatari story, but it's still undoubtedly pared down from the norm. Not that this is a criticism mind you - the approach these films have is merely different rather than better or worse, and both movies capture the life and character of events with a keen eye. If anything, the more restrained focus of the story within these films allows it to really zoom in on the gems of moments within the story, wringing every drop of verbal, physical and visual humour out of its best gags or giving some real punch to a moment of visceral horror.
On that note, it's certainly worth mentioning that Kizumonogatari is not for the faint of heart. The source material has a running joke that events within its pages mean it'll never get an anime adaptation, yet these two films see blood, limbs and entrails splattering all over the place on a regular basis, while no punches are pulled in terms of fan service either. Neither element is anything new for Monogatari, but you won't have seen them handled so explicitly in any of its TV outings.
Finally, the package is rounded off by both a great soundtrack and some truly exceptional voice acting performances - the entire case does a terrific job of matching their performances to their more detailed and expressive on-screen counterparts to really sell the events that unfold, while the music is a mixture of reworkings of incidental music from the TV show with some all-new work which fits events perfectly.
If you're an existing fan of Monogatari, then selling you on these first two instalments of Kizumonogatari is simplicity itself - it's everything you love about the series, but streamlined, accentuated and given a stunning makeover that will make you swoon. There is perhaps an argument to be made that the first film can be a little plodding, but it still has plenty to offer before the second movie ups the pace and blitzes the viewer with its best material to leave you hanging and wanting more from that third instalment.
For those who aren't already ensconced deep in the world of Monogatari the prospect is perhaps a little different - you'll still appreciate the unique visual treatment of these films, but without any history of time spent with its main characters the first film may seem plodding and without enough to hook you in. It's a problem arguably put paid to by the more traditional blend of action and drama in film number two though, for those willing to persevere.
As a whole though, even if you only check in to see its visuals and some top-notch animation, chances are you'll find enough to like to make your time worthwhile from these first two Kizumonogatari films. If you're a Monogatari fan on the other hand, these two movies are everything you could have wished for, and then some.
Kizumonogatari - Parts 1 and 2 screened in Glasgow and Edinburgh as part of Scotland Loves Anime 2016