With light novels finally moving out of the shadows and finding themselves becoming an integral part of the western industry's catalogue, so the list of "things I wish I could read legally but can't" seems to be shrinking by the month. Now, hot on the heels of the success of prequel novel Kizumonogatari (which we reviewed here), I can now cross another title off the list as Nisio Isin's Bakemonogatari makes it to the west thanks to the efforts of Vertical.
Unlike its Japanese counterpart which was split into two books, the English language release of Bakemonogatari has instead been chopped up into three books, leaving us with just two story arcs to contend with. As per Kizumonogatari, the translation here has been provided by Ko Ransom, which is very good news indeed - much like that release, the care taken in translating what is clearly a tricky work to localise into English is apparent throughout, and although the prose feels a little "looser" than Kizumonogatari it feels like an accurate representation of the source material. Given the amount of wordplay that the series - and author Nisio Isin in general - loves to employ, Bakemonogatari has often been cited as "untranslatable", which makes the quality of this English language edition all the more notable as it goes to great lengths to allow the reader to comprehend and appreciate the jokes and use of language in a way that rarely feels stilted and usually still allows the gags to hit the mark. It's a very important positive for a series which Nisio Isin himself admits is just an excuse for characters to have stupid conversations, and we really can't praise it enough.
With that very important note out of the way, we can talk a little about the story itself, which sees us introduced to Koyomi Araragi as a rather dim-witted and often perverted but ultimately kind-hearted high school lad with a proclivity for finding himself encountering various "oddities" following his own brush with a vampire which comprised Kizumonogatari's tale. On this occasion, a freak accident involving a banana peel leads to him making a shocking discovery about a quiet, sickly classmate - she's almost literally weightless. Of course, this improbably set of circumstances is not down to a medical condition but something entirely more supernatural, which leads to Araragi introducing the girl in question - the sharp-tongued stationary addict Hitagi Senjyogahara - to roaming specialist in this field Meme Oshino, and ultimately the resolution of her problems. Just days later, Araragi finds himself tangled up with another apparition as his attempts to help a young girl named Mayoi Hachikuji leaves him lost and baffled until Oshino steps in to explain his circumstances once again.
Taking a step back from my admiration of the Monogatari franchise from its very first anime adaptation in 2009, it's actually quite hard to explain the draw of the series to someone who isn't already steeped in it - "an excuse for characters to have stupid conversations" is actually a pretty good synopsis of the show at its core, but at the same time it's also a very reductive way of looking at the narrative it weaves. Bakemonogatari's blend of internal monologue and sharp dialogue filled with jokes and ripostes manages to be endlessly engaging, and even at its most outlandish it feels somehow natural - like watching two quick-witted friends who love to rib and riff on one another having a chat, but somehow capturing its good-natured intensity in text form.
Dig a little deeper however, and there's far more to Bakemonogatari beneath this witty and whimsical surface - both story arcs on show here have darker undertones, with the root causes of all of the problems suffered by its cast relating to family issues in some shape or form. That this volume manages to handle these issues tastefully even as it also makes jokes at the expense of Araragi's proclivities is a big part of what makes the book work - you can laugh at its silliness but take in its serious moments without ever feeling like there's too much of a schism between the two. With this fine balance between humour and drama, even this first book sees some solid character development come into play that should bode well for future story arcs if the franchise's animated counterpart is anything to go by.
To be honest, the only thing that takes any sheen from this release is the fact that unlike Kizumonogatari at the time it's a story we've experienced before - remove the fact that I've already seen these tales play out via its anime adaptation however and you have yourself another engaging, enjoyable and entertaining read from cover to cover, with a level of presentation that matches Kizumonogatari's excellent cover artwork and inclusion of illustrations that were part of the original Japanese release. As much as I find myself bemoaning the lack of a digital edition of these novels, this at least feels like a physical tome worth owning for my shelves.
If you're an existing fan of all things Monogatari such as myself, then this English edition of the book that started it all is invaluable, not just as an entertaining new way of enjoying its initial story arcs but also in the sense that it offers a depth of characterisation and dialogue that the anime adaptation could never hope to match. Even if you've never sat down and watched Bakemonogatari in animated form, while this certainly isn't the kind of series you'd want to recommend as a gateway for newcomers into the world of light novels due to its reliance on subverting or diving deep into well-worn tropes, provided you're comfortable with the "otaku" knowledge required you'll surely find plenty to entertain you here if you're a fan of snappy, self-aware dialogue and joyous wordplay.