Any way you look at it, Bakemonogatari isn’t your average anime. Be it its very peculiar graphic style or the emphasis on text, it certainly is weird. And weird is good, weird is interesting. So let’s talk about that. Don’t worry the following is going to focus on the form and not the content, therefore spoiler-free! And you don’t even have to know the anime to follow, I explain it as we go along /o/
Bakemonogatari (and the subsequent monogatari series) is an anime developed by the studio Shaft, known for its weirdness and its poor understanding of the human skeleton capacities. Let’s just say that this anime deals with mythology, symbolism and human psyche. It’s adapted from a series of novels to which it pays its respect by widely and often inserting flashes of text extract from it :
They display, explode, blink, and altogether make a habit of playing around with their source material. The focus on the written word is so important that the title card of the episode even features references to the font used.
Weird for animation, that’s usually thought of as opposite of text, right ? I’m not going to talk about the fact that this creates a double channel of communication and thereby a kinda new multilayered medium since it’s definitely not just a video (yaay preterition /o/) but rather use this as a bridge to dive deeper in the importance of language and text in this anime.
The japanese language is rife with homonyms and close sounding words, and they are here at the core of the meaning of the plot. I’ll be discussing here superficially events from the first episode so it’s kinda spoiler-ish but very beneficial to the discussion as it will give you an interesting example (highlight to read). The first character encountered has lost its weight because of the mythical creature Omoshi Kani (weight crab), but this is just one of the pronunciations for the name of this animal: among the possibilities are Omoshi Gami (emotion god) or Omoi to Shigami (feelings and ties). This significant pronunciation proximity has allowed the psychological issues of the characters to manifest mytho-psychosomatically through a transfer link which results in this weird curse…
This is weirdly reminiscing of what psychoanalysis now discuss in the most avant guarde debates in Paris soirées. French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, major influence to the field of philosophy of the mind stated something like « the unconscious is structured like a language ». What he means is essentially that our unconscious mind works as a chain of signifiers (a concept represents/symbolizes/reminds of something else, which in turns leads to something else) encoded in the symbolic language of the mind, as illustrated by the brillant Phoebe Buffay :
Everywhere I go today I keep getting signs telling me to go see my father: Hamburger. McDonald’s. Old MacDonald had a farm, my dad is a pharmacist.
actual line from the anime like omg so freudian
The psychoanalysis then consists in observing patterns of speech and expression of the patient to exhibit unaware manifestations of unconscious disorders. A very schematic example could be for instance a patient weirdly obsessed with their ankle, this being signifier of an underlying childhood trauma with their uncle.
By the way, this is a generalization of Freudian slips : Freudian slips are meaningful because the inside of your unconscious mind is structured like this association chain. The slip of the tongue exhibits one of this unconscious connections and reveals something about the depth of your psyche. Also much like Freud theories, this anime kinda arguably centers around sex. But that’s neither here nor there.
Meanwhile on the other side of the planet, probably unknowing people were using an anormal amount of traffic signs in an anime, thus unwillingly (or not?) using signs as symbolic signifiers for signification itself, for aren’t signs the purest form of symbolism and signification there is (HOW FUCKING COOL IS THAT now you have a smart explanation for Shaft’s obsession with traffic signs. yeah I thought I told you I love meta).
But let’s keep this short and move on, for if this anime captures the essence of the lacanian conception of the unconcious mind, it doesn’t stop there. Where Lacan’s theory is focused on audio and pronunciation, it is a fairly frequent phenomenon in Japan to play around with the Kanjis used for writing names and suchlikes (for humorous or analytic purposes), a tradition that Bakemonogatari follows to perfection: a signifier link later on in the anime between 迷い牛 (lost cow) and 蝸牛 (snail) rely on their shared used of the kanji 牛. (yeaah its kinda animal spirit focused ^^ but at least its not a spoiler =)).
Therefore, since there are precedents in psychology that vouch for this « audio language »-based conception of the unconscious mind, one may wonder if this theory could be widened to take into account visual signifiers, for after all sight and sound are just senses and there is no a priori reason for one to be prioritary.
Our celebration of linguistics brought us from the spoken word to the written word, but there is one more interesting aspect of the anime left to be tackled in that regard. I could not ignore the fact that this anime also features « missing scenes », a plain colored screen with the name of the color, when the action and the dubbing goes on (see below).
Much can be said about the meaning of those colors (here is a pretty kickass analysis) but the bottom line here since we focus on the form is that these scenes are the complete negation of what this medium is supposed to be : it’s the exact opposite of animation. A stillframe, with the lowest level of information possible. Simply a color. We face here the exact contrary to the subtleties of language we were admiring a minute ago. Not even words. (how postmodern…)
And somehow, these frame convey a great amount of information, building up an ambiance and an atmosphere (shaft is pretty good at playing with colors). After having embraced the full extent of language, this anime now takes us to the beyond words, and something within us « gets it » and resonates with these pure unspeakable concepts.
This brings to mind the controversial monochromatic paintings observed during the 20th century. Often considered as « anti-art », these works raised the question of the limit of artistic creation, much like to me Bakemonogatari raises the question of the limit of animation. Figure of balance and path towards infinity for Kasimir Malevitch, representing the essence of art for Ad Reinhardt, visualisation of the Void for Gerhard Richter, they unarguably opened the way for a plurality of reflexion and interpretation, embodying in the simplest form the complexity of art and reflexion.
So too, Bakemonogatari embodies the complexity of the human psyche, from its most structured linguistic mechanics to its rawest impulsive emotions, and paints it to the subdued light of animist mythology. It offers a non argumentative framework to project interpretations and appreciate the rich duality that is man, the animal of reason. And altogether, it’s a pretty cool signifier to signify reflection about signification.
I would like to give special thanks to my friend Vlad for having repeated Lacan’s theory so many times over the year that I just had to do an article about it I guess. This one goes to you ❤