Shinbo and Nisioisin – Nekomonogatari and a creative dead end
February 16, 2013 5 Comments
I deliberately chose these screenshots as I feel they are representative of Nekomonogatari and to a greater or lesser extent the majority of the Monogatari Franchise.
Most should know of Shinbo Akiyuki and Nisoisin, they have both been involved with numerous projects that have been highly successful for one thing, and they are also well known for their particular style in directing and writing. However, over the past couple of years, it has become increasingly obvious that this director and writer seem to have hit a creative dead end, as can be neatly demonstrated in the stupid, pretentious, and downright offensive works that have been released recently. Nekomonogatari in particular neatly demonstrates some of the significant problems that these individuals have come across, while also showing us how little they have really changed despite their success, and arguably because of their success. With Nekomonogatari we are perhaps seeing the inevitable conclusion of their creative vision, a OVA film that lacks any substance and instead focuses entirely on the sexualisation of its female characters, while working under the pretence of a deeper, more complicated story. It is an OVA that helps to demonstrate what is wrong with Nisioisin’s writing style at the moment, while also showing us how little Shinbo has really progressed since his earlier works.
Now, Shinbo has been involved with numerous series that were both well produced, while also being entertaining to watch, although if we look at the list of anime that he has been involved with, what stands out is how good his earlier work was compared to more recent series. Tsukuyomi: Moon Phase, Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, and Arakawa Under the Bridge are but a few of the series that this director has been involved with. All of them have his particular style and way of directing, but what is important is that they all help to demonstrate what he can achieve when given the chance. His visual style and way of directing helps to produce a fascinating aesthetic that largely owes its existence to the lack of money that these earlier series had during their production process. By using visual tricks with a highly stylised animation style that was brought to these projects by Shaft we are given a fascinating glimpse into strange and magical worlds that are both realistic, while also maintaining an essential element of fantasy. Such series are clever in the way the animation is used to tell the story, along with good dialogue and interesting characters, things that his later collaborations with Nisioisin lack. The Monogatari franchise, with the possible exception of the Senjougahara arc in Bakemonogatari arguably demonstrate what happens when Shinbo doesn’t have any barriers, they are visually stunning, but largely empty and devoid of real substance.
Nekomonogatari is perhaps the apex of this particular visual style, an OVA film that entirely focuses on the sexual delusions of Araragi and shows us Shinbo’s inability to really tell a story, something that is only reinforced by Nisioisin’s horribly pretentious dialogue. The female characters are there purely for fanservice, with Hanekawa never really appearing properly while the camera stays firmly fixed on her breasts. In away we are following the view of Araragi the central character that spends his whole life within these books generally being perverted and sexually harassing every girl he comes across. In Bakemonogatari we have the fascinating and immensely strong character of Senjougahara to control Araragi’s obvious lust for the other sex, she is the anchor in his life and her strong and forceful personality makes the first arc really rather interesting. But from then on, and throughout the second series Nisemonogatari we are introduced to numerous other female characters, all apparently tailored to fit with Araragi’s many fetishes. The way Shinbo’s camera focuses almost exclusively on the female body, taking in their breasts, the butt, their legs, and necks further reinforce the true focus of these series. Nekomonogatari takes it one step further with Araragi spending the majority of this OVA film talking to a nekomusume (catgirl) in her lingerie for no obvious reason. It has to be said of course that Shinbo and Shaft certainly know how to direct these sorts of scenes, and the female characters in the various Monogatari series are all incredibly sexy and very sensual.
But therein lies one of the main flaws of this and other series, they female character are simply there for sex appeal and the camera spends most of its time fixated on their sensual bodies while Nisoisin’s terribly pretentious and often highly insulting dialogue put over the top for no apparent reason. What is so fascinating about the Monogatari franchise however is how unoriginal it is, with the various themes of one guy and his harem of increasingly sexy girls appearing in many other anime. If we make comparisons between the Monogatari franchise and series such as Highschool DxD, Sora no Otoshimono, or even the more recent Onii-chan Dakedo Ai Sae Areba Kankeinai ya ne, we see very little difference within the central themes of one male protagonists, and many beautiful girls. Even in terms of the supernatural there are few differences, although the Monogatari franchise does explore elements linked to Shintoism, at least on a superficial level. But they are essentially very similar, however, while series such as Highschool DxD are dismissed as otaku pandering and empty, the Monogatari franchise has been hoisted up as an example of something akin to art, which is rather baffling considering their similarities. Admittedly, the animation and stylised aesthetic of Shinbo and Shaft’s Monogatari franchise certainly adds something extra that the other series lack.
We then get onto Nisioisin and his frankly terrible dialogue, dialogue that is pretentious, and thinks that it is far more intelligent than it really is. The Monogatari franchise is littered with entire sections of dialogue that have little or no meaning, and examples of someone debating subjects that they arguably don’t really understand. The dialogue is wooden, pretentious and largely insignificant, which is pretty damaging when the Monogatari franchise is almost entirely dialogue with Shinbo’s usual visual trickery. These series often come down to a sequence of dialogue that could arguably be don’t in half the time and with less beating around the bush. These series, and in particular Nekomonogatari are made significantly worse by Shinbo’s visual tricks that seem to do their best to distract the viewer for no apparent reason. Nekomonogatari largely represents Nisioisin’s main flaw in that he spends half the time involved in what can only be described as ‘intellectual masturbation’, with dialogue that think it is far more intellectual and deep than it actually is. Now, this doesn’t mean that he cannot write good dialogue, with Katanagatari standing as the sole example of Nisioisin when he really tries and perhaps has either been given, or has given himself certain boundaries in the process of writing. It is a series where the dialogue makes sense, and while it is still involved in certain intellectual debates, or sophistry, it at least has a clear direction and goal. It is a series where the dialogue has meaning and links to the characters rather than dialogue for dialogues sake.
Part of the problem with Shinbo in particular is that he arguably hasn’t moved forward or progressed from his earlier work, he still relies upon visual tricks, but instead of using them for specific reasons and scenes just uses them because he can. His style is immediately recognisable, but has steadily become more irrelevant to the series he is working on, and instead of being interesting now seems to be more of a distraction and a case of him messing with visuals purely because he can. The distraction that his current style adds is further enhanced by his apparent inability to actually tell stories, something that is only exacerbated by his collaborations with Nisioisin, who also seems unable to write an actual story. Nisioisin writes light novels that are entirely dialogue, without any real narrative, while Shinbo adapts those same stories into series that lack structure, narrative and progression. Nekomonogatari is effectively the Apex of this problem with a lack of any real story or narrative, and with Shinbo focussing almost exclusively on catgirls in lingerie, or Hanekawa’s breasts. Now, considering the other series that Shinbo has been involved with, we already know that he can tell stories, but this may be largely down to the other staff involved with these past projects. With the right people in place, along with clearly defined boundaries, Shinbo’s style and aesthetic can be used to its fullest, thus producing fascinating and engrossing anime. However, without those clearly defined boundaries we get the Monogatari franchise, a franchise that spends the majority of its time focussed on naked or half naked girls, accompanied by pretentious and frankly terrible dialogue.
Shinbo and Nisioisin have made their names with this particular style, and particularly in the case of Shinbo we see his style employed in the creation of Madoka, one of the most successful series ever, apparently (can’t say I really enjoyed Madoka mind you, but that is another matter entirely). The problem seems to be that he has become stuck with this particular style, and while it was clearly very different and quite unique for anime at the time (similar styles have been used long before Shinbo in some western animation) it has slowly become stale and boring, but Shinbo cant seem to change or adapt. In part this may partly be due to the incredibly success that Shaft with Shinbo as their director of choice have gained, so it is at least understandable why they wouldn’t want to change what has clearly been a winning formula. The problem arrases when we take Shinbo’s particular style and add Nisioisin’s horribly pretentious dialogue, with Nekomonogatari, and arguably the entire Monogatari franchise as the inevitable conclusion. Where once his style was used to save money and produced a fascinating aesthetic, it is now little more than a distraction, and a very boring one at that. This style and dialogue are largely used because the author and director can, they have no boundaries or financial constraints and arguably instead of trying to do something different and interesting stick with their tired and unfortunately successful formula to produce series that revel in the numerous half naked women and girls on show. Nekomonogatari in particular is a classic example of dialogue that is entirely meaningless and directing without direction; to make matters worse it is also an OVA film that truly believes it is being clever and profound.
I feel that Nekomonogatari and its complete lack of substance is the inevitable conclusion of Shinbo and Nisioisin’s works, it represents everything that is wrong with the way they approach anime and writing, at least in their current forms, and demonstrates that while they have had some good ideas early on, neither has really learned, and simply copied what made them successful in the first place without ever trying to change or experiment. This style of directing and writing only ever worked for specific projects, but I have slowly become sick of seeing Shinbo’s style in anime, largely because it now seems more a case of visual tricks for the sake of visual tricks. If we look at other series that incorporate interesting animation styles like Tasogare Otome x Amnesia, and the sadly disappointing C³ we see anime series that use visual tricks and style for particular reasons, that further enhances their story, at least in the case of Tasogare Otome x Amnesia. By sticking solely to a particular visual style and way of directing Shinbo demonstrates how one-dimensional he is as a director, along with his apparent inability or unwillingness to change or adapt.
There are moments in the works of Shinbo and Nisioisin where we do see what they could be capable of; unfortunately the existence of Nekomonogatari suggests that the direction they are going in isn’t a particularly good one. They certainly have an eye for sexy individuals and the presentation of girls in lingerie as if it was art, but I am now sick of their visual style and the horrible pretentiousness that the series and stories they work on currently have. Unfortunately for me, these particular ways of working only ever worked for a brief moment and in a few specific series, since then I have grown tired of the way they present and create anime and stories, with Nekomonogatari as the inevitable conclusion. As an OVA film it represents the creative dead end that they have reached (at least in their current forms), and an incredibly boring one at that, which unfortunately has carried forward into Shinbo’s latest work Sasami-san@Ganbaranai that has the emotional and intellectual depth of a puddle.