Nekomonogatari: Cat Tale (Black)

By NISIOISIN. Released in Japan by Kodansha. Released in North America by Vertical, Inc. Translated by Ko Ransom.

I had to reread my review of the Tsubasa Cat volume to make sure I didn’t repeat myself, as this book goes over a lot of the same ground that one did, even as it expands (and sometimes contradicts, as Nisio says himself in the afterword) on the story of Tsubasa Hanekawa and Golden Week. Indeed, it’s still not done, and Hanekawa’s tale will continue (and, for the most part, conclude) with Nekomonogatari (White) next time. But while Tsubasa Cat was more showing off Hanekawa’s stress due to her repressed love for Araragi, and ensuing jealousy at all the women in his life, particularly Senjogahara, this volume wants to examine what Hanekawa is like as a person, and how deeply screwed up and damaged she really is. And I’d also argue it’s even more about Araragi and Hanekawa’s deep-seated lust and passion for each other which never does blossom into anything more. This volume shows off why that’s probably a good thing.

The trend of “the heroine of the previous volume has a long scene with Araragi at the start of the following one” ends here (unless you count Hanekawa following herself), but man, what a way to bring it to a close. The conversation between Araragi and Tsukihi at the start of the volume may be the most rambling, pointless conversation in the history of the series, and that’s really saying something. It has such a reputation that Vertical actually sell it in the cover leaf copy. It is almost precisely one-quarter of the entire book. I don’t think it disappoints, though as always with Monogatari you’d better be prepared for some fanservice. The siblings’ conversation about love was used in the anime, but the conversation had to be cut to the absolute minimum – meaning the long dissertation taking in Anne of Green Gables, panties, more panties, and still more panties was left out. There’s also even more metatextual stuff than before – this was inevitable given that he wrote this as the anime was becoming really popular, but we get cute narrative mentions of Senjogahara, Hachikuji, and Kanbaru (who aren’t in the book, this taking place before the events of the main series) as well as Tsukihi saying, in response to a bad impersonation by her brother, that her voice sounds more like Yuka Iguchi.

As for the main plot, we’ve seen the prologue to it in Tsubasa Cat. Hanekawa was hit by her step-step-father – and the narrative makes it clear he really belted her, to the point where she hit the opposite wall – and subsequently, along with Araragi, buried a dead cat lying by the road. This ends up getting her possessed by an Afflicting Cat, which goes about “relieving her stress” by beating her parents nearly to death, cutting off Araragi’s arm, and going on a spree of draining energy from the town’s residents. The gimmick here is that in reality, it’s Hanekawa who is more of an aberration than the Afflicting Cat ever was, and the synthesis of the two of them has made her so powerful that even Meme Oshino (still around, this being a flashback volume) gets the crap beaten out of him. This is interesting as a look into Hanekawa’s broken psyche, though I found it less appealing when Oshino tries to excuse her abusive parents by saying she’s essentially asking for it. And Araragi’s solution, as one might expect, is overly violent and lethal to him, and doesn’t really achieve anything whatsoever except a temporary fix. But at least, in the end, he’s able to realize that repressing his love for Hanekawa is the right thing to do for both of them. Because trust me, he’s lying like a rug about not loving her. At least at this point in the series.

This is the end of the “first series” of Monogatari, and the next few books have a few minor but significant changes. The most obvious being the narrative voice. Next time we’ll see the White side of Nekomonogatari, which resolves Hanekawa’s story with her own first-person narration, and is also the first “Araragi-lite” book. Till then, enjoy the Black side, which is not only Araragi-heavy, but a heavy book in general. It’s depressing to see how screwed up everyone in it is. Honestly, Senjogahara will end up being the most well-adjusted of the cast once she comes along.

Nisemonogatari: Fake Tale, Vol. 2

By NISIOISIN. Released in Japan by Kodansha. Released in North America by Vertical, Inc. Translated by James Balzer.

Despite being almost as long as the first in this series, Karen Bee, the second Nisemonogatari book, Tsukihi Phoenix, only got adapted into four episodes for the anime. As you can imagine, therefore, there’s a lot of content that got omitted or severely cut in order to fit it into the timeframe, particularly in the first half of the volume. As such, anime fans will find much to enjoy here. In particular, I think they’ll be amused at Araragi’s description of Senjogahara post-Karen Bee, who he describes as no longer caustic and sharp-tongued at all but now sweet and devoted, and how all of her formerly cruel and spiteful actions (which, let’s face it, the reader is aware were broken attempts at flirting) are replaced with normal girlfriend responses. Anime fans may be wondering what the heck happened, since the next time we meet Senjogahara in the series she’s still much the same.

In fact, Nisioisin seems a bit conflicted about the series getting turned into an anime – there’s a sense he tries to take things too far here in order to avoid having the anime continue, though obviously that didn’t work. Nisemonogatari has a reputation for being the sleaziest of the series, though, and it’s not inaccurate. Most of that reputation comes from this volume, which features the now infamous “toothbrush scene”, where Araragi and his sister Karen have a bet that he can’t brush her teeth for five minutes without her crying out. It’s obviously meant to suggest sex, and in particular incest, which earlier in the book Araragi had been mocking himself. Several times in the book he says that he feels no sexual desire towards his sisters before doing something sexual to them (he later steals Tsukihi’s first kiss, which horrifies her). Araragi is becoming a somewhat unreliable narrator, to be honest, though we won’t really see how much till later books in the series with other character’s narration.

This volume features his “younger younger sister” Tsukihi, who so far has been defined mostly by her temper and her mood swings, which we certainly get plenty of here. It’s also a good introduction to her personality in another sense – Araragi notes that Karen is the one with the actual sense of justice, while Tsukihi “just likes to run wild”, and it’s true – she tends to go along with what others do rather than making her own firm choices. The reader may wonder how much this ties in with the main plot, which suggests that – surprise, surprise – Tsuhiki is not who she seems. In the end, though, this book is about family in the good ways as well, which means that it’s not just about suggestive incest but also about loving your family even if they’re not what you thought they were – and Araragi, as a human who still retains vampiric powers, should know about that. Here he goes up against Kagenui, a “specialist” like Meme Oshino who specializes in eradication, and Yotsugi, a deadpan reanimated corpse who is her assistant. We’ll see a lot more of Yotsugi, not so much of Kagenui.

Speaking of Yotsugi, we can briefly talk translation. The issues are much the same as Karen Bee – dagnabbit mad is still there, and it’s still really annoying, but it didn’t appear as much as I feared. Tsuhiki also sounds like Yosemite Sam when she catches Araragi and Karen brushing teeth, but that’s more clearly deliberate comedy, and the anime watcher likely heard the heavy ‘fake accent’ she was using then, so it makes more sense. As for Kagenui, she too uses a fake, overdone accent, but it’s subtler, and the translator seems to go with “old-time Northern England”. It doesn’t jar much at all, and reminds me how much anime subtitles tend to gloss over accents. Speaking of which, Shinobu still sounds old-timey, as she always does, whether she’s Kiss-Shot or no.

Overall, I was quite pleased with this volume, a few issues aside. It also does sort of feel like he was trying to wrap up the series once more, but he failed again, and now tells us he has two more stories after this to write, about Hanekawa and Hachikuji. In fact, the Hanekawa story grew so large it got split into its own two-part book. Stay tuned for Nekomonogatari Black in November, when we FINALLY see what happened Golden Week.

Nisemonogatari: Fake Tale, Vol. 1

By NISIOISIN. Released in Japan by Kodansha. Released in North America by Vertical, Inc. Translated by James Balzer.

The afterword of this volume of the Monogatari series says that Nisioisin never intended for it to be published, but just wrote it for his own amusement. I hate to call an author a liar, but just reading the text of this first volume of Nisemonogatari makes me think he’s full of it. The book is filled with efforts to make this short series into a much longer one, adding onto running gags and deconstructing them, taking existing characterization and flipping it on its head or making it more ominous, setting the stage for new plot points to be carried over to future books, and the endless references to the fact that the books recently had an anime greenlit, right after the first set of books kept joking about the idea of the characters being in an anime. Nisemonogatari’s metatext is thick. Fortunately, its text is also good, showing off Araragi’s sisters, and how they’re far more like him than he’s comfortable with.

Fitting given that he has two sisters, the Nisemonogatari series is split into two books, and this is the first one, Karen Bee. Karen is his “older younger sister”, and is almost the definition of ‘dumb muscle’, a karate black belt devoted to justice and righting wrongs who seems to forget that she’s just in middle school and that actual villains can run rings around her. She’s a nice kid, but you can see why Nisioisin spent so much time re-introducing the rest of Bakemonogatari’s cast; there’s just not enough in her to justify the 300 pages or so that this book consists of. We also get a better glimpse at Tsukihi, the “younger younger sister”, who Nisio is clearly far more fond of writing, mostly as she’s able to go toe-to-toe with her older brother in the only battle that really counts in any works by this author: wordplay. Tsukihi’s mood swings and temper tantrums will be looked at in more depth in the following book.

As for the rest of the cast, again, they’re shifting from “this is a series of short stories, each about a different girl” to “this is a long-running series that will have several books after this. That doesn’t change the fact that Araragi and Senjogahara are still a couple – indeed, some of the best scenes in the book feature the two of them. But we see that Hanekawa and Senjogahara have clearly had “a chat” in between books, and that – despite Sensjogahara’s attempts to exaggerate it in order to make us dismiss it – there is clearly major tension between them. Possibly because, as Kanbaru states midway through the book, Araragi and Hanekawa are the more obvious couple. Hanekawa herself has cut her hair and gotten contacts in order to show she’s moving on from Araragi, but I’m not sure how much I buy it – she’s willing to say she loves him to his face, but it’s not a confession per se.

Oh yes, can’t forget Shinobu, who has finally decided to stop sulking and become the extremely talkative haughty vampire we met in Kizumonogatari, and she’s not going to let looking like an eight-year-old stop her. She gives Araragi a way to discuss oddities now that Oshino has left town – she gives advice on the supernatural, while Mayoi, who is a wandering ghost, ironically gives advice on more down to earth things like love. And Nadeko is here as well, and her fumbling, overly obvious attempts at seducing Araragi (obvious, that is, to everyone except him) show us that she’s not just a shy, blushing girl in love with him. More on that much later. And then there’s Kaiki, one of the most popular characters in the entire series judging by Western fandom. He’s very good at playing the evil villain, and does like to drone on endlessly (as every character in Monogatari does), but there’s a hint that there’s far more to him than that, and I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of him.

You’ll notice that this volume has a new translator (yes, I’ll mention it). Vertical apparently decided, given the aggressive release schedule, to divide the series up into chunks, so James Balzer is doing the Nise series and Ko Ransom will be back with Nekomonogatari Black and White. For the most part, the change is not all that noticeable. The series is well translated (hang on, getting to it), keeping most of the culture references – I was very pleased to see Araragi’s Read or Die comment left in – and adapting the wordplay and Japanese puns so they are mostly not noticeable. And Shinobu sounds like her old-world vampire self – which may come as a surprise to anime watchers, as most subbers decided not to bother translating her into “old school” speech. Two things, though. First, the book keeps the scene where Hanekawa mocks Araragi for using the -chan honorific to refer to his sisters, which seems odd in a series so otherwise aggressively devoted to avoiding honorifics (My Senior, etc.).

The second thing is a bit more egregious. In the original Japanese, Tsukihi says (in English) that she is “Platinum Mad”, which is a take off of puchi and purachina/platinum. She uses the phrase a few times in the series, and the anime turned it into her OP theme song, “Platinum Disco”. It would not be exaggerating to say that when you think of Tsukihi, you think of “Platinum Mad”. The translator, however, decided that since it’s weird Japanese wordplay it had to be changed to weird English wordplay – as he has done throughout the book. So “a bit” becomes “dagnabbit”. There are several issues here. First off, dagnabbit sounds to a Western ear like something Yosemite Sam would say. Secondly, almost no one noticed the wordplay itself, and just saw that “Platinum” had been changed to “Dagnabbit” for no reason (remember, Platinum is IN ENGLISH in the original). Most importantly, though, it seems to show that the people in charge of translating the series for Vertical are translating the books without paying attention to the other media – anime, singles, or the fandom. I get that – these were books first, and you want to make sure that they can also sell to casual readers. But try not to drive the hardcore fans off. Platinum Mad is a meme, fer chrissakes. Dagnabbit Mad just makes Tsukihi sound stupid. Which she very clearly isn’t – intellectually, she’s her brother’s equal.

OK, rant over. Aside from that, I felt the translation was excellent, and I didn’t really notice a major change between Ko and James. More importantly, for anime fans, there’s still a lot of new stuff here – you’d think given that it got adapted into 7 episodes that they didn’t leave much out, but there’s still many extra and lengthened scenes in here that got adapted out. Fans of Araragi and company will want to pick this up, as it’s excellent. Though be prepared to write “platinum” in your copy with ballpoint.