(This is the second of two articles focusing on Bakemonogatari volume 1, which was the Open Forum title for the past month. In this post, Justus and I will compare this book with the prequel novel Kizumonogatari.)
Cho: Nisio Isin is one of the better-known light novel authors out there, and for the most part I’ve enjoyed the works of his that have gotten English releases. Perhaps what I like most about this author is his willingness to experiment. Zaregoto volume 1 was quite different from Death Note: Another Note (one of the first LNs I ever read), Zaregoto volume 2 was quite different from Zaregoto volume 1, Kizumonogatari was quite different from the Zaregoto books, and–to my surprise (though in hindsight, it shouldn’t have been)–Bakemonogatari turned out quite different from Kizumonogatari.
I decided to make a chart comparing the two books:
|Kizumonogatari||Bakemonogatari (vol 1)
|three-act structure||short vignettes|
|a more action-driven plot||primarily a long series of conversations|
|high stakes||comparatively low stakes|
|primarily external conflicts||primarily internal conflicts|
|(relatively) sympathetic characters||(relatively) unsympathetic characters|
|a protagonist to root for — “zero to hero”||protagonist less developed — a PoV “insert”|
|active protagonist (does things)||passive protagonist (reacts to things)|
|unusual dialogue as a “spice”||unusual dialogue as “the meal”|
|there are clear villains||no villains, really|
As you can see, Bakemonogatari was the much less conventional of the two volumes. This is understandable, given how the series apparently first began as short stories published in a magazine called Mephisto. If I were to pick something that is actually similar between the two books though (other than Nisio Isin’s style of prose), it would probably be the general atmosphere of the stories, which blends absurd and lowbrow comedy with dark and somber character drama. Bake and Kizu are quite different in terms of plot, but they at least feel like they’re part of the same world.
Rather than write about what I think was good or bad about the author’s approach to each book, I think what I’d like to hone in on is what seems to be the author’s actual aim for the two stories. From what I can tell, Bakemonogatari‘s first stories are primarily about establishing the premise Nisio Isin came up with: a high school boy helps out various girls afflicted by supernatural forces that (mainly) only he is aware of. It’s more or less a mash-up of a familiar visual novel setup and a familiar manga setup (SEE: every story with the special protagonist who sees spirits, monsters, etc). In other words, Bakemonogatari feels almost like a writing exercise–a chance for Nisio Isin to play around with a concept and see what happens. This is more or less what he admits to in the afterward of the book, actually. “All I wanted to do was write a fun novel crammed full of stupid exchanges, and these tales are what happened when I did exactly that.” (And then he promises the next volume will have “even stupider exchanges,” amusingly.)
Though I wasn’t thrilled by this storytelling format, it’s clear that a lot of people enjoyed all those stupid exchanges. But even then, it seems Nisio Isin realized that maybe it would be worthwhile to go back and establish the setting of Monogatari a little bit, and give us a clear idea who this Araragi fellow we’re following around is supposed to be. And perhaps that’s why I feel Kizu was a much stronger story? It’s a little difficult to compare fairly to be honest, since the two books are so different in scope and perhaps even genre. But while Bake may be more representative of what Nisio Isin intends for the series as a whole, I feel that Kizu much more effectively got across the protagonist’s character and motivations, and (to put it bluntly) made a lot more sense.
In the end you have to be the judge of what worked for you and what didn’t, but I do think it’s interesting to step back and try to pin down what it was the author was going for in each of these stories. If Bake was about giving readers something completely different, Kizu seems to be about putting the abnormality of Bake into some kind of perspective.
Justus: Before I begin, let me make something clear: the basis for this article is conjecture and educated guesses. I haven’t spoken personally with Nisio Isin or the publishers involved.
In Japan, Kizumonogatari was the third novel released in the Monogatari series, even though chronologically it was the first. Cho has demonstrated the vast differences between Kizumonogatari and Bakemonogatari. Given Nisio Isin’s propensity to play with formats and words, it isn’t too surprising he would choose to use his created Monogatari world differently in a separate story. In some ways, I would argue a prequel introduced later was the perfect way to do this. Readers knew the story’s outcome, so it was the novel’s content and form that would surprise them.
So why did the English release give us Kizu first? Vertical’s official statement was they were advised to do so by the Japanese publisher, which may be the entire truth. But I would suggest it came down to two other factors, marketability and money. Even if I’m totally wrong, I’m going to delve into some points I think fans don’t consider enough. It’s a natural instinct to believe if we love something, others will love it also. To existing lovers of Monogatari, printing the books is akin to printing money. But publishers can’t afford to be so passionate, even if they are also fans.
Fans don’t think of these series in dollars, except for the ones we’ve spent ourselves. I think sometimes we fail to realize there are other people’s livelihoods on the line. To get a book from Japan requires licensing fees, author royalties, translation costs, marketing, paying for rights for artwork, and finally printing. It’s a massive financial burden. And just because an anime is popular, that doesn’t mean the fanbase wants to read the book. One misstep could mean the end of jobs or entire companies.
Let’s consider Kizu based on Cho’s analysis. It’s a far more marketable novel than Bake, especially for North American audiences. And before you get angry, saying anime/manga/LN fans are better than that, consider this: publishers aren’t doing this just for you. They want this book to reach as many people as possible. They want this to be the book others feel they can recommend to friends. Hell, I put it down as one of my recommendations for people new to light novels! But I wouldn’t do the same with Bake. Kizu is the perfect gateway to Nisio Isin. It has his characteristic wordplay, but the structure and characters are far more palatable to non-LN readers. I’d go so far as to say Kizu is a great read even for those who aren’t into manga or anime.
In addition to its marketability, Kizu comes with another benefit: it’s only one book. If Kizu bombed, Vertical didn’t have to pick up any more of the Monogatari books. Kizu has a satisfying enough end it could’ve finished there. But if Vertical started with Bake, and it tanked, they’d have to either print a second book at a loss, or risk backlash by dropping the series. Why do you think it took until late February for the Bake license to be announced? I’d hazard a guess it was due to Vertical waiting to see Kizu‘s preorders and initial sales.
Also, from the Japanese perspective, getting international audiences interested in Kizu just before the release of theatrical adaptations probably didn’t hurt either. Aniplex announced their acquisition of English rights the same month Vertical’s edition released. I have to wonder if the novel being in English helped that transaction along.
Even as a reader, I’m glad I read Kizu first. To have the ending ruined because of Bake would’ve been disappointing. And Bake leaves little to the imagination regarding Kizu’s story in general. As readers, we experienced Araragi’s first foray into this world with fresh eyes (for those of us who weren’t existing fans).
Given that we now have Bakemonogatari, and the release of Nisemonogatari is on the horizon, it would seem printing Kizu first was a win-win for everyone involved.