Spend enough time with anime, manga, or JRPG video games, and you’ll encounter the seven secrets of the school, a set of mysteries used to awe transfer students. Upon further investigation, each of these secrets is usually revealed to be nothing more than an exaggerated rumor or a strange trick of sound and light. But sometimes the mysteries conceal actual oddities, like the cat spirit who possessed a class representative or the ghost of a fifth-grader who keeps people from going home. Rarer still, these mysteries can thrust themselves your way, as high school student Koyomi Araragi finds out when he catches a falling girl only to find that she has no weight in his arms.
Thus begins Bakemonogatari (in English, Monster Tale), the first of twenty-two light novels by Nisioisin known as the Monogatari series. The stories of Monogatari follow the adventures of Koyomi Araragi, a former vampire and a miserable washout of a student who must deal with the supernatural entities known as aberrations that are drawn to his life. As he confronts the spirits, ghosts, monsters, and gods that afflict the people around him, Koyomi must also help the afflicted come to terms with the wounds in their lives that draw these aberrations like flies. Previously serialized in Japan by Mephisto magazine, Bakemonogatari collects five supernatural mysteries, each one named for the heroine that Koyomi encounters and the animal that represents the aberration affecting her. In December 2016, the first volume of this popular light novel, Bakemonogatari: Monster Tale, Part 01, was made available in English for the first time, presenting the first two tales, “Hitagi Crab” and “Mayoi Snail.”
After Koyomi catches the weightless Hitagi Senjogahara at the start of “Hitagi Crab,” he investigates further into Hitagi’s situation, asking her former classmates about her past. To guard her secrets, Hitagi threatens Koyomi with a box cutter and a stapler to his mouth, but a strange mention of a crab prompts Koyomi to insist on helping her regain her missing scale-weight. Hitagi finally relents after Koyomi demonstrates the supernatural healing that remains from his short time as a vampire. He introduces Hitagi to Meme Oshino, the man who had rescued Koyomi from his vampire master. Oshino had also helped free a classmate from a cat possessing her. A specialist in aberrations, Oshino identifies the source of Hitagi’s affliction as a Crab of Weight, one of the eight million gods of Shinto. To free Hitagi of her curse, however, Oshino says that she must confront the issues in her past that caused her to make a pact with the crab god. He can help her, but only Hitagi can save herself…
A couple weeks later, a set of chance meetings on Mother’s Day set the events of “Mayoi Snail” in motion. Hitagi and Koyomi stumble into each other at the park. While Hitagi tries to flirt with an utterly clueless Koyomi, he notices a lost child wearing a snail-like backpack wandering through the park. After a sharp-tongued introduction, Mayoi Hachikuji allows Koyomi and Hitagi to help her. She calls herself a lost snail, and can’t find her way home. But after hours of wandering through the park, Koyomi wonders if an aberration is affecting Mayoi. He sends Hitagi to find Oshino, and waits with Mayoi for Hitagi to return with the identity of the aberration.
“Hitagi Crab” is both a supernatural mystery and the story of a girl coming to grips with her past. While Nisioisin’s celebrated wordplay explains why a crab might have the power to take away Hitagi’s weight, (kani, or crab, is similar to kami, or god), the heart of the story is the confrontation of demons, literal and personal. Following Lester Dent’s classic pulp formula, after catching the reader’s attention with Hitagi’s weightlessness, “Hitagi Crab” piles twists and stakes ever higher onto Koyomi’s shoulders, until he convinces Hitagi to challenge her cursed crab god. It is exciting to see pulp techniques used in a time and culture utterly different from 1930s Depression Era Chicago, and the mounting apprehension fostered by the pulp plot creates a roller-coaster that whisks the reader through the story towards the inevitable punchline at the end.
The wheels, however, come off in “Mayoi Snail,” as the wordplay overwhelms everything, leaving the story bloated in an exercise in cleverness. Wordplay is essential to the plot, as it reveals the identity of who is keeping Mayoi from returning to her home. Furthermore, Hitagi, Koyomi, and Mayoi pepper their dialogue with word games that can grow tedious. Some of Hitagi’s flirtations recall the days where cleverness with poetic language was more desirable than a fair face. “Mayoi Snail” gives them plenty of opportunity to attempt cleverness while Koyomi and Mayoi wait for Hitagi’s return. While the twist at the end overturns the reader’s understanding of the previous scenes, “Mayoi Snail” best sets up the growing dread surrounding Tsubasa Hanekawa, a supporting character in both Part 01 stories who will become the heroine of Bakemonogatari‘s final volume.
The onmyodo magic underpinning the mysteries of Bakemonogatari depends on wordplay, as does much of Nisioisin’s humor. Sometimes this wordplay can be easily rendered into English. Other times, it must be allowed to fall by the wayside. (Monster Tale, the English translation of Bakemonogatari, lacks the portmanteau found in the Japanese, formed from bakemono, monster, and monogatari, story. No suitable English equivalent has been found.) Ko Ransom, as the hand-picked translator, navigates the neologisms and wordplay admirably. Care was taken to ensure that Bakemonogatari works as an English language story. The excessive Japanese that marks fan translations and even many professional anime and manga translations will not be found here. Sharp-eyed anime fans might catch references to Full Metal Alchemist, Read or Die, and Dragon Ball, but the pop culture references are subdued so that a new reader can understand the story without confusion. What at first glance might come off as a translation misstep, such as Koyomi’s attempt to use smelt and melt to express the same romantic image, can instead be treated as his clumsy attempt to impress a pretty girl.
Bakemonogatari is one of the most ambitious light novels to be translated into English, thriving in a strange intersection between pop culture, pulp mystery, and prose experimentation that can only occur outside of mainstream English-language publishing. As such, it is an example of what genre fiction might become. But for those just looking for a good read, Bakemonogatari: Monster Tale, Part 01 delivers a supernatural mystery worthy of Weird Tales with “Hitagi Crab.”