Last summer Japanese high school student Koyomi Araragi (voiced by Hiroshi Kamiya) survived a vampire attack with the aid of his bosomy, bespectacled classmate Tsubasa Hanekawa (Yui Horie), on whom he has a not-so-secret crush. Now cured, Araragi endeavours to help those with similar supernatural problems assisted by his cute'n' perky kid sisters Karen (Eri Kitamura) and Tsuhiki (Yuka Iguchi). When Araragi and Hanekawa happen upon a dead cat on the street they bury the unfortunate feline without reflecting on the incident. That night Araragi has a violent encounter with a sexy but deadly, lingerie-clad cat girl or Neko. To his horror he realizes it is Hanekawa. Aided by Oshino (Takahiro Sakurai), an affably mysterious occult-know-it-all living in an abandoned building, and Araragi's vampire mentor Shinobu (Maya Sakamoto), a super-powerful yet benign, near-mute bloodsucker who appears as a beautiful little blonde girl, our hero theorizes the vengeful cat spirit is somehow inhabiting Hanekawa's body. Araragi tries to find out how and why this happened but the truth proves even more shocking.
Nekomonogatari Black is a four-part mini-series bridging the gap between Bakemonogatari (2009) and Nisemonogatari (2012). Collectively these make up a vast multimedia franchise that fired the imaginations of anime fans across Japan. A synopsis alone makes this sound like an average fantasy adventure romp. However series creator NisiOisin and director Akiyuki Shinbo, the man behind the genre-redefining magical girl masterpiece Puella Magi Madoka Magica (2011), refashion a familiar-seeming plot into a mind-boggling work of meta-fiction that both parodies and dissects anime as a medium.
Unfolding at an insane breakneck pace, the Monogatari saga changes art styles almost from frame to frame, parodies other famous anime, blurs the lines between fantasy and reality, uses jump-cuts to challenge our concept of time and space, subtitles that reveal characters' thoughts a la Annie Hall (1977), alludes to classical art and consistently draws attention to its own fabricated nature in a manner reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard films like Pierrot le Fou (1965). Characters regularly break the fourth wall to question exactly what kind of scene they are in while the creators also take fan-service (the anime term for T&A) to insane extremes slyly commenting on the very nature of such things. Ever since Studio Gainax's landmark Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995) and existential works such as Serial Experiments Lain (1999), anime has grown increasingly postmodern and esoteric. However, in taking the next logical step into meta-fiction NisiOisin and Akiyuki Shinbo retain a sense of playfulness and fun that explains why, for all its restless experimentation the series has proven so popular.
Obviously something this dense and genre-referential is no entry point for newcomers either to this series or anime in general. The Monogatari saga is anime at its most challenging and confounding, able to inspire and infuriate in equal measure though at its best melding visceral terror with anarchic good humour. As a stand-alone story Nekomonogatari has many choice moments but comes across a trifle cold. Talky and introspective, the serial keeps much of the action off screen with characters arriving at the aftermath. While certain character quirks play better with long-time fans of the saga, Araragi and his friends are an endearing bunch, always attempting to rise above their flaws to do the right thing. Even so the film functions largely as a work of existential horror echoing that sense of urban alienation prevalent in the live action J-horror films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa. The notion that no matter how we try to convince ourselves otherwise, one can never truly know another human being.
Arguably the existence of a spirit world goes against the very root of existentialism. Nonetheless, Nekomonogatari conveys a cynical and deeply unsettling idea that goodness draws evil and in some way, good people deserve to suffer for their virtue. At one point Oshino alarmingly empathizes with the parents of an abused child, arguing Hanekawa's innate goodness exposes the flaws and failings of most ordinary people so perhaps justifies such abuse. Obviously this is a far from palatable concept and happily Araragi does not let things lie there. Yet if a horror story is meant to disturb then surely there is no message more conceptually disturbing than the notion that on some level society welcomes it when good people suffer and die. Yikes.