The Monogatari Series and pop art

The Monogatari Series is a very stylized anime, and I don’t just mean that in a visual sense. With its high emphasis on witty, fast paced, often seemingly nonsensical dialogue, unique set design, swift camera cuts and overall adventurous cinematography, one can easily say that it’s a show with a highly distinctive style. While there’s a lot that can be said about the series – from its Tarantino-esque small talk to its clever wordplay and nonstop use of pop culture references – for this time being we’re going to focus on one thing: its peculiar resemblance of the 60s pop art movement.

The similarities between the Monogatari Series and pop art are almost weirdly strong. To begin with, they look very much alike; as we can see in both Monogatari’s set design and the pop art paintings, the usage of strong, more or less calculatingly clear colors, as well as the occasional use of dada-like photo collages, are highly prominent factors, creating a very cut out yet vibrant visual style. In short: they’re both very stylized.

Here are some works by American pop artists:

Warhol, Andy. 'Five Coke Bottles', 1962
Warhol, Andy. ‘Five Coke Bottles’, 1962
Warhol, Andy. 'Marilyn Diptych', 1962
Warhol, Andy. ‘Marilyn Diptych’, 1962
Ruscha, Edward. 'Standard Station', 1963
Ruscha, Edward. ‘Standard Station’, 1963
Rosenquist, James. part of 'F-111', 1964-1965.
Rosenquist, James. part of ‘F-111’, 1964-1965.
Hamilton, Richard. 'Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?', 1956.
Hamilton, Richard. ‘Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?’, 1956.

And here are some screenshots from Bakemonogatari:

bakemonogatari_ep3 bakemonogatari_ep4 bakemonogatari_ep12 bakemonogatari_ep2

The similarities run much deeper than that though; in fact, the two share the exact same aesthetic principles and approach to their respective mediums. To understand this, we first need to do some backstory on what pop art exactly is all about. (To point out, there were two different movements from which pop art originated; one in the UK and one in the US. For this particular study though, we’re going to focus on the latter.)

After the second World War, America was overflowing with resources. Due to the so-called post World War II economic expansion, there was suddenly more than enough money for everybody which rapidly heightened society’s living standards; the consumers consumed more and the producers produced more. It was the dawn of a prosperous economic paradise – the “Golden Age of Capitalism”. Along all this came pop art, which recognized this new culture of mass consumption and applied it to the art gallery. Perhaps it’s necessary to point out that this movement was part of the aftermath of what French artist Marcel Duchamp had started with his readymades back at the beginning of the modernist age. Duchamp had, by simply putting mundane objects into an art environment, challenged both the art institution and the definition of art itself. What pop art essentially did was that they took this idea and expanded it by not only taking things from people’s everyday lives, but from popular culture. To exemplify: while Duchamp exhibited urinals, snow shovels and coatracks, the pop artists exhibited Brillo Boxes and pictures of Coca Cola bottles and celebrities. By incorporating pop culture into the art world, they made “art” into something that could be enjoyed by the everyday man and not just the intellectuals. As the name implies; pop art was commercial art, in other words art for the masses. The thought put into a work of pop art rarely consisted of anything more than this concept – there was no inherent message or deeper underlying meaning, it was just meant to look good. Andy Warhol, the more or less main figure of the American pop art movement, stated in a 1963 interview with Gene Swenson that pop art was about “liking things”. This statement couldn’t more accurately describe what these artists wanted to accomplish; art that was nothing more than aesthetically appealing to the average consumer. Many pop artists – perhaps most notably Warhol with his “Factory” – would often mass produce their works, making them not just tributes to their contemporary consumer culture, but into actual products for people to consume. Neither did the artists see themselves as some higher creative beings alien to the world below them, but only as regular businessmen. Warhol again: “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” The pop artists were all about making money, pop art was all about production and consumption and aesthetic appeal, and there was no shame in that of whatsoever.

So how can all this be compared to the Monogatari Series? Well for starters, the show also very much pays homage to a specific culture, although not the 60s American pop culture, but that of otaku. The Monogatari Series is, at its foundation, not only a harem show, but arguably the most blatant and self-aware harem show known to man. It follows Koyomi Araragi, an 18 year old high school student who, aside from occasionally tampering with demons, vampires and other various supernatural phenomenons, spends most of his days messing around with the show’s large cast of female characters. Each one of these characters have their own distinct personality and clearly cut out traits and attributes, with a “pick your favorite”-factor so strong to the point that their respective character arcs even have their own opening themes. It’s almost as if they were all carefully written by some authentic fashion designer, each being an equally special ingredient to the recipe for an ideal otaku dreamworld. Whether you’re into glasses, lolis, furrys, sadists, kinky lesbians, or even little sisters, Monogatari has it covered.

And then there’s the fan service. Fan service upon fan service upon fan service. But it’s undeniably a special kind of fan service; it’s presented in a way that is 1) cleverly fitting into the show’s visual aesthetic and 2) highly aware of the fans that it’s servicing. In his in-depth analysis of the series, anime blogger and YouTuber Digibro points out how the show’s protagonist Araragi, with his oh so perverted mind, works as a direct stand-in for the regular otaku viewer. Through his eyes, we as the audience are experiencing a highly self-aware male gaze, or as Digibro calls it: the “otaku gaze”. As he writes, this becomes especially apparent in the first arc of the Monogatari Series: Second Season, where Araragi’s role as the protagonist is temporarily replaced by Hanekawa, “revealing what the series might look like through the eyes of someone who isn’t constantly sexualizing all of the female characters.” It becomes even more apparent when Senjougahara asks Hanekawa to take a bath with her, saying: “let’s take a bath for Araragi’s sake.” By doing so, she’s practically telling the audience: “This is what you all want. You’re welcome.”

The general thesis of Digibro’s analysis (which I cannot recommend enough) goes by the name of “Mindful Self-Indulgence” – a term which I think perfectly encapsulates the general attitude of not just the Monogatari Series but of the pop art movement as well; they both recognize the indulgent nature of their respective cultural platforms and turn it up to maximum, while being highly self-aware about it. And just like the pop artists shamelessly acknowledged their participation in the consumer culture that their art was based upon, Monogatari does the exact same thing with otaku culture. At the introduction of his analysis, Digibro writes:

When light novels first started gaining traction in the early to mid-2000s, a lot of them were written by otaku, sort of self-indulgently commenting on the nature of their own fandom–but often twisting and subverting the same indulgent entertainment they were creating. Series like The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya worked almost as a commentary on the typical narrative of otaku media, while straddling the line between embodying those tropes and being a parody of them. What this created was a meta-otaku culture, where the joke itself was pointing out the joke.

This could not be any truer to the Monogatari Series and pop art alike – being a part of and paying tribute to their respective cultures, but doing it to such an extreme degree that they’re borderline parodying the culture in question. Although by this definition, shouldn’t all light novels/adaptations of light novels written by otaku be considered equivalent to pop art? Well no, Monogatari has one special thing that makes it stick out, and that is its (previously mentioned) high emphasis on style and artistic expression. It’s a show that, just like pop art, has each foot in two separate worlds; one being the otaku audience and the other being the more “refined” anime audience – the “art fags”, for a lack of better term. While containing enough fan service and harem tropes for the average otaku viewer to enjoy, it’s also with its alternative style and artistic imagery appealing to the average art student. I’d like to think that the Monogatari Series is at least in some degree weakening the border between anime “snobs” and the otaku audience, being appealing to both sides and, at best, maybe even bringing them together a little bit. Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking.

Side note: Akiyuki Shinbo, the director behind the anime series, can almost be seen as the anime industry’s equivalent to Andy Warhol. Not only are his works recognized for being very stylized and artistic, but he himself has pointed out that he far from sees himself as some high mighty artist. Digibro writes: “Shinbo himself once said that directing is simply a job, and that his job is to please the fans, and I think it would be unfair to say that he’s an auteur creative mind or anything like that.” So just like Warhol, he is someone who’s seen by the general public as an artist driven by creative magic, but sees himself as nothing more than a simple businessman doing his job and pleasing his audience. Granted, he is only the director for the anime adaptation of the Monogatari Series, and is not to be credited for its homage to otaku culture, but I felt like the similarities were strong enough to be worth mentioning.

Although among all these shared characteristics between the two phenomenons, there also exist a few negative aspects. Many have criticized the pop art movement for downright glorifying consumerism, supporting a capitalist society where, to quote contemporary president Jimmy Carter, “human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.” Some critics went even further with this by straight up dismissing the movement as pure commercials set in art galleries. Others argued that it lacked the radically of its modernist predecessors, that it embodied the conventional ideas around art and culture more than challenging them. This raises a lot of dilemmas regarding the Monogatari Series as well; is it just a glorification of the otaku lifestyle, encouraging female objectification and tasteless indulgence? Does it have any artistic value to it, or is it just otaku fetishism shrouded in “style”? Is it radical in any sense or is it just conventionality with an alternative look? To these questions, I have no direct answer, so I choose to leave them open for each viewer to decide.


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