The moment that I realized that the anime I found most comparable to To Aru Majutsu no Index while watching it was Bakemonogatari, I knew that people were going to look at me funny if I told them that without explaining myself, and sure enough, they did. Therefore, I’m explaining myself. I’m going to do this in the form of a compare and contrast – I will take each key element of the storytelling in these shows and then prattle on about how each series is alike (or different) in that regard.
Starting with the central element of either story, the male lead. Ordinarily, it would be no surprise to find similarities in the male leads of two anime, seeing as most of them are pretty generic, however the leads in these two shows are more alike in their abnormality. In both stories, the main character is an extremely nice guy with a penchant for helping people, but doing so in a largely nonchalant way. Both of them have strong moral bases, but seem to find the fact that they have to help people all the time troublesome. Araragi often wonders how he got himself surrounded by such strange people and events, and Touma has pretty much gotten used to a life where stuff like this is always happening (to where he’s developed the catchphrase ‘Fukou da!’ meaning ‘such misfortune!’).
However, in spite of both of them having constant pains in the ass, neither ever believes that there is a reason not to help someone. They both jump right into danger without even a second thought to how strange it might be to help a person in these situations, and they quickly get themselves very involved. The female characters closest to them in both stories often make fun of the guys for always saving various beautiful women, and many consider it a fault of theirs. Nevertheless, it is quite clear that both leads are bound to involve themselves in much future danger and help many more people, regardless of negative consequences on their personal lives, just because they are compelled to do so.
Perhaps what sets these two apart the most, though, is that both of them are far from normal people, and in fact may be one of the strongest forces in the stories they belong to. Past events have made Araragi into a part-vampire, granting him some supernatural abilities, and his experiences have acquired him a network of people who can help in all sorts of weird situations. Meanwhile, Touma was born with an incredible power like no other that makes him a valuable force, and as he gets into more situations thanks to his natural desire to get involved, he builds more and more connections until rumors begin to spread about a ‘Touma faction’ made up of the various people with emotional debt to him. Furthermore, thanks to losing his memories at the end of the first arc (book 1, ep 6), Touma believes himself to possibly be a person who has always been involved in these strange situations, which makes him, like Araragi, more accepting and understanding of unnatural situations.
The over-arching plots of Bakemonogatari and Index are where they differ most, if just because Index contains more of a supernatural action element on which it builds a complex world, while Bakemonogatari builds it’s world on supernatural mystery. In both cases, the plot exists mostly to further character development, and as I explained in my last post, they both feature a sense of cosmical enormity. In both stories, the plot happens a lot behind the scenes, or has been developed in the past and only trickles out into the current situations (especially true for Bakemonogatari.) I think the biggest difference in the plots is simply that Bakemonogatari is less of an ongoing narrative (more a series of coincidentally connected stories), whereas Index is intent on being a large-scale universe-building story along the lines of the Boogiepop franchise (after all, there are already 20 books in the Index series. AND IT’S ONLY BEEN AROUND SINCE 04, GOD DAMN JAPANESE PRODUCTIVITY!)
Perhaps the most obvious similarity between Bakemonogatari and Index is the structure of the two series. Each one features a very definitive arc structure following the breaks in the novels, and they are presented the exact same way. At the start of each arc, things are business as usual, until a girl shows up before the male lead. Over the course of the first episode or two, we learn about some kind of potentially dangerous situation or mystery surrounding the girl, and depending on how far we are in the series and who the new character is, select characters from the other arcs may be involved (for instance, Kanbaru happens to be Araragi’s accompaniment for the Nadeko Snake arc, or in Index, Kaori Kanzaku and Motoharu Tsuchimikado accompany Touma during the Angel Fall arc.)
Some kind of insane truth/power is revealed (Kanbaru has juggernaut strength, Misaka has 20,000 clones, etc.) and there are some plot twists that turn the characters’ perception of how to deal with the problem on their head (Senjougahara admits she can’t see Mayoi, Touma find out his dad might be behind Angel Fall). In the end, the character and the people assisting them will come up with a clever or badass method of taking out the problem (Touma lets his own arm get cut off to scare the fuck out of a reality-shifter and make him turn his powers on himself, Araragi uses his vampire powers to allow himself to get the ever-loving shit beat out of him, etc.) In the end, the female will become another member of the male lead’s posse/harem and will learn that they have friends that they can turn to. And at some point in later arcs, they will show up to help save the day.
Being as light novels are primarily aimed at a young adult/otaku audience, it is no surprise to find that the characters in Bakemonogatari and Index come heavily from the school of ‘moe trait’ characterization. However, what is also important is that because these series are so squarely aimed at that audience, they also know how to do these things right and create characters that are wholly interesting. In either series, it would be easy to point to a character and rattle off a few of the tropic traits that help to make them up (Hyouka/Nadeko: Quiet but strong-willed girl who makes you root for them, Kuroko/Kanbaru: Energetic and slightly frightening lesbian, Mikoto/Hitagi: Intelligent and playful yet guarded and wounded girl, Index/Mayoi: Childlike and self-centered but good-natured and adorable loli, Komoe/Tsubasa: Informational support who has a history with the main character and vague feelings for them, Aisa/Shinobu: largely silent background character who comes in to help sometimes after the past events they had with lead), but even as the characters embody these traits, they go beyond them.
Each character is developed by the fact that the events in their story, no matter how insane, explained, and large-scale, ultimately center on the psyche of the characters, and it is only through the male lead (and us by proxy) learning about them and communicating with them that the story is allowed to progress. We must figure out what emotional baggage or dishonesty (inauthenticity, even) is holding up Senjougahara from getting out of the crab-god’s hold. We must figure out why Misaka seems to be hiding something from us under her facade of stability. Only then can the situation be resolved, and not resolved because we want to save the world, but because we want to see this girl smile once again.
Almost immediately after I stated that Index was a lot like Bakemonogatari on twitter, someone retorted that the latter was different because it had better dialog and character interactions. I won’t go making any statements about one being ‘better’ than the other, but I will say that to me, there was almost no difference in the way dialog was presented in these two series. Many have said that there are too many scenes in Index that focus on expository dialog. Yes, there are a lot of those scenes, but only about as many are there are scenes in Bakemonogatari wherein the characters talk about random observations. I’m not saying all of the conversations in the show were like that or anything, just that it was equal to the expository dialog in Index. I’m also not saying that either option is better than the other, because the purpose of those scenes in both anime is the exact same.
In Bakemonogatari, there may be a lengthy conversation between Araragi and Senjougahara on what kind of character Senjougahara would be if this were an anime (hur hur) and while the topic of the conversation has no real bearing on the story, the purpose of the chat is to teach us about the characters – to have them spill pieces of their thoughts and emotions and to let us start to put together how their minds work and grasp their personalities. The facial expressions, reactions, body languages, actions taken between speech – we gain all of this even though the actual topic is totally superfluous.
The expository scenes in Index are the same. Possibly my favorite example of this is in episode 7 wherein Style Magnus is giving Touma the rundown on the mission they are going to have to do in this arc. All the while, Touma doesn’t want Style to know that he has lost all memories of himself and is trying to feign his own personality. Meanwhile Style acts very chummy towards Touma in spite of constantly reminding him that ‘we aren’t really buddies or anything’ and reassuring him that he’ll probably kill him one day, even though we can’t sense a shred of malintent from his body language and speech. What we know and is driven home about Style in this conversation is that he is very obsessed with his appearance, and even seems to be aware of this – he puts tons of effort into finding the coolest thing to say or way to act, even though he is see-through and hilarious in a way. Touma is kept on his toes the whole time as Magnus is suspect of his reactions to the mission, and this creates a more interesting focus in the wordplay than just the fact of what they are discussing.
Scenes like these are littered through both shows, and while I probably couldn’t tell you half of the silly shit or expositional knowledge that characters discussed, I can damn sure tell you exactly how a conversation with any character from either show would play out.
Aside from the fact that both series feature gorgeously-designed female specimens all across the board, Bakemonogatari and Index feature pretty wildly different visual styles. However, I feel that the visuals in both shows are used to similar purposes, and in both cases it works well. And on top of that statement, I will say that these shows need to be watched in blu-ray to be fully appreciated. Both series are very deliberately animated and stylized towards high-quality video, which is a wise choice in that the audience for the shows is the primary consumer-base for blu-ray DVDs in Japan. I watched both series in jaw-jopping blu-ray and found that it gave me a heavy appreciation for what the visual style was meant to do.
Which is, in essence, to distract the viewer (or to put it more kindly, you could say ‘enhance the viewing experience’). Bakemonogatari is nearly all dialog – however, the incredibly thick visual style keeps every scene interesting and unique and worth revisiting instead of just picking up the novel. After all, if the anime wasn’t visually pleasing, there’d be no real purpose to it’s existence. Bakemonogatari lacks in budget what it makes up for in style, and it has that out the fucking wazoo. Meanwhile, Index, while not bereft of visual style, is supported more by the flare of an incredible budget. The animation quality is nearly always top-notch throughout, and the highly detailed background art, extremely expressive characters, and lavish design sense provide a world that never gets boring no matter how much the characters ramble on, because you’ve always got something to marvel at. Both series use this visual mastery in combination with excellent directing to always entice.
Self-Awareness and Goals
Once again, due largely to the fact that these are light novels aimed at an audience all-too-familiar with the kind of stories presented in them, both of these series get away with being quite self-aware. This is especially true for Bakemonogatari which goes out of it’s way to subvert and lampoon tropic situations and provide references and black comedy around otaku and light novel culture. Index doesn’t take this nearly so far, and mostly carries just a sense of ‘knowing it’s audience’ by purposefully presenting situations and moments familiar to otaku, but doing so in a very tongue-in-cheek way, almost as if giving a shout-out rather than actually considering these moments a part of the story (seeing as they almost never have an actual bearing on it).
The difference in the self-awareness probably has a lot to do with the different goals of the two series as a whole. Bakemonogatari is parodical and referential with great purpose, as the series deliberately wants to subvert it’s genre while embodying it, whereas Index is more straightforward with the intent of honestly creating a large story, but does it without taking itself too seriously and tries to show an understanding of it’s own position.
It’s no surprise at all that these two series are similar because they belong to the same genre, come from the same school of light novels, and are aimed at the same audience. I equally would not be surprised if Index was one of the stories that inspired the concept of Bakemonogatari, as well as would not be surprised if Nisioisin was one of the influences on Index creator Kazuma Kamachi. The world of young adult-oriented moe-stylized mystery-influenced light novels is not a huge one or anything, so it’s not difficult to find traces that tie most of them together.
I don’t think either series is ‘better’ than the other, because I largely feel the exact same way about them. Both have characters whom I love (Kanbaru/Misaka) and adore (Shinobu/Komoe), plots that interest me, and worlds that inspire me, and I want to see both series continued into the future, hopefully through second seasons, though it’d be nice if all the novels get translated as well.