By NISIOISIN. Released in Japan by Kodansha. Released in North America by Vertical, Inc. Translated by James Balzer.
The afterword of this volume of the Monogatari series says that Nisioisin never intended for it to be published, but just wrote it for his own amusement. I hate to call an author a liar, but just reading the text of this first volume of Nisemonogatari makes me think he’s full of it. The book is filled with efforts to make this short series into a much longer one, adding onto running gags and deconstructing them, taking existing characterization and flipping it on its head or making it more ominous, setting the stage for new plot points to be carried over to future books, and the endless references to the fact that the books recently had an anime greenlit, right after the first set of books kept joking about the idea of the characters being in an anime. Nisemonogatari’s metatext is thick. Fortunately, its text is also good, showing off Araragi’s sisters, and how they’re far more like him than he’s comfortable with.
Fitting given that he has two sisters, the Nisemonogatari series is split into two books, and this is the first one, Karen Bee. Karen is his “older younger sister”, and is almost the definition of ‘dumb muscle’, a karate black belt devoted to justice and righting wrongs who seems to forget that she’s just in middle school and that actual villains can run rings around her. She’s a nice kid, but you can see why Nisioisin spent so much time re-introducing the rest of Bakemonogatari’s cast; there’s just not enough in her to justify the 300 pages or so that this book consists of. We also get a better glimpse at Tsukihi, the “younger younger sister”, who Nisio is clearly far more fond of writing, mostly as she’s able to go toe-to-toe with her older brother in the only battle that really counts in any works by this author: wordplay. Tsukihi’s mood swings and temper tantrums will be looked at in more depth in the following book.
As for the rest of the cast, again, they’re shifting from “this is a series of short stories, each about a different girl” to “this is a long-running series that will have several books after this. That doesn’t change the fact that Araragi and Senjogahara are still a couple – indeed, some of the best scenes in the book feature the two of them. But we see that Hanekawa and Senjogahara have clearly had “a chat” in between books, and that – despite Sensjogahara’s attempts to exaggerate it in order to make us dismiss it – there is clearly major tension between them. Possibly because, as Kanbaru states midway through the book, Araragi and Hanekawa are the more obvious couple. Hanekawa herself has cut her hair and gotten contacts in order to show she’s moving on from Araragi, but I’m not sure how much I buy it – she’s willing to say she loves him to his face, but it’s not a confession per se.
Oh yes, can’t forget Shinobu, who has finally decided to stop sulking and become the extremely talkative haughty vampire we met in Kizumonogatari, and she’s not going to let looking like an eight-year-old stop her. She gives Araragi a way to discuss oddities now that Oshino has left town – she gives advice on the supernatural, while Mayoi, who is a wandering ghost, ironically gives advice on more down to earth things like love. And Nadeko is here as well, and her fumbling, overly obvious attempts at seducing Araragi (obvious, that is, to everyone except him) show us that she’s not just a shy, blushing girl in love with him. More on that much later. And then there’s Kaiki, one of the most popular characters in the entire series judging by Western fandom. He’s very good at playing the evil villain, and does like to drone on endlessly (as every character in Monogatari does), but there’s a hint that there’s far more to him than that, and I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of him.
You’ll notice that this volume has a new translator (yes, I’ll mention it). Vertical apparently decided, given the aggressive release schedule, to divide the series up into chunks, so James Balzer is doing the Nise series and Ko Ransom will be back with Nekomonogatari Black and White. For the most part, the change is not all that noticeable. The series is well translated (hang on, getting to it), keeping most of the culture references – I was very pleased to see Araragi’s Read or Die comment left in – and adapting the wordplay and Japanese puns so they are mostly not noticeable. And Shinobu sounds like her old-world vampire self – which may come as a surprise to anime watchers, as most subbers decided not to bother translating her into “old school” speech. Two things, though. First, the book keeps the scene where Hanekawa mocks Araragi for using the -chan honorific to refer to his sisters, which seems odd in a series so otherwise aggressively devoted to avoiding honorifics (My Senior, etc.).
The second thing is a bit more egregious. In the original Japanese, Tsukihi says (in English) that she is “Platinum Mad”, which is a take off of puchi and purachina/platinum. She uses the phrase a few times in the series, and the anime turned it into her OP theme song, “Platinum Disco”. It would not be exaggerating to say that when you think of Tsukihi, you think of “Platinum Mad”. The translator, however, decided that since it’s weird Japanese wordplay it had to be changed to weird English wordplay – as he has done throughout the book. So “a bit” becomes “dagnabbit”. There are several issues here. First off, dagnabbit sounds to a Western ear like something Yosemite Sam would say. Secondly, almost no one noticed the wordplay itself, and just saw that “Platinum” had been changed to “Dagnabbit” for no reason (remember, Platinum is IN ENGLISH in the original). Most importantly, though, it seems to show that the people in charge of translating the series for Vertical are translating the books without paying attention to the other media – anime, singles, or the fandom. I get that – these were books first, and you want to make sure that they can also sell to casual readers. But try not to drive the hardcore fans off. Platinum Mad is a meme, fer chrissakes. Dagnabbit Mad just makes Tsukihi sound stupid. Which she very clearly isn’t – intellectually, she’s her brother’s equal.
OK, rant over. Aside from that, I felt the translation was excellent, and I didn’t really notice a major change between Ko and James. More importantly, for anime fans, there’s still a lot of new stuff here – you’d think given that it got adapted into 7 episodes that they didn’t leave much out, but there’s still many extra and lengthened scenes in here that got adapted out. Fans of Araragi and company will want to pick this up, as it’s excellent. Though be prepared to write “platinum” in your copy with ballpoint.