In the summer of 2009, anime studio Shaft was a little more than a year away from celebrating its 35th anniversary. The studio, founded by Hiroshi Wakao in 1975, had gone from focusing mainly on contract work to collaborating with bigger studios in the early 2000s, eventually producing a number of its own anime series per year. The studio had some success, but it was without that one series that would elevate them beyond middling status. Then came Bakemonogatari.
The first adaptation of writer Nisio Isin (Death Note) and illustrator Vofan’s paranormal harem series, Bakemonogatari ran for 15 episodes starting on July 3, 2009. (Only 12 out of the 15 would air, the last three were later released as OVAs.) The series instantly transformed Shaft from a minor studio to one that would develop a devoted following and garner critical attention. Bakemonogatari was an artistic statement, a full on showcase for what would become known as the “Shaft-style” of anime – a style that was put together by the two people in charge of the series: chief director Akiyuki Shinbo and series director Tatsuya Oishi.
With a work ethic like John Ford and a Tim Burton-esque fascination with gothic imagery, Shinbo is one of the most visionary storyboarders, animators and directors of the past two decades. He joined the industry in 1981, establishing himself in the early 1990s thanks to his animating and directorial work on cult classic Yu Yu Hakusho.
Shinbo would direct a number of series and OVA’s in the 1990s before seemingly disappearing from the industry after 2001’s The Soultaker. According to video creator Digibro’s series on Shinbo, in the early 2000s, the animator directed a number of hentai OVAs under the pseudonym Jyuhachi Minamizawa. Shinbo “returned” to the industry after Mitsutoshi Kubota offered him the position of chief director at Shaft after Kubota took over the studio from Wakao, following his retirement in 2004.
What’s unique about Shinbo’s position is that he doesn’t direct any particular anime, but rather the studio itself, having his name and influence attached to every single Shaft series and film post-2005. Shinbo rejects any notion that he is either an auteur or an artist. He views animating and directing as just an occupation. However, just like the iconic one-eyed director, his style is so distinct, and possesses so many visual themes, that it’s impossible for any of us who write or just think about visual art to not label him as such.
Shinbo’s distinct style features a few key elements: single color backgrounds, heavy use of lighting effects, wide shot to close-up back to wide shot sequences, heavy use of shading and shadows, changing of the aspect ratio, enough crucifixion imagery that even Martin Scorsese would think it’s overkill, and an outright obsession with extreme close-ups of eyeballs all appear throughout his body of work.
When Shinbo joined Shaft, he did more only than just bring his idiosyncratic style to the studio. He also brought along Shin Oonuma and Tatsuya Oishi, a pair of like-minded animators who complete what is known as “Team Shinbo.”
Oishi worked with Shinbo throughout the 1990s and followed him to Shaft, where he started out as a storyboarder, animator and animation director on the first Shinbo-era Shaft series. He established himself at the company early on thanks to his experimental style directing Shaft openings, frequently mixing together 2D and cut out animation, photography, and typography. His strong interest in typography led him to an entirely unique position in the company and the industry itself as Shaft’s typography director. After serving as an assistant director on 2008’s Hidamari Sketch x 365, he was given the opportunity to direct Bakemonogatari, his first – and to this day, only – TV anime.
Split into five arcs, Bakemonogatari follows Koyomi Araragi, a not so bright, dirty-minded, third year high school student who’s recently survived a vampire attack, and the eccentric, troubled young women who enter his life.
He spends the series assisting them with their problems (both supernatural and personal). He doesn’t drink blood, has none of the storied vampire charisma, and can walk around freely in the sunlight. However, he’s still one-tenth vampire and has some characteristic traits — mainly, his body’s ability to regenerate.
Each arc introduces us to a new character and follows a similar structure: Araragi comes into contact with the young woman, sees that she’s currently dealing with an apparition, and visits an abandoned cram school occupied by Meme Oshino and Shinobu Oshu, a laid back, sarcastic exorcist who saved Arargai’s humanity, and a young looking, petite, “pseudo-vampire” that Araragi helps keep alive by offering her his blood (their relationship is fully fleshed out in the Kizumonogatari prequel trilogy). Araragi then asks for help and information on the apparition. While attempting to free the girl from whatever is haunting her, we learn that it’s connected with her personal demons.
Hitagi Crab has Araragi assisting Hitagi Senjougahara – Araragi’s indigo haired, highly intelligent, and imposing classmate who likes to threaten people with office stationary (they end up dating), free herself from a “Heavy Stone Crab;” a god who has taken all of her weight. In Mayoi Snail, he meets and helps Mayoi Hachikuji, an inquisitive elementary school student with an extremely large pink backpack find her way to her mother’s house. Suruga Monkey has the one-tenth vampire come into contact and later conflict with Suruga Kanbaru, a school sports star whose room is filled with BL (boy love) manga (which brings to mind Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise), and whose arm is covered in a bandage to hide that it’s been transformed into a monkey’s paw; a side effect of making a deal with the “Rainy Devil.” Nadeko Snake finds Araragi and Kanbaru come to the aid of Sengoku Nadeko, a former classmate of Arargai’s sister Tsukihi, whose life is in danger due to a pair of “Jagirinawa” curses placed on her by two resentful classmates; and in the series final arc, Tsubasa Cat, our horny hero is confronted by “Dark Hanekawa,” the “purrsonficiation” of class representative’s Tsubasa Hanekawa’s stress.
In-between Araragi attempts to save them and takes extreme punishment for his troubles; he learns that the apparitions are all linked to personal trauma affecting each sarcastic damsel in distress. Senjougahara has been dealing with the emotional anguish that came with surviving a fatal yet undisclosed disease, sexual assault by a member of a cult her mother sought solace in, and the dissolution of her family as her mother took the side of the cult. At the end of the Snail arc, it’s revealed that Mayoi is not being haunted by an apparition, but is one herself; a product of a broken home, she lost her life while trying to find her mother’s home, as she had forgotten what she looked like. Kanbaru is overcome with extreme jealousy over Araragi and Senjougahara’s relationship, as she is in love with Senjougahara; Nadeko is dealing with the social anxiety that comes with being placed in a new school and being bullied, and Hanekawa’s dark side emerges not because of the stress that comes from her abusive home life or pressures of excelling in school, but because of her repressed romantic and sexual feelings for Araragi.
Audiences have always attributed the series’ highly praised visual style to Shinbo alone thanks to his omnipresent status within the studio. It’s not difficult to see why, as Bakemonogatari is filled with Shinbo’s trademarks. There is eyeball imagery in every single episode of the series; frequent use of single color backgrounds, especially in the climax of the first, third, and final arcs of the series. The first time Araragi sees Senjougahara, she’s falling off from a great distance as a POV shot shows her with her arms outstretched like a cross. Crucifixion imagery also appears in Oshino’s necklace charm and earring, as well as the charm Senjoughara wears before Oshino exercises her.
Shinbo’s trademark long-shot / close-up / long-shot sequence appears in the first conversation between Araragi and Senjoughara (she sticks an open stapler in her mouth; can’t choose who you love, kids), as well as during other key moments of the series. There are also many scenes throughout the series that showcase Shibo’s love of heavy shadows and shading.
Then, of course, there is the Shaft head tilt, the studios most famous and recognizable trademark. Early episodes of Moon Phase, the first Shinbo-era Shaft series, dabble in the technique, but it truly comes into its full meme-worthy glory in Bakemonogatari’s second episode, where Senjoughara elevates her head about 110 degrees upward and 30 degrees to the left.
All of this is to be expected when it comes to a series involving Shinbo. He has a distinct, highly recognizable style that he rarely deviates from. However, while his input and influence is undeniable, Bakemonogatari and the “Shaft-style” people became enamored with in year following the series, wouldn’t have been possible without director Tatsuya Oishi.
Oishi filled Bakemonogatari with elements from his opening sequence work, including mixing visual media, bold use of color, typography, and precise editing. This blending of animation and photography occurs in Senjougahara’s flashback, symbolizing the growing disconnect between her and her mother as well as the attempted rape. Other instances include a conversation between Kanbaru and Araragi. When she explains her feelings of rejection, disappointment, and jealousy over his relationship to Senjougahara, animated staples inject themselves all over the arms, body, and face of a realistic woman’s body. Integrated photography wasn’t used for a single Monogatari series after Bakemonogatari with the exception of 2016’s Kizumonogatari trilogy, Oishi’ return to the franchise.
One element that did continue after Oishi’s departure was the use of “color scenes,” or flashes of red, gray, peach, green, black, and pink all integrated with text. There was speculation at the time that the color screens where a way for Shaft to compensate for its low budget. However, given that Oishi used the technique again in the Kizumonogatari trilogy, it is now recognized as one of his favored techniques.
Tracing back to the first opening for 2007’s Maria†Holic, the technique places animation cards, chapter numbers, lines of dialogue, or direct quotes from the source material not placed in the anime script on the color scenes.
An element of the “Shaft-style” that hasn’t been attributed to either Shinbo or Oishi that was introduced in Bakemonogatari was the overt pandering to otakus. Bakemonogatari makes numerous references to Dragon Ball Z, Fullmetal Alchemist and Doraemon. Early in the series, Senjougahara refers to herself as a “tsundere,” or a character who is initially cold and hostile in the beginning of the series, but who gradually warms up and towards the series latter episodes, Senjougahara cutely tells Araragi that she can easily mimic his voice because “my voice actress is quite excellent.” It’s this type of referential humor that either excites Shaft devotees or annoyed its detractors.
Bakemonogatari is not only one of Shaft’s most successful series, but also one of the biggest success stories in the history of the industry. Its success came at a time when the Japanese economy was struggling, so studios, not wanting to take many risks, decided to go back and revive older properties like Fullmetal Alchemist (Bones), Dragon Ball Z (Toei), and later Hunter x Hunter (Madhouse). This makes Bakemonogatari’s success all the more astounding since it is a highly experimental series and not one that was aiming for the broadest possible audience. It was the highest selling television anime DVD of 2009 and the highest selling television anime Blu-Ray release ever, until it was surpassed by another 2009 anime hit, Kyoto Animation’s K-ON!.
The Monogatari series would continue for another decade, officially ending just a few weeks ago with the TV version of Zoku Owarimonogatari. Before that, Shaft proved that the “Shaft-style” was not a fluke when the studio released another blockbuster hit in 2011 — Madoka Magica its first original anime.
Shaft’s once-feverous fanbase following the one-two punch of Bakemonogatari and Madoka has dissipated. Oishi took six years to release his follow up to Bakemonogatari, and since 2017 he hasn’t directed anything since. In a post on this seasons Fire Force, Sakugablog stated that staffers, many of which worked in key animation, have left Shaft, from what we know Oishi is still by his mentor’s side. With Monogatari now over, perhaps Shinbo and Oishi can be free to craft the next great Shaft adaptation, making everyone who used to be obsessed with the studio tilt their heads up and to the side once more to see what the studio can offer.