Monogatari Series Second Season
The "second season" of the Monogatari franchise encompasses five linked mini-series, each adapting a single book in the series covering a single arc and focusing on a different character.
Nekomonogatari (White) completes the Black Hanekawa trilogy with "Tsubasa Tiger", in which we follow Hanekawa in the aftermath of a bizarre encounter with a spectral tiger and the destruction of her family's house in a mysterious fire.
Kabukimonogatari, comprised of "Mayoi Jiangshi", takes place immediately after the events of Nisemonogatari. In it, Shinobu and Araragi attempt to use time travel to prevent Mayoi's death, to unexpected and dire results.
Otorimonogatari encompasses "Nadeko Medusa", which follows up on the story of the titular character from "Nadeko Snake" as she is tormented by illusory visions of serpents.
Onimonogatari covers "Shinobu Time", which covers the events immediately following "Mayoi Jiangshi", concerns Araragi and Mayoi's encounter with an anomalous all-consuming void, and what connection it might have to an event in Shinobu's past.
Koimonogatari rounds off the series with "Hitagi End", narrated by none other than the confidence artist Kaiki from "Karen Bee", as he is hired by Senjougahara to investigate and resolve the situation initiated at the end of "Nadeko Medusa".
Describing this one is going to be hard, not merely because every single story here requires some degree of prior familiarity with this series in order to fully appreciate it, but that the events of each arc, while superficially self-contained, require a sequential knowledge of each other in order to fully comprehend and enjoy the next as well. This is par for the course with most plot-heavy series in later seasons, but Second Season is particularly context-intensive because, from the outside, it doesn't seem like much of a plot-heavy show at all. Monogatari is, after all, the talking anime. But that's just it: This is a show all about dialogue and perspective, both of which rely, above all, on context. Without it, much of this will be utter nonsense.
Which is a shame, because this might be the most overtly accessible and all-around enjoyable instalment in the series thus far. Hopping between genres and narrators with joyous aplomb, inhabiting each voice with the utmost comfort and minimal repetition, Second Season manages to capitalise on the strengths of the prior three series while straying far afield—of Araragi's strange little inner world, but also of how a Monogatari arc is "supposed" to function. Granted, Nisemonogatari had been far from conventional in that regard, the each arc resolving not so much with a revelatory answer as an authoritative shrug, but here the freshness comes not from subversion of the formula, but more often than not avoiding it entirely, or, should circumstances demand it, reversing it alarmingly.
We begin our journey (and I, my travelogue) with the "white" half of the tale of a black cat, or the tale now of two cats: One black, one white. And here the differences are immediately evident, as the subject of our tale, the brilliant and emotionally cowed Tsubasa Hanekawa, is no longer a player in someone else's story, but her own woman, and our narrator. Koyomi Araragi, long-time audience surrogate and gadfly extraordinaire, is nowhere to be seen, either in the narrative itself or, one humorous digression aside, in the manner of its telling; when he finally does make his one, brief appearance at the very end of the story, he is, more than anything, a kind of plot device for Hanekawa's advancement as a character—not a saviour figure, but a sounding board. But what does Hanekawa's voice sound like?
Well, subdued, for the most part. In the course of Hanekawa's experiences as herself, there is an almost eerie serenity to the proceedings. The presentation shares Araragi's nigh-solipsistic focus on those the narrator considers most important, but where Araragi's exclusiveness feels playful and a touch egotistical, like he and his friends are the only people in the world because they are the only interesting people in the world, Hanekawa's inner landscape is one of a somewhat shy individual, presenting the world in terms of the people with whom emotional intimacy feels the most comfortable, if not simply possible at all. Through her we see sides to characters ill-suited to the angles Araragi's lens afforded us: Senjougahara's desperate desire to articulate deep and sincere empathy, hampered by social awkwardness masked with layers of irony and vicious wit; or Karen and Tsukihi, not simply as foolish young firebrands desperate for a cause to excuse their rebellion, but as surprisingly insightful and emotionally generous young women with inner lives entirely independent of their often unwittingly suffocating elder brother's influence. While each of these had been set up in prior arcs, to see the framing of the story simply accept these perceptions as facts rather than come to them over time and, moreover, to receive them from outside of complicating factors of family and romantic entanglement is terribly refreshing.
Speaking of which, let's talk about fanservice! "What do you mean, 'Speaking of which'?" Well, that's the thing. There are two scenes in which nudity plays a notable role in "Tsubasa Tiger", both bathing scenes, each mirroring the other. The second takes a very matter-of-fact approach to the proceedings, and really feels less like titillation than a framing device for an extremely casual conversation with a certain degree of emotional vulnerability at play—a very literal safe place for nakedness, if you will. The first, however, is shot not merely sexually, but as an overblown, plot-stopping parody of every cliché fantasy of Sapphic bathing scenarios possible, introduced—and this does make sense in context—with Senjougahara proposing that she should like to see Hanekawa naked so as to describe her body to Araragi. The parallels to the first episode of Bakemonogatari are clearly intentional, but how we are being taunted has changed: The provocation is not simply knowing, but made ridiculous. The fantasies of the audience surrogate and the audience are merged, and in doing so openly mocked.
(I laughed hysterically here. Perhaps being sufficiently gay helped save me from any damning self-reflection here; perhaps I could empathise and revel in my own ridiculousness, having contemplated similarly absurd, gratuitous things. It really doesn't matter much how it hit its mark, so much as that it did, dead on.)
When I speak of Hanekawa's scenes as herself being serene, I mean to draw a distinction with those of Black Hanekawa, who, through her own eyes, in the absence of Araragi's fascination, is less sexually and violently portrayed than eminently self-assured, even the way the camera follows her embracing her casual power. All told, even acknowledging her presence in this arc is something of a give-away, but also a given: Closed or open, there's still a cat in that bag, and with the increasingly nightmarish events unfolding around her host, that everyone's favourite mewling hellion should claw her way out is a given. That she should receive her own arc of transformation as she searches for the arsonist and the demon tiger which victimise them both is a further treat; that each should culminate in the most touching scene in the franchise since "Tsubasa Cat" itself is almost too good to be true. Two of the four further arcs up the ante here, being even more consistently engaging and powerful, but that mix of charm, wit and heart was enough to get me all in all over again and ready for anything.
Kabukimonogatari is at once a return to normalcy and the series' most extreme departure yet, as illustrated in the very title of book it adapts. Where Nekomonogatari's title is fairly easy to parse with only the measliest of Japanese vocabulary, kabukimono is a bit more esoteric. Used to refer to flamboyant vagabond swordsman of the late 16th century, often considered the precursors to modern yakuza, the term literally translates to "someone as on a slope"—an "off-centre" person, an eccentric. Indeed, it is this connotation of the word kabuki which lead to the current theatrical sense: In contrast to the formalities of noh performance, kabuki was exaggerated, off-kilter, avant-garde even. Both senses permeate "Mayoi Jiangshi", as it is a tale of two eccentrics in a decidedly unbalanced situation, both of their own making and entirely out of their control.
While Araragi is once more the narrator of the story and the lens through which we see the tale unfold, the focus on his relationship with Shinobu and how it strengthens through mutual understanding sobers the narrative. Certainly, it is not without whimsy or visual extravagances—the use of CGI and photo collage in one particular visual metaphor is a striking turn scarcely seen since the first series—but for all of our erstwhile hero's audience-baiting allusions to his supposed depraved fondness for young girls, the arc is actually fairly chaste, and all but devoid of sexual fanservice; and for all of the potential indulgences in haughty repartee made available by stuffing the snarkiest character in the series in a proverbial bottle with the goofiest, the back-and-forth here is remarkably serious and, at times, genuinely sweet. Because at heart, for all that Shinobu self-aggrandises (and not without justification), the weight of living friendlessly for hundreds of years has, with time and its steady accumulation of empathy and understanding, turned into an enormous millstone of regret and self-loathing around her neck. Were it not for her peculiar relationship with the similarly self-destructive, self-absorbed Araragi—and if not for the boundless humane optimism in that self-destructive self-absoption—it is clear that she would have died long ago, taking many people with her. The world we see, for want of a nail, is her private hell. That this world could only exist as a consequence of her buying into Araragi's frailties, or rather enabling them for the sake of her own, turns a potentially ludicrous scenario into a haunting one.
Which is not to say that this story is not indulgent in its own way. "Mayoi Jiangshi"'s central conceit is, by its very nature, incredibly self-indulgent: "What if a character almost entirely defined by her own death could have been saved; and what if the main character had the means, motive and opportunity to do so?" Indeed, the initial intention of the time travel experiment is not even that noble, being an excuse for Shinobu to show off her godlike magical abilities and Araragi to, naturally, cram in another day's worth of studying... or procrastinating. That a miscalculation in this remarkably self-indulgent plan leads to the dynamic duo turning their own story into a failed fix-fic is only logical from there. Without the death of one little girl, the whole story dies. The narrator is not the author, merely a character; to overstep that boundary is to forget one's place in the order of tales. The story becomes unbalanced.
Which brings us to the two primary additions to the cast made in Second Season: The master specialist and former Occult Club president Izuko Gaen in the first arc; and, more importantly here, the enigmatic first-year student Ougi Oshino in the second.
The parallels between the two, in retrospect, are inevitable, from their sudden appearances to their increasingly obvious involvement in the events of stories that they previously seemed to dwell on the periphery of, down to the way that each talks about knowledge: Gaen's vicious putdown of Hanekawa over her "I only know what I know" catchphrase and astounding reversal of it—"I do know everything!"—mirrors beat-for-beat Ougi's eerily sarcastic assertion of total ignorance—"I don't know anything, Araragi." Yet the way each seems to obtain and wield their knowledge is similarly opposite; for where Gaen uses inference, training, and a keen understanding of human behaviour to push others into doing the right thing, sometimes in rather unfriendly terms, Ougi's methods and motives are far more obscure and cruel. One begins to notice, from her first cryptic conversation with Araragi about stoplights, that every interaction she has with another character seems to be tailored to impart dangerous information that she cannot reasonably know, or at least sow the seeds of some very bad ideas; and while it is arguable that Araragi's conversation with Yotsugi about her own predicament was far more important to his decision than Ougi's cryptic stoplight trivia, her influence on the third story is impossible to ignore.
Otorimonogatari is "a decoy story," and that decoy is none other than Nadeko Sengoku—or rather, the Nadeko Sengoku that everyone who is not Nadeko Sengoku knows as Nadeko Sengoku. This is the story of how that façade begins to crack. This is the story of how a decoy begins to fail to convince, and of how what once seemed a sincere self-expression is revealed as nothing more than densely coiled layers of illusion.
This is the story of someone going insane.
Full disclosure: "Nadeko Medusa" is my favourite arc in the Monogatari series, and considered on its own may be one of my favourite anime series ever. That being said, I will attempt to control myself and not spend too much time gushing about it, let alone spoil too many key plot points. The key word here being "attempt."
Where Hanekawa's world in "Tsubasa Tiger" was the serene world of an introvert all but incapable of allowing circumstances to frustrate or trouble her, the world of "Nadeko Medusa" is one of constant paranoia and alienation. Figures surround Nadeko almost constantly, yet unless they address her directly, they have no faces, no features whatsoever, merely people-shaped silhouettes rendered in colourful wallpaper. This is the world of girl who wears her bangs long so that no-one can meet her eyes.
Into this world come white snakes. Peering out of the cubby where she puts her shoes at school, coiled around the wire of a pay phone as she calls to tell Big Brother Koyomi about how they're everywhere, watching. She killed so many of them to break that curse, the curse that was placed upon her through no fault of her own, and now they've come back. What do they want from her? Or he, rather: The god of the shrine where she butchered them, the great serpent Kuchinawa. What does he want from her?
Kuchinawa wants a deal, of course: Find his body. Bring it back to the shrine. Right what was wrong. In return... well, the aid of a god, even a dead god, can be terribly helpful to a shy little shrinking violet like Nadeko.
But is she, though? Conversation after conversation peels away at Nadeko's sense of self. Ougi muses on her "uncle" Meme's conviction that even wrongdoers are ultimately victims, and then reverses it: "There are no victims." Shinobu dresses Nadeko down for using her cuteness and seeming helplessness as an evasive technique, then laughs at her for not even doing it intentionally. Koyomi's youngest sister Tsukihi, a criminally underused character if there ever was one, deals the harshest blow of all without even knowing it, pinpointing exactly why her friend has never confessed her feelings to him despite going so far as blatantly trying to seduce him. Her opening self-description is nothing but a list of basic facts and shallow traits. Who is Nadeko Sengoku, really, and what is she trying to hide?
The degree of mounting, creeping dread at play in Otorimonogatari cannot be overstated. This is an incredibly anxious little chamber play, and even when the tension is released, the result is less relief than shock, and in its wake, a further building of unease. This is not to say that this arc isn't funny: Droll black comedy is omnipresent here, from the surreal slapstick and Groucho Marx pantomime of Ougi's entrance to the dry patter between Nadeko and the snake-god wrapped around her wrist disguised as an oversized scrunchie. But much like the sudden explosions of manic energy, the humour serves not to undercut the horror, but to amplify it. Everything is absurd, everything is deceptive and superficial, and everything is terribly, terribly wrong.
(Of special note in that regard is the opening, "Mousou Express", which initially uses almost identical visuals and instrumental timbres to "Ren'ai Circulation" from Bakemonogatari as well as backwards samples from said song only to twist the mood from twee infatuation to stalker-like obsession. While every opening in Second Season is worth sitting through on each watch, it is probably the best overall. The weakest, for the record, is "Happy Bite", mainly because it's a perfectly acceptable tune that isn't "Kaerimichi". Yes, I said it. Fight me.)
After the mind-bending descent into madness that is "Nadeko Medusa", the "demon story" of Onimonogatari feels like something of a letdown. But while "Shinobu Time" is perhaps the weakest arc in Second Season, it also presents some of the heaviest ideas explored thus far in the series, and manages to end on a rather poignant note that completely alters the series' status quo, which keeps it from feeling pointless—which, given its middle episode meander, it certainly could have.
By far the most striking ideas here can be found in the "darkness" itself and how Shinobu relates her past encounter with it. For all that it revolves around ghosts and demons and vampires, the Monogatari series very rarely tackles death—real, lasting death, the kind from which one does not return—head on. Death is risked, for sure, but rarely does it feel like death is a certainty in this world. In "Shinobu Time", not only are the characters confronted with something that they do not understand which could very well erase them from existence entirely, but every character of importance in the better part of the arc—Araragi and Shinobu, vampires; Mayoi, a ghost; Yotsugi, a reanimated corpse—has been touched by death in a very literal way. That three out of four of these characters are at once older than and significantly younger in appearance than Araragi adds both pathos and bathos to the situation; that the latter involves some terribly inappropriate jokes about Lolita complexes and such is irritating if predictable—"Mayoi Jiangshi" wasn't completely immune to this, either—although the formula is amusingly reversed at several points, with Yotsugi's deadpan observations about Araragi's physique walking just the right line between tasteless and delicious.
However, it is Shinobu's flashbacks to her first visit to Japan four centuries prior that steal the show, at least in the first half of the arc. Rarely have I seen static panning shots used to such striking effect in animation. The style is in direct homage to the elaborate narrative scroll paintings of that period—somewhat unsurprisingly, the same era as that of the kabukimono, one of whom was, we learn, the first wielder of the demon-slaying blade Heartspan, and later Shinobu's first minion. It is a bleak story, which does as much to contextualise Shinobu's strange co-dependent relationship with Araragi as it does set the stage for the rest of the arc and, ultimately, just what it was that Koyomi was doing during "Tsubasa Tiger". The latter half of the arc builds on this, exploring Koyomi's other close friendship with a weird little dead girl, in this case Mayoi. The resolution here is neater, but no less bruising.
"Shinobu Time" ends twice, first with the resolution to the arc proper in all its tearful glory, and then with an epilogue, in which we discover that Araragi has been relating the entire story, as we have heard it, to Ougi as they sit together and chat after school.
What happens next manages, in a few short lines, to cement Ougi Oshino's place, in my mind at least, as one of the single most terrifying characters in modern anime. I shan't spoil the surprise, but the fact that the main character manages to miss the hint entirely is a masterstroke of miscommunication and double meaning.
A less dire sort of polysemy comes in the title of the next arc: Koimonogatari, a "love-story." There is always a semantic ambiguity to certain kinds of portmanteau, particularly in languages where individual symbols represent ideas or words and may have multiple verbal realisations. Even setting aside the potential double entendre of interpreting the first two kanji as a single word—the Chinese reading of this pair translates simply as "fetish," although in what sense is slightly ambiguous—but even taken at face value, ignoring any risqué or even religious implications to the construction, there is a difference between a love story and a story of love. This is a story of love, and a love story, and the story of objects of adoration human and otherwise. Less obliquely: "Hitagi End" is the story of how Senjougahara saves Araragi's life without him knowing about it, as well as the story of Nadeko Sengoku's time as a mad god.
But none of them are telling the story here. We need someone infinitely less invested in the heady mix of teen drama and supernatural fancy at work here. Someone sober, someone straightforward, someone capable of paring truth from lies with precision because their entire profession, nay, worldview depends on it.
I am speaking, of course, of Deishuu Kaiki.
Yes, that Deishuu Kaiki.
While "Nadeko Medusa" holds a special place in my heart as the best arc in the series, Kaiki is without a doubt my favourite narrator, if not my favourite character outright, and it is almost entirely because of "Hitagi End". Setting aside the fact that the way in which Senjougahara hires him turns the entire story into a kind of warped film noir detective romp, it is his point of view that makes the story here. Kaiki is a remarkably clear and straightforward storyteller, admitting from the very beginning that certain elements to the tale may be elided or embellished for the sake of the narrative yet remaining remarkably detail-oriented. Minor characters and extras populate his arc: Café staff, cab drivers, New Year's shrine visitors. Kaiki's world, although often a lonely place, is for the most part lonely by choice or circumstance. He is unattached, having lost what little love he had years before; and although he has friends, of a form, they are mostly estranged. In other words, Kaiki's world is that of an adult, albeit an antisocial one, and my word, is that ever refreshing. The way that he regards Senjougahara in particular is fascinating—his parting salvo in "Karen Bee" is not forgotten here, yet it plays differently by the end; this is, after all, a story of love, but not, in Kaiki's case, a love story—although all of his interactions with other characters all have their own unique flavour and texture, whether relatively unadorned or peppered carefully with deceit.
Getting into what it is that Kaiki actually does in Koimonogatari, sleuthing and hotel room pontification aside, would probably spoil the fun, as might explaining why. His mission itself would probably qualify as serious spoiler territory in and of itself were it not for the flash-forward at the beginning of Otorimonogatari to Nadeko in full Gorgon mode ready to take Araragi for a slow ride on the Pain Train, but with that in mind, "trick Nadeko into not killing the entire cast" follows pretty smoothly, although why she hasn't already and how our very unconventional hero manages to talk her out of it is, again, something to save for the watch itself.
And if my position on your watching this isn't clear by now, I probably haven't done as good a job of articulating myself as I thought myself capable. Or really much of a job at all.
The series ends with a short, sharp shock, and more questions than answers, the viewer desperate to learn more. I hate to leave you hanging, but—
"Nadeko Medusa" and "Hitagi End" are an easy five stars, "Tsubasa Tiger" less so. "Mayoi Jiangshi" and "Shinobu Time" earn four on a good day. Deduct or award points according to personal taste. — Julian Malerman
Recommended Audience: Older teens and up. While most of the arcs are fairly unobjectionable in comparison to, say, "Suruga Monkey" or "Tsukihi Phoenix" from the previous season, the emotional content and dense wordplay is going to go way over most kids' heads, not to mention many adults'. That said, the gore in "Nadeko Snake", the nudity in "Tsubasa Tiger", Koyomi being a jackass in "Shinobu Time", and the general rampant horror themes are bad enough to warrant the designation regardless.
Version(s) Viewed: Digital Source
Review Status: Full (23/23)
Monogatari Series Second Season © 2013 NisiOisin / Kodansha / SHAFT
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