Cage of Reflection (Owarimonogatari Ep. 1)
Owarimonogatari really impressed me right out of the gate, so I’ll be analyzing each episode as it airs from a specific perspective. In order to keep these essays short and my sanity intact, I’ll be doing my best to remain focused on the singular topic I chose to discuss for each episode. There’s a lot more I could look at than what I will be discussing. Keep in mind that this is still a series directed by Akiyuki Shinbo, so there is a lot of inconclusive symbolism strewn about and I’ll have to carefully choose what shots to look at.
But enough of that. Ougi Formula is essentially a story about a trapped boy given no option for escape other than to reflect upon himself and his past. When we think of being trapped, we think of cages, chains, fences, boxes, so on. When we think of reflection, we think of mirrors or mirror-like surfaces. As we take a closer look at Owarimonogatari Episode 1, we’ll notice the episode’s shots are full of mirrors and cages—some more obvious than others.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s go through some particular shots and their cinematography at a shallow level. Then we can look back at some broader implications at the end.
It doesn’t take much focus to notice the onslaught of frame-in-frame shots of Araragi this episode. Araragi is the one trapped, and the one being inspected in this story, so it makes sense we get all these frameception shots from voyeuristic angles. Granted, Shinbo has an obsession with frame-in-frame throughout all the series he’s directed, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore how well it works this time.
The digital-looking barriers on the walls, floor, and ceiling of the room extend this sense of confinement. Not only is Araragi constantly trapped within frames, but he’s also surrounded by this Tron-esque cell. It’s a nice, surrealist way to make us feel trapped in this room with Araragi. Speaking of the room, it also happens to be a mirror image of itself. And a very unnatural one at that.
Specifically, if you divide the room by the dark line in the ceiling above Araragi, the room matches on both sides. Each side has three rows of desks, a chalkboard, two bulletin boards, and then the TV and the locker match up. Araragi is on one side, Ougi on the other (admittedly, she breaks this mirror, but usually just to touch Araragi or invade his personal space). It seems strange to have a chalkboard and bulletin board at both ends of the room, which goes to show how intentional this mirror image is.
Where else do we get mirrors? Araragi is shown through a few mirror shots, but they always include Ougi as well. There’s this shot looking into the chrome of the desk…
This one using the television…
And, most importantly, this shot of Araragi reflected in Ougi’s black eye. But, okay, so what? It’s one thing to just throw all these images at the viewer, but do they contribute to the episode as a whole? Do they reveal or expand anything? Or is this just pseudo-artistic masturbation?
Well, let’s begin to answer those questions with a certain shot of Araragi in a cage: a shot of him caged by the communication network he was not a part of. This is a good place to start, since Araragi helps us interpret this particular shot. He says the process of majority rule leaves him unable to defend Oikura (despite knowing her innocence), and that it drove Tetsujo to an immoral action in voting against Oikura. Cages leave you unable to do what you want, so it’s fitting that the communication network that excludes Araragi and visually cages him is what eventually leaves him unable to fight for what he believes in. Trapped by this social network that does not care about righteousness, Araragi is powerless to defend justice.
What about the rest of those thousand frame-in-frame shots? They mostly just give us a sense of voyeurism and claustrophobia as I mentioned. It’s kind of just an artistic flare, but it adds an indescribable amount of intrigue and pressure to what really isn’t that exciting of an episode. It’s a fantastic directorial decision.
The mirror shots are much fewer in number, and much more pointed in their intention. Remember that Araragi and Ougi are always in mirror shots together, and that Ougi starts the investigation on the opposite side of the classroom as Araragi. At a shallow level: Araragi needs to self-reflect, so, here, have some mirrors because mirrors reflect stuff. At a deeper level: Ougi is forcing Araragi to self-reflect. She has caged him in this room and is making him look in the mirror.
I meant that mostly metaphorically, but she also literally makes him look into a mirror: her eye. We should have no doubt that Ougi is in control. She holds the magnifying glass, and she is the master of these mirrors. Araragi is made to confront his past by her doing. Araragi is nothing more than a prisoner in her cage of reflections.