Owarimonogatari Ep. 3 – Dramatic Herring
Amongst all the comedy, fanservice, and “meta-critical” dialogue, it’s possible to forget that the –monogatari series is fundamentally a mystery story. Nisio Isin is a mystery author obsessed with mysteries. Every story arc of the series focuses on a specific mystery that Araragi/occasionally another character/always the viewer must unravel to reach a resolution. Rarely does the plot move by present action, and most actions taken in the present are simply devices to explore the past. Any troubles in the present are the result of something that has happened, not something that is happening.
As such, I’d like to consider how –monogatari’s creates effective mystery and uses that mystery to build an interesting story. One could argue that the series is carried by its dialogue and fanservice, but I think that—without effective mystery—we’d simply have a harem series for the desperately avant-garde that’s boring enough to undo any amount of coffee. In other words: the series’ mystery attaches relevant stakes to otherwise random and insignificant scenes.
Episode 3 is the perfect episode to explore one way that the series creates effective mystery. This episode flips dramatic irony on its head, and uses it to string along the viewer, and make us overconfident. For example, we probably suspected that Oikura left Araragi those letters in his locker, and that she was the one meeting him at the ruined house. As soon as she opens the door, we’re able to recognize her character design and confirm our suspicion. The viewer is certain that this girl is Oikura, but Araragi doesn’t know, as shown by Oikura’s eyes being hidden and her voice excluded for most of the flashbacks.
We’re in on the joke—so to speak—and that is the moment we get overconfident. We think, ‘oh, so it was Oikura’, and immediately believe we know what the “twist” will be for Araragi. From here on, we expect to be shown details that piece together an image of the past. Really, instead of sleuthing a mystery, we’re expecting to just listen to a backstory. We think we know the story’s twist, so we only look for a revelation. Light is going to be shed upon something, and that will explain how Oikura ended up this way.
Phrased another way, we let our guard down and get complacent. We start accepting all of the “facts” Araragi tells us. Like I said, we’re just waiting for enough info to be put into the light so we can have a revelation. For Araragi, the only mystery is the girl’s identity. Since we already know she’s Oikura, we’re just waiting for Araragi to connect the pieces and blurt the past out. The payoff from this dramatic irony will essentially solve the riddle.
But that’s not the case. Ougi spills the beans to the clueless Araragi, but there’s no climax. No revelation.
Welcome back to mystery, everyone. Mystery doesn’t just flip the world upside-down for the characters, it flips it for the audience as well. This mystery flips our world in absolute classic fashion. The best place to hide is in plain sight. Because a relaxed guard never senses a threat. A complacent viewer always takes a story for granted. All the true clues passed us by unnoticed.
Thus, Ougi begins to flip the world by pointing out all the flaws in Araragi’s story, and by asking him the questions that investigate the heart of this mystery. For a boy struggling in math to be visited by a math angel, it has to be a trap. No one can offer so much effort in exchange for nothing. This house couldn’t have been ruined five years ago. So on. Granted, some of these clues might not have raised alarm even if the viewer had been on edge, but that’s part of the author’s privilege in writing mystery. If you rewatch the episode, a lot of these hints stick out like bright flags.
Because obviously it’s Oikura. The show wasn’t trying to fool us into thinking the girl wasn’t her. The mystery isn’t born from whether or not this girl was her, the mystery is born from the other unknowns—unknowns that we didn’t consider in our overconfidence. This dramatic irony was a sort of red herring specifically for the viewer. After being led astray, we find ourselves in Araragi’s shoes. Ougi turns the tables on us just like she does for Araragi, and it’s not a stretch to say our reactions match his. We’re back on our toes, but completely disoriented by what we took to be truth suddenly morphing into mystery.
We’ve fallen prey to some sleight of hand. As Ougi shatters our “reality” by stabbing at the truths that Araragi had forgotten, we remain completely enticed. Ougi and Araragi are just standing around discussing this mystery that they’ve been discussing for half the episode. There’s absolutely no action. But we’re enticed. All the details we overlooked are being torn apart in front of us faster than we can keep up with, and the scene zooms past us. This is the strength of effective mystery.
And this is a mystery not yet solved.