EM: Thoughts on Bakemonogatari (Hitagi Crab)

Thoughts on Bakemonogatari (Hitagi Crab)

With the second season of Owarimonogatari on its way, I’ll be rewatching the Monogatari series so far and giving my thoughts arc by arc. I’ve wanted to talk about the series (outside my posts on Owari) for a while now, but was never sure what I wanted to say. I didn’t have a concrete idea for an essay. These posts will be a good opportunity to just let the thoughts flow freely and see where I wind up. That being said, let’s take a look at the Hitagi Crab arc, and our introduction to the wonderful world of Monogatari.

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Incidentally, our introduction is one somewhat lacking in orienting detail. I’ve always found it an interesting choice to start Bakemonogatari after the events of Kizu- and to not ever make those events clear to the audience. The anime staff must have thought so as well, for they included a montage of said events—something the novel lacks entirely. Although we do miss out on an easy focalization with Araragi as a result, I don’t think the story suffers for it. We don’t need to become acquainted with the aberrations of this world by experiencing them through the eyes of an equally ignorant character. The paranormal in this world tends to build off of traditional folklore or else flip it on its head in some way. As such, a big part of the series involves explaining why aberrations are the way they are.

Typically, the unique features of each aberration are explained so as to connect those features to each arc’s theme. Senjougahara’s crab god likely has inspirational origins in crab-related mythology and the general idea of animal gods, but then Oshino provides some specific context. “[Gods] are everywhere around us, and nowhere at all.” I’ll talk more about what that means for the story later on. For now, Nisio Isin’s possible inspirations are a useful transition to the topic of history.

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For some reason, our supposedly academic-focused school has an 8-lane track.

Maybe I shouldn’t say history. Isin is obsessed with older (specifically: before he was born) names, meanings, and cultures and how those morph into their modern forms. Is any of the original meaning retained? Can we make connections between the modern concept and the historical one? So on. This is all just a fun mental puzzle to him, but a lot of these “once removed” names and meanings find their way into the story. Araragi’s high school, Naoetsu Private High, likely references the city of Naoetsu which merged with neighboring Takada to form a new city Joetsu (if I’m getting my facts straight). I can’t parse any particular meaning out of the name’s kanji, so I have to imagine Isin was aware of what he was referencing. Naoetsu’s only real claim to fame is its POW camp and subsequent remembrance park, which memorializes the Allied soldiers killed there. Notably, this is a side of history most would try to erase from memory and thus is somewhat relevant to Isin’s obsession.

But I could just be grasping at straws with that last bit.

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Anyway, this is a post about the anime rather than the novel, so it’s worth talking about SHAFT and the visual design of Bake-. I did a bit of this when discussing Owari-, but I actually think Bake- handles the surrealist environments best out of the entire series (possibly out of any SHAFT show). The environment will morph to suit the scene or create a particular atmosphere without ever feeling like there’s a brain behind the operation. The world seems to change by its own free will. Owari-, for example, gives off the vague sensation that someone is thinking and planning each shot. This isn’t bad per se, but it isn’t as good as not seeing the artist’s brushstrokes.

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I can’t pinpoint any technical differences between Bake- and later entries. I think the staff just had a bit more fun with this first entry. There were no creative or stylistic standards they had to conform to because they were starting a brand new series. Later entries certainly aren’t stripped of this fun, creative spirit, but you can sense the pressure to “make it work”. Directorially, Bake- fits into these environments a bit better, as well. Senjougahara’s gasp before she falls and her exaggerated body-bloom once she is falling help the staircase scene feel a bit more cohesive. Every detail in the scene works towards one vision, rather than there simply being a giant spiral staircase for the hell of it.

After mentioning Senjougahara, I can feel the levy about to break, unleashing my adoration for her. I’ll try to stay strong a little longer, just long enough to give another take on Monogatari’s dialogue.

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Hanekawa and Araragi’s chat at the start of the arc is literally just exposition, but as everyone loves to say, there’s something special about Monogatari’s info dumps. The reason all this exposition works varies from scene to scene. A lot of the appeal is attributable to comedy and catchphrases that help pass the time and break up the monotony, though I think there’s a more important (and more often used) trick. Nisio Isin twists traditional mystery novel dialogue to fit his unique vision.

It’s almost a necessity in mystery novels to have lengthy spouts of exposition that result from interrogations or discussion between detectives (Doyle’s favorite trick is to have Holmes ask Watson what he thinks, only for Holmes to tear Watson’s exposition apart with his “genius. Poor Watson.). Different authors get away with it by different tricks. Sometimes the topic at hand is perplexing and interesting enough the writer doesn’t even need a trick.

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Isin makes this style of exposition his own by creating mysteries that exist within characters/their psyches or within the norms of society. Our introduction to a character like Senjougahara is nothing more than Hanekawa spewing exposition, yet the conversation has an aura of Araragi playing the detective. He’s trying to mince out clues from what Hanekawa says. He presses for info by pretending he’s interested in whether Senjougahara will participate in the school festival. Hanekawa presents what she knows about her like listing the details of a murder scene. The auxiliary conversation about the culture festival is straight out of a mystery novel as well—listing out options and narrowing them down, talking about it all as if it’s some kind of investigation.

In all of this, Araragi (and thus the audience) is searching for some direction to step in. Is there any info about Senjougahara that might be linked to her weightlessness? Truthfully, all we’re getting is a description of her personality and personal background. Though this isn’t to say that info doesn’t loop around and become relevant later. Highly personal mysteries are inexplicably linked to characterization, so characterization is inevitably relevant to those mysteries.

But enough of that—it’s Hitagi’s time to shine.

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Though Hanekawa’s explanation gives us the cut-and-dry of Senjougahara as a character, her true depth as a person is revealed in a much more beautiful way. A lot of it comes down to small stylistic flares that aren’t necessary, but couldn’t be more perfect. The princess-like pose Senjougahara strikes when Araragi catches her encapsulates her attitude perfectly. The look on her face and the shaking of her eye when she sees who caught her tell so much about her reaction when viewed with the knowledge of what happens later. It’s a combination of heart-fluttering romance and primal fear. Senjougahara might as well be a princess and, as she says herself, she’s a wannabe fairytale maiden, so this sort of encounter is exactly what would get her heart going. Yet, there’s also the sense that having someone touch her body, thus discovering the secrets of her body and its weightlessness, brings back memories of her assault and triggers a paranoia about her weightlessness. And all of this gets packed into two shots.

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I don’t want to beat the dead horse of the crab’s symbolism, but it relates to the above. Senjougahara is aggressively defensive—to the point she considers kindness (people reaching out to her) to be a hostile act. In the novel, Araragi mentions her reading books in class to erect a barrier around herself. Like the crab’s shell, Senjougahara puts up any defenses necessary to keep people from reaching out to her and, sometimes, literally touching her. But I think more than setting up defenses, she retreats into her shell—a distinction that becomes relevant later in the arc (and even in Suruga Monkey).

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Obviously, these sound like traits you might associate with tsunderes or Ice Queens. The series makes jokes aplenty about Senjougahara being like a tsundere, but even it acknowledges that she isn’t actually one. There’s more evidence for this later in the series, but Senjougahara is indeed a girl who wants a fairytale romance (to some extent or in some respect), but is denied the chance of it as a result of her assault and witnessing her parents’ relationship deteriorate, finally culminating in meeting the crab god. Yet, the idea of such a romance isn’t sullied for her. Her eventual willingness to trust Araragi is borne out of what she perceives as some fateful connection.

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While riding on the back of Araragi’s bike in this cutely clichéd way, she stares at the bite marks on his neck, surely realizing the effects of his own encounter with the paranormal have haunted him in the same way hers have. Senjougahara spends a lot of this arc realizing she may be able to have normal relationships again. She does declare Araragi her friend at the end of it all, and it doesn’t take long before she starts interacting quite closely with Kanbaru and Hanekawa. Not to skip too far ahead, but there are even hints that she’s growing closer to her father again near the end of Bake-.

This isn’t the way we would usually think about a tsundere character. Her vulnerable or –dere side is more (perhaps this isn’t the right word) realistic in both its expression and its development than most archetypal tsundere characters—to the point she really isn’t one to begin with. Her personal history isn’t some purely tragic weakness that gets revealed resolved as part of a plot arc like some many other heroines. Aside from the fact that Senjougahara does things at her own pace after falling in love with Araragi (and that there isn’t a teleological progression of hugs then kisses then nudity then etc. as acceptable—different aspects of intimacy hold different weight to different people), it’s not as though there’s a black-and-white difference between before Senjougahara gets her weight back and after. Traditionally such archetypes arrange themselves around a turning point such that one half of their development is drastically different from the other. Even Taiga from Toradora, who is a more interesting tsundere than most, has a distinct “before” and “after” attitude shift. This isn’t always bad, but it’s certainly routine.

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Senjougahara, on the other hand, is more or less always the same core person and grows out from that core. She’s always a (literally) starry-eyed girl at heart who just happens who have this Ice Queen exterior. We can’t even pin that exterior down to only her family trauma. Though Hanekawa says Senjougahara was “amiable” and “upbeat” in middle school, that doesn’t mean she didn’t always have a sharp-tongued and cold side to her. It wouldn’t be such a big part of her personality all the way through Owari- if it was something only caused by that trauma. She has fun toying with Araragi in that cold way, and Araragi eventually blames Kanbaru’s more perverse or acid-tongued moments on Senjougahara’s influence. If anything, we ought to say that this colder side of her was the personality she had been hiding in the same way a tsundere hides their –dere side.

But even then, Senjougahara is never completely the maiden or completely the Ice Queen. Any time she attempts to be entirely one or the other, the façade quickly cracks. Again, this doesn’t only happen during major plot events as it would for more archetypal characters, but instead whenever makes sense for it to happen. Everyone has moments they forget to keep up an act they’ve been putting on. For Senjougahara, these moments are often and random, which does a lot to humanize her and tell her story.

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Outside the abandoned cram school, Araragi asks her to hand over her stationery, which prompts a couple of confused Eh?’s from Senjougahara. They aren’t over-the-top, but how a normal person would respond to an unexpected question. Similarly, she forgets to dry her hair after showering. She honestly just forgets to—probably because there’s a boy she just met in her apartment. She gets earnestly defensive when Araragi calls her an idiot for forgetting. The practiced and prepared Senjougahara would have a better response than asking Araragi to not be rude.

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Speaking of, I suppose Senjougahara is undressed for a full quarter of this arc. I don’t have any interest in talking about the “fanservice” here other than the fact that the shower scene lacks it. What we get instead is a powerful, somber moment of Araragi staring dejectedly at his tea, likely contemplating the cramped space Senjougahara now lives in and the story of her family he has just heard. Knowing how Araragi acts later in the series, it’s quite telling how he doesn’t get worked up over Senjougahara being in the shower. Even in the novel, there isn’t a single line about fantasizing or being embarrassed. Of course, when she walks out naked that’s a different story—Araragi can only handle so much.

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My point is: there are plenty of times Araragi will describe a situation as “hellish” or say that his encounters with aberrations make him solemn, but usually that sentiment is all we get. Sometimes he’ll deliver a short speech, but there usually isn’t much that shows how he actually feels. Moments like this one at Senjougahara’s house do a lot to make his claims about feeling indebted to so-and-so or compelled to help so-and-so believable. Araragi stops being a character for a moment (because he is just playing a character a lot of the time, a fact made clear in the title cards and novel) and sits alone. His dejected expression and the darkness that consumes Senjougahara’s apartment reveal how much these encounters with the paranormal actually affect him. These rare moments help sell the series as a whole, and the timing of this one couldn’t be better.

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If we talk about Senjougahara long enough, we can’t help but arrive at the issue of the crab, can we? I’m sure a hundred other people have given their spiel about themes or even the “moral of the story”, so I’ll focus on a more generalized interpretation of Oshino’s summation of the gods. I mentioned earlier that Oshino claims, “[Gods] are everywhere around us, and nowhere at all.” This sounds a bit like a spiritual riddle—i.e. What’s all around us, but not near at all? The answer to which is “emotions” (and for the sake of this arc, also memories and trauma). The idea that emotions are always with us, but only truly here if we recognize them or bring them out isn’t all that mind-blowing of a concept. The deeper connection between emotions and gods, however, is quite interesting.

“Gods” implies a higher power/being, meaning that humans are subjugated by their emotions. Yet, this also implies we can pray or meditate to understand, accept, or be treated gently by our raging (or absent) emotions. Obviously, the idea of gods comes packaged with religion. Oshino explicitly mentions Shintoism himself, but unfortunately Shinto is a religion I’m not especially familiar with. I only know what I know through its connections to Buddhism. I believe it’s partly based in the idea of being a bridge to the living past; or that some of the worship and practice is directed towards the living past. This fits well with Isin’s own obsession with the past, as well as Senjougahara’s need to reconcile with the events of her past that she’s tried to abandon.

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Although I can’t speak too much on Shintoism, I can say that the idea of prostrating yourself before your emotions and thoughts, and allowing them to enter your mind and accepting them, is foundational to Buddhism. Most schools of Buddhism teach you to greet your emotions and thoughts without hostility or fear, and to ask to embrace the thoughts you’ve been running from. Senjougahara’s literal prostration to the crab to ask for her thoughts and memories back is a form of this meditation—especially considering the atmosphere of candlelight and deep breathing.

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Though, those details also have connections to modern trauma and anxiety therapy. Such therapy is closely linked to Buddhism anyway, and was arguably built using Buddhism as a basis. Oshino creates a safe space for Senjougahara in the original meaning of the term. That is to say: a welcoming and calm environment where she can confront her anxiety and memories and work towards a solution or acceptance. Oshino does state: “This is your place. A place where you belong,” before counting to ten. All of this is trademark meditative or therapeutic practice, although I feel obligated to say you probably shouldn’t drink alcohol during such practice…

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I also can’t help but feel there’s so much more to say. But if I sit here typing all day about this arc, I’ll never move onto the rest. There will be plenty more time to talk about what I glossed over, such as directing and sound, not to mention time to revisit Senjougahara and Oshino. For an introduction to the world of Monogatari and this series of posts, I think saying anything more would be missing the point. I missed a good opportunity by releasing this on Mother’s Day instead of a post about a certain snail. The least I can do in apology is get to work on that one!

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