Lies in Bakemonogatari (Mayoi Mai Mai)
Just in time for Mother’s Day, I started working on this Mayoi Mai Mai post. And now it’s here. Late.
Mayoi Mai Mai is perhaps most interesting for its relation to the overarching story of Bakemonogatari, and thus what it reveals about Nisio Isin’s storytelling (and storytelling as a whole). The first thing that comes to mind when I think of this arc is the twist that Araragi is in fact the character who encounters an apparition. We can say that the mystery of the arc relies almost entirely on one “lie”: that Hachikuji is alive. Of course, this brings about a bunch of secondary lies like Senjougahara pretending she can see Hachikuji, but the story pivots on that one main lie.
Every arc in Bakemonogatari is set up this way. There is a “lie” in the timeline of Senjougahara’s childhood, a lie in the conditions of Araragi’s fight with Kanbaru, a lie in the number of snakes affecting Nadeko, and even a lie about Oshino’s actions in the Tsubasa Cat arc. These lies make each mystery unsolvable until they’re discovered—at least from Araragi’s/the audience’s perspective. And this is the arc where Araragi’s perspective really starts to take over. He colors both our expectations and our moods. When he reflects that the park is empty and he feels like the only person on the planet, that gives us a great sense of his current headspace, as well as a subtle motivation for his attachment to Hachikuji. Or, actually, “evidence” may be a more accurate term than “motivation”.
Let’s speak on how these lies function before we dive into their implications for storytelling. Senjougahara’s two-sided dialogue has been spoken about ad nauseum elsewhere, but the visuals are just as important. Obviously, there’s a lot of space between her and Hachikuji+Araragi. More interesting is the way Hachikuji interacts with her environment to show her distance (of existence) from Senjougahara. She hides behind Araragi or telephone poles or whatever else she can in order to literally be out of Senjougahara’s sight. At one point, the pair misses a crosswalk signal that Senjougahara hits, and are left waiting on the other side of the road. This seems like a random detail used to fill up time and keep the audience somewhat engaged, but it actually reflects the truth of Hachikuji’s existence. Senjougahara is able to make progress by ignoring Hachikuji, while Araragi is delayed because of her. Of course, it’s also a nice foreshadowing of how Hachikuji is revealed to have died.
Considered from Araragi’s perspective—that Senjougahara hates Hachikuji and all children—then Hachikuji is only hiding because she’s afraid of Senjougahara. Senjougahara crosses the street early only because she can’t be bothered to help a child cross the road. However, upon rewatching, we can notice actual meaning in these moments. Hachikuji hides because she’s being looked at by a girl who can’t see her. Araragi crosses the street late because he is affected by the lost snail.
This leads us back to that original idea of these arcs pivoting on a “lie”. Senjougahara recounts what Oshino told her: “Let’s say that there was one actual truth. And when viewed from two different perspectives, two different truths emerged…There’s no method in this world to prove that you are right. But it’s just as wrong to assume that you yourself are mistaken.” Perhaps instead of saying there is one “lie” in each arc, I should say there is one “truth”. One pure truth—Hachikuji is dead—leads to two distinct truths: she exists and she doesn’t exist. Depending on who you are—what your mindset is—you either see Hachikuji or you don’t. These aren’t half-truths or anything like that, though they also aren’t pure. This isn’t pedantic philosophy, either. It’s Isin’s understanding of mystery.
Whichever truth your perspective leads you to is entirely true and reflects perfectly the reality of the situation without a single stipulation. If you are Araragi, you are entirely right that Hachikuji exists. However, you cease to be right once you deny the possibility that she doesn’t exist. You can push your truth and believe in your truth up until the very moment that belief begins to deny possibilities—particularly the possibilities perceived by other people. One way to look at this may be to think: Araragi’s view is 100% true as it pertains to Araragi in isolation; none of Araragi’s experiences while alone will ever conflict with the belief that Hachikuji exists. Yet, this doesn’t mean Araragi could assume it isn’t possible for Hachikuji to not exist in situations external to him.
If all those negations make sense…
We can broaden this idea to mystery as a whole, since many mysteries do pivot on a single pure truth (or otherwise very few pure truths). Note that the truth in question is not the outermost clue—for example, that Araragi encounters the lost cow and not Hachikuji. That clue of the largest scale is better thought of as the “twist”. The lie/truth is what enables said twist. In this arc, the truth/lie of Hachikuji’s existence creates a shift in perspective causing us to assume Hachikuji is a regular human. That perspective created by the pure truth/lie then enables the mystery to say “Gotcha!” by revealing she is actually an apparition. If we fiddle with the pure truth/lie—like having Senjougahara reveal see can’t see Hachikuji—then the audience can immediately figure out the mystery. The truth/lie is the set of gears that put the twist in motion.
With that deep-dive into narratology out of the way, how does this apply to mystery at large? A pure truth is obviously quite dynamic (writers have actually been splitting single truths into triple or even quadruple truths for decades), and so works well to both confound the audience and characters as well as create a sense of rising action in the plot. The gap between truths, or between multiple truths and the pure truth, can be exploited via what detective novelists call psychological weaknesses or oversights. Thus, one clue in a murder mystery can be perfectly explained by multiple scenarios…up until the point you consider a different scenario. Of course, none of these end up being precisely right. Sounds just like the personal truths discussed above!
The detective characters are ironically the main perpetrators of confounding the pure truth, assisted by side characters with obligatory opinions on the case. These side characters may sometimes seem to fill space, but they’re always necessary for the functioning of mystery. I mentioned in my Hitagi Crab post that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson talk often in order to deliver exposition, but they also do so to offer up variants on the truth. Holmes is also ludicrously guilty of knowing the pure truth and allowing different perspectives to clash anyway, so he makes a great example in more ways than one. But what of a more concrete example in plot?
I’m going to spoil Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express completely in this paragraph, as a warning. The book works too perfectly as an example not to use it. Brief summary: a man is murdered on a train and a renowned detective investigates the twelve suspects/passengers. In the end, all twelve are discovered to be guilty of working together to kill the man. That’s our pure truth. What our detective and his assisting parties work through are a series of impure truths—at points, each suspect seems to be the most likely to have murdered the man…right up until someone else takes their spot. Our detective and friends are always absolutely right in suspecting a certain passenger, yet absolutely wrong the moment they assume that proves another’s innocence. This is Oshino’s logic at work in the extreme (in multitude?).
As mentioned above, this method of confounding the audience is often viewed as abusing a psychological gap—i.e. preying on false assumptions. This phrasing comes with an implication that the audience is somehow wrong, that false assumptions are equivalent to believing in falsehoods. If one were to write a mystery with such a rule in mind, it would be easy to structure the twist/confounding principle as a detail the audience misunderstands, overlooks, or “gets wrong”. Indeed, many mysteries are written with such intentions. However, Mayoi Mai Mai suggests a different approach or ideology to creating twists, almost like a better form for swinging a bat or clearing a hurdle. This is Oshino’s aforementioned logic. Let the audience or the character the audience focalizes with be absolutely correct, but only in isolation. Thus, the audience is presented with a solution that must be true, yet fails to cover all of the bases.
A dilemma like that is enjoyably frustrating, not to mention it allows the audience to feel as though they’re on the right track. Mysteries are certainly more enjoyable when you aren’t just waiting for a peerless detective to unravel threads you know you have no chance of understanding. Not only is the audience invited to play detective in scenarios that follow Oshino’s logic, but the inevitable twists feel more satisfying when they ask you to question your very understanding of truth. Even ignoring all that, mysteries that cause the audience to question their own beliefs are undoubtedly better for communicating a message, if that’s your purpose in writing. A blind-eyed rug-pulling is inferior as a mystery structure in every way.
And with that, I’ve been rambling quite a while. Mayoi Mai Mai does provide some interesting insight into Nisio Isin’s humor and how he develops characters, but I believe other arcs may demonstrate such things just as well. At least, that’s one truth…