Failure in Bakemonogatari (Nadeko Snake)
Nadeko Snake is Bakemonogatari’s lowest point and perhaps the lowest point of the Monogatari series as a whole. I don’t dislike it for any banal reason like the amount of fanservice, but simply the failures in the narrative. Nadeko Snake has the misfortune of following three diverse and top-notch arcs and the burden of scaffolding numerous future developments in the series, but I don’t think either of these are excuses for its failures. Rather, I don’t think we should need to make excuses for a story in the first place.
However, this provides an opportunity to learn something vital about larger narrative structures. Monogatari’s arc-by-arc format tells numerous small stories that act as stepping stones in a larger narrative path. Nisio Isin finds brilliant uses of this structure (which I hope to discuss soon in another essay), but Nadeko Snake is a bit of a failed experiment. Isin overexerts the arc or demands too much of it. The arc isn’t filled with too much, nor is it taking too long of a narrative step. The failure isn’t an active one, but a passive one. Nadeko Snake bets too many chips on the intrigue of a single arc’s capsule story.
There are two simultaneous stories that can keep us engaged in any given episode of Monogatari: 1) the arc’s capsule story (and all the jokes, fanservice, action, etc. within it); 2) the overarching stories of great apparitions like Shinobu or specialists like Gaen. The capsule story of Nadeko Snake focuses on Araragi freeing Nadeko from the jagirinawa that bind her. Of course, plenty else happens this arc, and that’s the benefit of an arc-by-arc structure—the writer can thread what is essentially exposition for future arcs into the story of earlier arcs. In many cases, action is exposition. Much of the action of Nadeko Snake is exposition for the overarching narratives of Monogatari.
Too much. That’s the first problem, anyway. Looking at the events related purely to the capsule story, Nadeko Snake could wrap up in less than one episode. Araragi sees the dead snakes at the shrine, catches Nadeko reading up on the occult and confronts her, gets a charm from Oshino, then returns to the shrine to help Nadeko. To be fair, there is a complication in this storyline, but we’ll get to that in a second. First, we have to ask why such a simple story took so long to tell. The answer is—if I hadn’t made it obvious—exposition.
It is also important to note the kind of action that takes place in the capsule story: Araragi sees snakes and notices Nadeko reading a book. I hesitate to even call that action, and yet it is almost all we get in the first episode of the arc. These are actions that take seconds, and the remainder of that time is filled in with exposition for future arcs that is barely relevant to the arc at hand. Araragi and Kanbaru spend ten minutes placing a talisman on the shrine, most of which is spent on idle chatter or exposition of Oshino’s purpose and abilities. The second half of the episode is no better with Hanekawa more or less lecturing Araragi on how to be a decent boyfriend until the latter just stumbles upon Nadeko reading.
To be sure, these conversations and developments are vital to Monogatari as a whole, and quite interesting when viewed in connection with later arcs, but they do not well relate to Nadeko Snake. Hanekawa trying her best to help Araragi in his relationship with another woman despite loving him herself makes the consequences in Tsubasa Cat all the more powerful and believable, but Hanekawa doesn’t tie in to Nadeko Snake whatsoever. Compare this to a similar conversation in Mayoi Snail, where again Hanekawa suppresses her feelings towards Araragi as she realizes Senjougahara loves Araragi. She doesn’t want to “get in the way” so she leaves, but not before contributing to the Mayoi Snail arc. By having Hanekawa interact with Hachikuji, Isin succeeds in selling the lie that Hachikuji is a living girl affected by the lost cow apparition. Hanekawa sees her, so we don’t consider the possibility that Senjougahara can’t.
But where does the conversation in Nadeko Snake intersect with the capsule story? There is no direct interaction whatsoever, and only a vague subtextual connection via Sengoku’s love for Araragi. However, Sengoku isn’t aware that Araragi is dating Senjougahara, nor does that fact stop her from pursuing him when she finds out later in the series. She differs greatly from Hanekawa in that respect. Thus, the connection is all but vacant and, when compared to the Mayoi Snail example, utterly irrelevant to the development of the capsule story. This conversation, as well as much of the talisman-placing, is purely exposition for the future.
To be fair, Nadeko Snake is not the only offender as far as irrelevant (in regards to the capsule stories) conversations go. That’s part of what makes Monogatari what it is, but the amount of irrelevance tilts towards the extreme in this arc. However, the fatal flaw of Nadeko Snake rests in the capsule story itself. This arc has a major weakness: the story is meant to fail.
Perhaps more accurately: the story is meant to tell about a failure. Other characters do not necessarily “save” themselves completely in their arcs—Senjougahara still has to learn to live with her emotions, Kanbaru has to accept that Senjougahara loves someone else, etc.—but they do progress towards a more stable future. Yet, Sengoku is put in a position where she won’t progress towards the positive and will instead wind up in her position during Nadeko Medusa. As such, the arc needs to end with a degree of dissatisfaction on the audience’s part. A lot needs to be left unresolved with Sengoku’s character and the snake shrine.
Sengoku prays to Araragi (or her memories of his kindness) during the cleansing ritual, which already sets off alarms for the audience. After Oshino repeating over and over that people can only save themselves, having a character rely wholly on Araragi just screams “this shouldn’t work.” Of course, it doesn’t work in the long run, but it does work in the context of this arc. Sengoku is freed from the first jagirinawa by prayer and Araragi himself removes the second one. To make matters worse, the second jagirinawa runs off to do who-knows-what. This flawed solution of being “saved” without personal effort is a great lead into the tragedy of Nadeko Medusa, but we aren’t supposed to know about that during Nadeko Snake. All we know is, obviously, Nadeko Snake.
This is a problem itself, and also exacerbates the issues discussed earlier. In a way, Nadeko Snake is one long character introduction for Sengoku. She does not change as a result of her experiences, and the story itself does not feel like Araragi or the overarching narrative have taken much of a step forward. As a result, the exposition that is “empty space” in relation to the capsule story feels so much emptier. “Why wasn’t that time used to create a more satisfying or conclusive story?” we might ask. Unfortunately, a satisfying or conclusive story would not lead to later developments involving Kaiki or Sengoku or the shrine itself. Nadeko Snake is necessarily a failure of a story. But that does not mean the arc has to be bad, for lack of a better word.
If I am to say one positive thing about this fact, it is that it makes an interesting case study. The idea that a “failure of an arc” could be used to add stakes for later developments is quite handy, even if this particular story burdens Nadeko Snake too heavily. I believe it would be possible to have a failure of an arc that avoids some of Nadeko Snake’s pitfalls, though such an arc would come with challenges of its own. The key likely lies somewhere in the could-be connections between the expository elements and the capsule story itself. I refer again to the brilliant conversation between Hanekawa and Araragi in Mayoi Snail, since it’s so similar to their conversation this arc. Would there be a way to have one of these side conversations lead the arc towards failure, instead of not influencing either the story or our perception of it? I have to believe there could be.
The failure within Nadeko Snake arises out of chance and inaction. Araragi just happened not to notice the second jagirinawa and just happened to decide not to bring Sengoku to Oshino in person. This doesn’t invalidate the story alone, but the consequences sure don’t help the cause. Araragi “solves” the second jagirinawa by brute force, though he fails to remove its existence entirely. Again, there is a parallel to a previous arc in Suruga Monkey. An overwhelming opponent is about to beat Araragi when Senjougahara steps in and forces an emotional climax out of Kanbaru. However, in Nadeko Snake, Araragi is convinced to let his overwhelming opponent run amok instead. Kanbaru pins him down so that the jagirinawa can escape.
Sengoku, of course, couldn’t care less and therefore does not experience any compelling emotional response. The arc tries to sell this by having Araragi undergo some sort of development or realization. Kanbaru asks Araragi to not “choose the wrong person to save,” which is meant to incite some reflection on what Araragi’s responsibilities are to those he gets involved with. This could have made a better focal point for the arc, especially since earlier events seem to build up to that moment of self-reflection. Unfortunately, the arc merely uses this moment as an excuse for (necessary) failure.
In any case, I’m not trying to rewrite Monogatari, but simply to muse on its structure and the flaws and successes I see within it. Nadeko Snake represents a loss of focus, a stumbling after attempting new footwork. The arc fails to achieve the appropriate balance between two competing narratives—that of the arc itself and that of the overarching series. Perhaps we believe the eventual payoff justifies this road bump, but either way, I believe the arc would be best off if it fully removed the snakes that bind it.