Freedom in Nisemonogatari (Karen Bee)
Karen Bee is Nadeko Snake’s longer and more bearable cousin. The arc is of an overall higher quality than Nadeko Snake, but that quality is stretched across an absurdly indulgent seven episodes. By the time the arc finishes, you’ll have trouble remembering which moments were part of it and–more importantly–which even mattered. Most of the arc is a collection of decent (or even great) standalone scenes mashed together with a bit too much narrative freedom.
Although there’s no way to prove a claim like this, and though proving it would accomplish nothing, I feel that Nisio Isin wrote many of Karen Bee’s scenes without any intention of ever making a single story out of them. The narrative structure of the arc reflects this with its unmotivated flashbacks and checklist of fanservice cameos. The arc opens on a scene of a bound Araragi, rolls the opening theme, then flashes back to the day before without any trigger. Nonlinear storytelling is useful as a narrative hook–we do wind up wondering how/why Araragi was captured by Senjougahara–but feels cheap when most of what we see in the flashback is irrelevant to the story.
Araragi’s visit to Nadeko’s house is certainly…interesting, but the rough seams of Isin’s handiwork are quite apparent. The scene feels as though it was written, then split in half and patched with a plot-related digression. Nadeko and Araragi are just hanging out when suddenly a lazy “time passes” cut leads into Araragi randomly bringing up the supernatural. Nadeko talks about the Fire Sisters briefly, then calls out to Araragi once he’s done just the right amount of mental monologuing. Very convenient. This is unusual for Isin, who can normally weave important dialogues into roundabout conversations and scenes seamlessly. In fact, that skill of his will be the topic of a future post.
Anyway, the pattern of fanservice is quite clear. Araragi first meets with Hachikuji, then Nadeko, and finally Kanbaru. Only Hanekawa is left out, but she’ll get plenty of screentime later. Admittedly, Araragi’s wordplay game with Hachikuji is courageous and well-written. The foreshadowing of Nadeko Medusa in Senjougahara saying she won’t let Araragi die and Kanbaru calling Nadeko the “final boss” is fun to point at on rewatch, as well. Yet, a patchwork of enjoyable scenes doesn’t necessarily make for an engaging story.
Nisio Isin claims in the Afterword of Nisemonogatari’s first volume that he wrote the book “two hundred percent as a hobby.” Isin would go on to reeducate himself on mathematics before writing Owarimonogatari, but I want to draw attention to the “complete freedom” and absence of “pesky restrictions or fetters” with which Nisemonogatari was written. Isin loves to say that he “never intended to publish” his stories (the Afterword of Kizumonogatari recounts how he wrote Bakemonogatari entirely for himself and Kizumonogatari “entirely and a fifth” for himself…), so I take all this with a grain of salt, but we can still learn something from this claim of self-indulgence.
As Isin says, Bakemonogatari is full of “stupid” conversations and exchanges. However, this works out, for digressions are acceptable in moderation. Fun digressions that develop our understanding of character personalities and relationships are even more acceptable. Writers are granted great freedoms, bound by few of the technical or communicative restraints that affect other artists. Cinematographers, for example, encounter limits in both what is possible and what is practical. On top of that, the more you flex creatively with the camera, the easier it is to lose all coherence and meaning. Writing, on the other hand, is a less delicate practice where you can nearly abandon grammar and syntax and still get your point across.
Exercising this freedom is one thing, indulging in it is another. Mayoi Snail is a meandering arc full of stupid exchanges, but all those random asides are kept within the container of the main story. Isin exercises his freedom by spending extra time letting Araragi and Senjougahara talk circles around each other at the start of the arc, but doesn’t lose sight of the arc as a whole. The characters are where the action is, and their nonsense stops based on the relevant cue of Hachikuji’s return to the map.
Compare this to Araragi’s visit to Nadeko in Karen Bee. Araragi isn’t anywhere he needs to be–that is, confronting Kaiki or talking to Karen. He is just hanging out with Nadeko talking about some typical Isin-esque nothingness. The nonsense only stops when Isin decides he’s nearing the end of the scene and needs to move on. Araragi brings up the supernatural out of the blue, in contrast to the way Hachikuji catches in attention in Mayoi Snail. Now, Hachikuji randomly arriving at the park isn’t a genius way to transition out of nonsense, but it at least provides actual motivation for the change in action. There is no inciting incident whatsoever for Araragi asking Nadeko about her curse.
Karen Bee, and Nisemonogatari as a whole, suffer even more for their overarching freedoms. Bakemonogatari is–beyond all the apparitions and nonsense–a love story between Senjougahara and Araragi. This overarching narrative provides focus to the serie’s extraneous conversations, and even gives an arc like Nadeko Snake some purpose beyond its fanservice and setups. Nisemonogatari lacks a central storyline or developmental goal.
The closest this season has to a central focus is the vague concept of fakeness versus realness. Throughout Karen Bee, Araragi will confront the questions of whether a fake holds less value than the real thing, whether there is any inherent difference between fakes that appear to be real and the actual real thing, etc. However, these questions hold no stake yet. Araragi is rather firmly in conflict with fakes–Kaiki is surely his antagonist and even Karen’s fake heroism is something he opposes. Thus, this philosophizing just floats in the air until later seasons. There is an interesting dilemma presented to Araragi during Tsukihi Phoenix once he discovers Tsukihi is a fake sister, but that’s a matter for the future as well.
Admittedly, some of the side conversations in Karen Bee play with this idea of fakeness vs. realness, but only at the shallow depth of tsundere jokes. For example, when Shinobu appears in Episode 6, she offers to help Araragi on the condition he phrases it as an order so she can “save face” as a once-great vampire. Araragi ordering her to find Karen is nothing more than a fake order, though it possesses the power of a real one for the fact that Shinobu would assist him anyway. Unfortunately, there’s no more pertinent philosophy in this scene than there is in any random Zizek joke.
The end result of exercising all these freedoms–both on a scene-by-scene basis and through the arc as a whole–is a loose and forgettable story. There are certainly fun scenes in Karen Bee (Senjougahara’s confinement of Araragi is spectacular), so arguably Nisio Isin achieved his goal. However, the attempts to splice those various scenes together into a coherent story fall short of Bakemonogatari’s brilliance. We can call Karen Bee a fake story, a facade pieced together from imitations of the real thing. In that case, this arc is a copy that does not come close to living up to the power of the real thing.