Bakemonogatari Episode 10
by Nick Creamer,
Meme Oshino has consistently returned to one core axiom regarding apparitions: others can't save you, you have to save yourself. Bakemonogatari itself seems to have more ambiguous feelings regarding that belief, as its arcs so far have been a mixture of self-examination and vital support from others. Senjougahara did ultimately regain her weight by acknowledging her own feelings, but she only got to that point through the assistance of Araragi and Oshino. Mayoi's story ultimately demanded honesty from her and growth from Araragi, but Senjougahara helped them get there. And here in Nadeko Snake, Nadeko's efforts to dispel her own apparition only made things worse. Nadeko seems to barely be an active participant in her own suffering. Nadeko is a victim.
Nadeko Snake's second half obsesses over Nadeko's victimhood, expressed in both visual and narrative terms. As far as her actual story goes, apparently Nadeko gained her curse by turning down a boy her friend had a crush on. Nadeko comes across as a total innocent here - building on her cutesy persona from the first episode, her actual tragedy is “I was too cute, so my friend punished me for it.” Being cute is apparently a double-edged sword.
Nadeko Snake's visual framing consistently emphasizes Nadeko's tragic and frustratingly passive position. Even as Araragi speaks of how to lift her curse, the camera shifts between his eyes and her bare legs, emphasizing her vulnerability through sexually framed imagery. The camera makes a big, overt to-do about objectifying Nadeko; when she changes her clothes, Bakemonogatari shifts to a widescreen format that it actually announces as “Cinemascope,” leering at her body as Araragi monologues about how she might soon be dead. The sequence ends with the line “she's probably putting on a brave face and enduring it,” emphasizing her passive options in the narrative as the invasive camera assaults her in a way she can't possibly refute.
The ambiguity of sexuality has been a key refrain in Bakemonogatari from the very beginning. Though we've only occasionally returned to this kind of sexually charged imagery, each instance has said something specific about the characters involved. There's obviously an element of having your cake and eating it too in using erotic imagery to make points about how we engage with and perceive each other - those points are well-articulated, but sexual imagery certainly doesn't hurt bluray sales. But up until now, the imagery hasn't really been uncomfortable - Senjougahara has used her body as a weapon, and Araragi has been bowled over by Hanekawa, but nothing has approached this arc, where Nadeko is both visually objectified and clearly uncomfortable with the process.
Imagery this loud demands we either engage with what the story is saying, embrace fanservice as fanservice, or otherwise shut it out entirely as an unfortunate failing of the work. Anime and art in general have an endless history of objectifying the female form - of seeing female characters as sexual, available bodies first, and people with their own desires second. It's difficult to entirely divorce a show that's trying to make a point with sexual framing from that history, particularly when it skirts the line of meaning and indulgent pulp as wildly and often haphazardly as Monogatari. Arcs up until now have made clear points with sexual framing, and rarely moved towards territory where the show seems to be leering at characters in a way they themselves wouldn't support. That's an important distinction; when the camera actively undercuts a character's self-expression through sexual framing, that says “this character isn't taken seriously by the show” in just the same way Senjougahara's manipulation of her body says “this is how my history has affected my personality and sense of self.”
Nadeko Snake doesn't seem to be operating on the same level as those previous arcs - instead of using sexual framing to articulate how characters express themselves, it uses invasive, predatory framing to actually comment on how shows look at characters. Nadeko herself is the most direct possible instrument for this purpose, as she pretty much embodies everything that normally does get objectified in anime. She's cute, shy, and overtly framed as a substitute little sister. She turns down a boy at school because she clearly has a crush on her “big brother,” making her the first focus character since Senjougahara who actually has feelings for our lead. She fell in love with Araragi for the most basic gestures of kindness, and has since harbored those feelings for several lonely years. She laughs off Araragi and Kanbaru bantering about rope play and fetish outfits, even as she's the target of these discussions.
Nadeko's role is one of utter passivity, her only act of rebellion the hidden feelings that ultimately just play into her victimhood. And as this episode continues, the audience becomes complicit in her victimhood, as the pandering and fanservice of a traditional harem is intensified and ultimately made horrible to witness.
Nadeko's purification ceremony is set up like some amateur adult film shoot. Returning once again to “Cinemavision,” bright spotlights herald the group's arrival at the shrine, before they set up a sheet on the ground lit up by an array of flashlights. The fanservice is taken to a new extreme in Nadeko's clothing, one of the regulation school swimsuits often framed as a fetish outfit. And Nadeko's request to “please keep your eyes on me” is followed by a flashback to her childhood, where a tinkling rendition of her theme song accompanies the reveal of her childish feelings for Araragi.
Having established this absurdly on-the-nose fanservice setup, Nadeko Snake then triples down to the point of madness. As the ritual begins, Nadeko is captured in overtly sexual single shots, emphasizing her vulnerability as she begins to pant in discomfort. From single shots, the camera then shifts to an invasive long pan, peering up and down her body as she suffers the pain of the snake being removed. And then the ritual goes horribly wrong, actually strangling Nadeko, choking her with the snake's body. The imagery is still deeply sexual, but it's violent and awful, emphasizing this entire scenario as an invasion of Nadeko. From complicity with the camera, the audience is forced into shared guilt, made an accomplice in this violent articulation of what unkind cameras have done for decades.
In the end, the truth of the ritual's failure underlines the malice of this episode's camera. As it turned out, Nadeko wasn't just cursed by her jealous friend - she was also cursed by the boy who confessed to her, and who she turned down. When someone is loved purely as an object, that love can easily turn to hatred. Nadeko was loved because she was a passive, beautiful object, but the moment her desires counteracted those of her admirer, she became a villain to be cursed. Just like the camera leering at Nadeko in spite of her own wishes, her would-be lover only cared about her insofar as he could dictate the terms of her existence. When his feelings ran aground on her own agency, he cursed her for it.
Nadeko As Condemnation Of Harem Storytelling isn't all this episode has going for it, though. Though Nadeko is the focus, this episode offers perhaps the clearest articulation yet of Araragi's failings as well. Oshino warns Araragi early on that he won't be here forever, and thus Araragi must learn to not always insert himself into other people's problems. But by the end of the episode, Araragi is actively throwing his own body into danger just to protect the boy who cursed Nadeko. In another of the show's vivid action sequences, bright lights and tall grass emphasize the power of the curse snake, as Araragi crumples on broken limbs only to be saved by Kanbaru. Even after saving Nadeko and almost destroying himself, Araragi cringes at Nadeko's praise, considering himself unworthy of it. Araragi doesn't need a hostile camera to feel diminished - at this point, it seems clear that he may well actively hate himself.
Bakemonogatari is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
Nick writes about anime, storytelling, and the meaning of life at Wrong Every Time.
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