Reviewby Nick Creamer, Dec 13th 2016
Things are going pretty well for Koyomi Araragi these days. He's got a girlfriend, his grades are improving, and he even has underclassmen who look up to him. Araragi is happy, but he's not confident in that happiness - and he shouldn't be. As it turns out, Araragi's happiness is built on the unhappiness of another, woven in with the life of a girl whose face he can barely recall. Araragi may not be ready to face the past, but the past will be meeting him soon enough. Only time will tell if Araragi can unlock the secrets of his own history and perhaps bring peace to one more lost soul.
For as much as his voice often dominates the narrative, Monogatari rarely dedicates an arc to Araragi's own apparitions or history. The only arc up until now that you could truly call “his” is Kizumonogatari - drenched in self-loathing and guided by his self-sacrificing spirit, that arc digs at the heart of Araragi more directly than any other. His strengths, failings, and psychological hangups come through clearly enough in the stories of others, but his actual history is still extremely vague. In the first arcs of its theoretical Final Season, Monogatari sets out to remedy that absence. Araragi himself gets much of the focus here, receiving the same critical but ultimately sympathetic perspective that defines the Monogatari gaze.
Owarimonogatari Part One is actually composed of three arcs, though they all add up to a relatively cohesive whole. The first, Ougi Formula, sees Araragi trapped with his new underclassman Ougi in a mysterious classroom. Monogatari's chronology has been muddled both deliberately and unavoidably through both the source material's choices and anime's release schedule, so this two-episode arc ends up acting as Araragi's first introduction to Ougi. As far as first impressions go, Ougi certainly makes a dramatic one.
Ougi's nature has been a consistent question since the middle arcs of Second Season. Though she claims to be Meme Oshino's niece, we have no way of confirming that and many reasons to doubt it. In addition to directly instigating the drama of both this arc and Nadeko Medusa, her very form seems vague and inhuman - not only do her grey pallor and black eyes paint her as some kind of zombie, she even casually changes genders without a word in Hanamonogatari. She also gleefully comments on character foibles she has no business knowing, successfully gaslights Araragi with terrifying frequency, and may actually have planned to eat Mayoi. It's clear that Ougi is some kind of apparition, and in Ougi Formula, her more-than-incidental link with Araragi becomes uncomfortably clear.
Ougi Formula's overt narrative concerns a day two years ago when Araragi first lost his belief in righteousness. An assembly is called by class representative Sodachi Oikura to discover who cheated on a recent math exam, and over the course of a lengthy afternoon, Oikura is condemned by her classmates, and Araragi loses faith in both his classmates and authority figures in general. The retelling of this story is presented as a mystery to be solved - the flashback to Oikura's meeting is contrasted against Araragi and Ougi's present-day efforts to discover who truly cheated, and the classroom they're trapped in makes their current task an oddly literal locked room mystery. It's a long-winded and exposition-heavy arc, but given that this is Monogatari, lengthy monologues are probably something you've come to expect.
More important than this arc's narrative content is the way it establishes the relationship between Araragi and Ougi. Araragi's perverted nature has always been one of Monogatari's awkward sticking points, but in Ougi's presence, Araragi immediately becomes the victim. Ougi Formula's ominous direction and uncomfortable character animation make Ougi's imposing nature consistently clear. The usual palette shifts and extreme closeups are uniquely well-suited to this arc, evoking how easily and completely Ougi crushes Araragi under her thumb. Like Shinobu, Ougi is an apparition that's clearly intended to be reflective of Araragi's fraught psychology - but unlike Shinobu, Ougi only seems interested in dragging Araragi down.
Owarimonogatari's next two arcs expand on Ougi's antagonism, while also pulling Oikura into the present narrative. Like Ougi Formula, Sodachi Riddle, and Sodachi Lost are constructed around a series of overt mysteries, ranging from “find out why Oikura despises Araragi” to “discover the fate of Oikura's mother.” At times, the mystery narrative conceit can negatively impact the flow of the narrative - Monogatari is a slow-paced show at the best of times, and arranging arcs around a series of twists only plays into that tendency. But even if the narrative can sometimes drag, the raw nature of this material is dramatically compelling and emotionally impactful.
As the focus character of both these arcs, Oikura occupies a strange place in the Monogatari pantheon. The show hasn't introduced an ordinary human girl since its first season, and centering these two arcs on “saving” one more girl feels somewhat like a retread of old narrative ground. I'm frankly not sure Oikura justifies her awkward place in the narrative, but her material is still vivid and thematically cohesive. Oikura's deep depression and hatred of Araragi add new complexities to the show's thoughts on emotional autonomy, “saving” others, and the pursuit of happiness. Her story is viciously unhappy, and Marina Inoue brings it to life with an intentionally unsteady, consistently strangled vocal performance (along with two of the best opening songs the show has seen).
On Araragi's side, the retelling of his prior run-ins with Oikura end up offering a wide variety of insights into his character. From the motivation for his initial sense of justice to his later self-loathing and current insecurity, Oikura's mysteries and Ougi's probing draw all manner of emotional truths out of our lecherous hero. His speeches near the end of this arc point to a true path forward out of Monogatari's emotional mire, where mutual empathy and communal dedication to the pursuit of happiness might bring peace even as our minds and hearts betray us. Araragi's growth is tangible, a reaffirming of his most admirable qualities built on all the trials he's undergone.
Beyond the big emotional and thematic strides of this arc, there are also plenty of smaller pleasures to be found. Hanekawa gets some of the best material here, from her various throwdowns with Ougi (she unsurprisingly finds Araragi's new friend suspicious from the start) to goofy sequences like being dragged through the classroom by Senjougahara. Her appearances post-Tsubasa Tiger all feel like gifts; having come closer than any other Monogatari character to self-actualization, her confident actions now act as a validation of all the pain and character growth she's been forced to endure. The focus on Oikura and overwrought mystery motifs ultimately make these arcs feel less essential than Monogatari's best, but from its evocative visual design to its insightful emotional center, everything that makes the show great still puts in an appearance for this arc.
Owarimonogatari comes in the show's standard packaging, with a cardboard box housing the show on two blu-rays, as well as a character booklet and a few postcards. The disc's extras are as minimal as ever - no dub, and only clean openings/endings to accompany the episodes themselves. Overall, while Owarimonogatari's first half can't match the highs of arcs like Hanamonogatari or Hitagi End, it's still a creative and compelling set of episodes. Monogatari's boundless concern for its characters means that every new arc feels like a reunion with increasingly complex and endearing friends. With over fifty episodes under its belt, it seems like Nisio Isin and SHAFT can't say goodbye to these friends either.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B-
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Offers new insights into Araragi's character while furthering the show's resoundingly humanist messages, visual articulation of Ougi's emotional dominance is a treat
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