Bakemonogatari Episode 2
by Nick Creamer,
Bakemonogatari's second episode opens with ten minutes of Senjougahara insulting Araragi in her underwear.
As pure sexual fanservice, this is certainly an effective scene! Monogatari has an offhand mastery of weird sexual energy, making this scene feel uncomfortable in a way that's clearly intended to be erotic. The show knows that sexuality is more than just boobs and butts; it's awkwardly tangled limbs, stares conveyed across tumbling hair, the dangling specifics of clothes half-worn. Head tilts aside, there's a believable, almost clumsy physicality to this scene that makes it feel distinct in a sea of me-too fanservice. The fact that Senjougahara is clearly the one controlling the camera also helps alleviate the sense of voyeurism that often feels inherent to fanservice. The tradition of attractive women browbeating men in extremely sexual ways began long before Monogatari and will continue long after it's ended.
Of course, this pronounced sexual offense tells us other things as well. It's certainly intended to be appealing to the audience on an immediate level, but in a show heavy with double meanings, Senjougahara's presentation of self tells us a great deal on its own.
Girls don't normally undress in front of boys they've just met, but Senjougahara's own words give us a few clues as to what she's doing here. First off, there's the glib “I hope you haven't become aroused by the sight of my nude body.” Araragi is a heterosexual teenage boy - there's little chance he's not going to be aroused by a naked girl marching around him, and his every action shows that. Maintaining her imperious tone even as she picks what shirt to wear, Senjougahara seems to see her nudity as a power play, a way to maintain her control of the situation. But even for that, why would she choose revealing her body as a way to keep him off-kilter?
“I'm putting on a big show to thank you for today” is her telling followup line. Obviously, Araragi seems to “appreciate” seeing her naked, but why would that be her go-to way of rewarding him? How does Senjougahara see herself, that she would think her first line of both defense and favor is to reveal her naked body to a stranger? Wouldn't buying him ice cream be an easier solution?
The easy answer to these questions is “because this is a fanservice show.” As of now, it's pretty hard to dispute that. The show opened with a panty flash, and here in the second episode, we get a long scene of a female character playing to a popular type while presenting her body for both the male protagonist and the audience by proxy.
Monogatari presents something of an audience crossroads here. It's easy to dismiss the show as fanservice for its own sake, and there are certainly people who enjoy the show primarily for its fanservice (though this gets more difficult in the later seasons, when the psychology-to-fanservice ratio shifts from maybe 80-20 to about 97-3). But to get more out of the show than that, you have to offer the show a little trust at this point - assume that it's “going somewhere” with these choices and that they aren't just their own reward.
It is difficult and not always rewarding to “trust” a show, to believe that even when it's making choices you don't agree with, it's making those choices for meaningful reasons and that it's worth trying to unpack that reasoning. Not all shows reward that trust, and even in shows with lots of things to say, not every choice is meaningful. TV shows are created not just by single voices, but by many dedicated creators working in tandem. Some of those creators will include things they thought were beautiful, cool, or sexy, and attempting to align an entire production with one “this is what it all means” message will always result in some loose ends. On top of that, audiences frankly don't have any obligation to give shows the benefit of the doubt. In a sea of endless possible media choices, sticking with something that immediately repels you because someone says “it gets better, I swear” or “this will all pay off, don't worry” is not the safest decision.
Fortunately, Bakemonogatari's second episode doesn't force the audience to wait long. Having purified themselves for the crab-summoning ceremony, Senjougahara and Araragi return to the cram school, which has been transformed in the hours they were gone. From its already decaying but relatively innocuous evening appearance, it has become an ominous shrine, full of dark corners and dancing candles. The flashing text screens that opened this episode spoke of a man who sells his shadow for ten coins and then regrets the bargain - in this dark place, shadows seem to tower over their alleged masters. Monogatari is many things, but when it leans fully into its exorcism narrative shell, it can become a gripping ghost story.
Meme commences his ritual in the manner of a shrine visit, but his words seem more like a kind of therapy. Assuring Senjougahara that this is “a place where she belongs” (something her broken home seems to have denied her), he runs through a series of relatively innocuous personal questions, before turning to the matter at hand. “What is your most painful memory?” he asks. And Senjougahara reveals the truth.
Senjougahara's mother falling into a religious cult didn't break up their family all at once. Having committed totally to her cult leaders, her mother at one point brought a man back to their house, who attempted to rape Senjougahara. These painful memories are conveyed through a mix of live-action footage, simplified backgrounds, and fuzzy primary colors, emphasizing both the pain and distance of Senjougahara's feelings. It's like a dream seen through a crimson filter, ending with the sad admittance that “my mother didn't come to my rescue.”
Senjougahara isn't just angry at her mother, though. Like any child, she can't see her mother as fully to blame, so she actually harbors guilt over the breakdown of her family. “If I hadn't resisted that day, at the very least, we wouldn't have ended up like this,” she says. Neither acknowledging nor denying those feelings, Meme responds that “Those feelings are yours. You can't leave them to someone else.”
Senjougahara's true “weight” offers clear context to her earlier actions. Afflicted by a mother who sold her for religious salvation, Senjougahara is unable to believe in her own weight, her own value. Senjougahara sees her own body as currency and weaponry because it's all her mother left her, all her mother seemed to see in her. The fact that she's determined to control how her body is used speaks to her pride and strength; the fact that she feels the need to lean on her body as her only resource speaks to the scars still left by her mother's choices.
Having admitted this truth, Senjougahara can finally see the crab that took her weight. The other two can't see this crab, which is important. Whether or not others can see the truth of your feelings and memories, those feelings exist. The spectral nature of the crab speaks to the spectral nature of all our psychological scarring - invisible and intangible, but absolutely, undeniably real. Though we occupy a communal reality, our conceptions of that communal world are deeply influenced by our own personal worlds, as real and heavy as the crab that pins Senjougahara against the wall.
In the end, Senjougahara regains her weight by simply asking for it to be returned. Senjougahara doesn't forgive her mother and has no obligation to - but both the painful and precious memories are an undeniable part of her. By embracing the violence of her past, Senjougahara demonstrates her own strength, lessening the burden of her fractured sense of self-worth. Personal growth is a long and wandering process, and just acknowledging her own feelings won't be enough to let Senjougahara grow beyond a broken childhood. Still, standing and acknowledging Araragi as a friend and equal seems like a pretty good start.
Bakemonogatari is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
Nick writes about anime, storytelling, and the meaning of life at Wrong Every Time.
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