by Nick Creamer,
Welcome to the second arc of Bakemonogatari, Mayoi Snail. The first arc introduced us to Araragi, Senjougahara, and the overall show's general structure, offering an exorcism story that ultimately reflected Senjougahara's own psychological scars. It also acted as a reasonable outline of many things I find compelling about this show: its purposeful visual framing, its use of sexuality as a reflection of character, its unique take on ghost stories, and its emphasis on constant dialogue as a tool not just for information, but for texture.
Monogatari's second arc is interesting in a different way, ultimately reflecting many of the things I dislike about the series. In fact, when I initially tried watching this series, Mayoi Snail compelled me to put it on hold for a while out of sheer frustration. I enjoyed this first episode a great deal more this time through, but I'm sure we'll get to all of this as it makes itself known.
We open with Araragi alone in a park on Mother's Day, a setup that already reflects last arc's mother-centric drama. In contrast with the first arc's heavy shadows and more natural tones, this park is all primary colors and white buildings, evoking an oddly sterile feeling. It's a visual style that eventually becomes evocative of Monogatari in general - in spite of its many style digressions, the show often embraces a clean, sharp-angled, flat-colored visual design. The world feels like a set, a stage only spruced up with three benches and a lamp.
Araragi's thoughts seem to wander around his reason for being at the park. He mentions Mother's Day right at the start, and his conversation ends with a fragment of his sister lecturing him, but the overall tone is one of freedom slowly trending toward loneliness. From the quiet exultation of “I'm the only one with park privileges” and “it feels like I'll never have to go home,” his thoughts shift to “I'm all alone again” and eventually the acknowledgment that his underlying feeling is one of self-hatred.
Most shows would not construct an internal monologue in this way, walking around the point through a series of rephrasings until the underlying sentiment finally appears. In a visually-oriented and time-constrained medium like animation, that kind of rambling feels like a luxury at best and a padding tactic at worst. But it's a style of writing that's fundamental to Monogatari's storytelling, which allows the show to create a more specific and multifaceted emotional tone than a direct acknowledgment of one specific emotional reality would.
Araragi isn't just lonely - the composition of this internal monologue tells us he's lonely, avoiding the truth of that fact - he's feeling guilty about something, he's feeling like a martyr for that guilt, he's feeling ashamed of that sense of martyrdom, and a fair bit else besides. Even a character simply repeating a line about their feelings tells us more than that initial line did, as repetition can imply certainty, uncertainty, fear, ignorance, and much else. Through the specific composition of these wandering conversations, Monogatari adds nuances and undertones to its characters' immediate emotional truths.
Araragi's feelings will have to stew for a moment, as the second he's done feeling sorry for himself, a new opening song arrives. Every one of Monogatari's arcs is accompanied by its own opening, offering a little self-introduction for that arc's focus character. Staple Stable, the first opening, is relatively unique among Monogatari openings. Heavy on live-action footage and distinctive typography, it reflects director Oishi's own visual interests. Kaerimichi, this Mayoi opening, is more reflective of future openings. Featuring our new hero Mayoi in a variety of goofy adventures, it offers a solid glimpse of her own self-image.
But Mayoi won't gain the narrative spotlight without a fight. Araragi's melancholy is broken by the arrival of Senjougahara, who greets him in typically snarky fashion before fifteen minutes of verbal banter begins.
Senjougahara's introduction reflects the first thing I don't really like about Monogatari - its author Nisio Isin's love of silly puns. Monogatari is a testament to Isin's fascination with human beings, but Isin is also fascinated by the formal structure of writing craft, be it expressed through genre or sentence construction or individual letters. Some of these interests pay off in a dramatic sense (Monogatari could be reductively described as a commentary on fantasies of romance and heroism), but in a moment-to-moment sense, his silly puns are both nearly untranslatable and reflections of his authorial voice rather than the voices of his characters. When the cast start talking about how words are constructed or make random anime references, I don't hear them talking, I just hear him.
Fortunately, Senjougahara's puns are just the first stage in an otherwise fantastic conversation. Senjougahara seems to treat every human engagement as a kind of war, and given the revelations of Hitagi Crab, that's understandable. As she acidly explains that she actually wanted Araragi to see her new clothes, her snark acts as a kind of shield. Senjougahara initially defined herself as a “tsundere,” but at this point it's clear that she's more what a tsundere would look like if they were written like a real person - guarded and defensive, but also emotionally transparent.
Fortunately for Senjougahara, it doesn't take much of an assault to knock out Araragi. Both his expressions and the camera's gaze reflect the fact that Araragi is overwhelmed by her physical presence. Shots aimed at her chest and collarbone aren't really titillating in a traditional fanservice sense - the drawings are too brief and chaste for that. Instead, they reflect Araragi's own fascination. As Senjougahara speaks of “honestly repaying him,” Araragi finds himself trapped in the corner of the frame, utterly overwhelmed by her sexuality. The metal bars of the playground make an inexplicable appearance crossing Senjougahara's face, further emphasizing his feeling of entrapment. Then the whole offensive ends in anticlimax, as Senjougahara states that her desire to repay Araragi is based in wanting to “become friends on equal terms.”
The conversation continues in that vein, combining lots of small gags with plenty of actual reflections on character. Senjougahara chasing Araragi across the bench is funny for its own sake, but it also reflects how she still sees her body as her most dependable weapon. The sequence ending on “let's just be friends” is silly enough, but it also reflects the distance between these characters' words and physically-expressed feelings, as well as how Senjougahara still feels uncomfortable if she thinks that she owes anyone anything.
A conversation that explores Araragi's frustrated feelings about Mother's Day ultimately winds back to the exact same place. “Do you want a girlfriend?” “If I said I did, what then?” “You'd get a girlfriend.” “Well, I guess I don't want anything like that.” The two of them have a great natural rapport, but they also come across as constantly testing the waters, seeing how far their mutual attraction can safely go. If they had a third friend, this would probably be the part where they say they have to go the bathroom and then never come back.
This romantic tension is eventually cut by Mayoi, the girl in the ridiculous pink backpack. Driven by his strange urge to help everybody, Araragi excuses himself from Senjougahara and winds up tackling an elementary schooler for basically no reason. Mayoi and Araragi's relationship certainly has its own quirks, but we've still got two episodes of Snail ahead of us. Hachikuji's jokes, Senjougahara's doubts, and the true significance of Mother's Day will have to wait until next time.
Bakemonogatari is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
Nick writes about anime, storytelling, and the meaning of life at Wrong Every Time.
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