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Episodes 13-15

by Nick Creamer,

Hey all, and welcome to the last act of Bakemonogatari. This didn't end up being anywhere close to the end of the franchise, but it could have been. Tsubasa Cat hones in on the contradictory needs that have formed the context for all of Bakemonogatari, centering on the two characters who first brought this story to life.

Bakemonogatari's arcs have all focused on the process of saving someone from some kind of apparition. While the apparitions have changed, questions of what it means to be “saved” at all have recurred throughout. The show hasn't offered any easy solutions to this, and it has even contrasted the two poles of this question in the philosophies of Oshino and Araragi. Oshino believes people can only save themselves, even though it's clear that both his and Araragi's help are crucial to resolving these conflicts. Araragi believes there's nothing more worthwhile than saving others, even though it's clear that many of these problems can't be fixed by external solutions.

This fundamental question has been echoed by Araragi's own identity issues. Araragi's desire to save others isn't just a passion, it's an obsession - to the point where he often makes terrible sacrifices in order to help near strangers. This isn't framed as a noble choice, and it shouldn't be. It's been repeatedly emphasized that Araragi's selflessness is its own kind of selfishness. Even if Araragi doesn't find value in his life, there are clearly people who care about him, and throwing himself away does a disservice to their feelings.

The more you turn the show's fundamental question, the more new reflections emerge. How does a character's philosophy on saving others reflect on their ability to trust? Is it always right to believe in the strength of others, or is acknowledging the weakness of those we love actually a part of loving them? How do we express our love, and how do we be kind, even if those we care about are going down the wrong path? How much do we owe to the people who love us? Is being saved from our emotional pain even an achievable goal worth pursuing? Is love itself always a positive thing?

Bakemonogatari's last few episodes can't really offer clear answers to these questions, because clear answers don't exist. These are the contradictions that make up individual identities. Any philosophy of human engagement that accounts for all possible situations is still a philosophy based on one specific view of the world, and as Bakemonogatari has repeatedly emphasized, our views of the world are all different and valid. All any of these characters can do is just muddle through the best they can.

Fortunately, Araragi does seem to be getting better at muddling. Episodes thirteen and fourteen offer a long, slow build to Araragi's confrontation with the cat, providing frustrating context for his relationship with Hanekawa. Through conversations with Mayoi, Senjougahara, and Hanekawa herself, it becomes more clear that Hanekawa is his most obvious blind spot. While Araragi has always been eager to help others, he can't seem to recognize Hanekawa's terrible pain. He refers to her as “amazing” and “my savior,” but his very respect for her prevents him from seeing her as the flawed, vulnerable, and often jealous person she is. For Hanekawa's part, she doesn't seem able to be honest with Araragi - even when he directly interrogates her about her apparition, all she can do is ask him to explain stupid jokes.

The cat has fewer reservations. After Oshino knocks Hanekawa unconscious, the rest of this arc is dominated by a dialogue between Araragi and Black Hanekawa, who serves as our clearest example yet of the nebulous distance that separates apparition from truth.

Black Hanekawa speaks repeatedly about the relationship between apparitions and humans, stating that “apparitions and humans can never be compatible.” It's impossible to “get used to” apparitions, because they're fundamentally defined by antagonism towards humans. This view is true enough, but it's incomplete. Ultimately, the fact that we can't ever “be comfortable” with apparitions doesn't mean we must purge them - it just means that all of us carry scars and pain that will never fully heal. We are all fractured people; we all have apparitions that cloud our identities. It's perhaps a sad state of affairs, but it's the only world that exists. We are not solely defined by our victories and sources of pride; our pain and weakness is just as fundamental to our character.

Framed this way, the relationship between Araragi and Hanekawa becomes more clear. Araragi is frustratingly ignorant of Hanekawa's pain, but Hanekawa has also been desperate to hide it. Hanekawa doesn't want Araragi to see all of her, so the mean, petty, and jealous instincts that she refuses to show all spin together in the form of the cat. Black Hanekawa is Hanekawa's “ugliness” given its own identity, a character who naturally believes Araragi can never get along with creatures like itself. While Araragi's focus on Hanekawa's strengths has blinded him to her identity, Hanekawa's fear of her weaknesses has cut her off as well.

In the end, the truth is obvious: Hanekawa is in love with Araragi, and Araragi has never realized it. She hid her feelings from him because she knew that she wasn't the person he believed her to be. Contrasting sharply against Araragi and Senjougahara's vow of honesty, Hanekawa's identity is defined by rejection of self. As Black Hanekawa mocks Araragi's philosophy, we return to the show's first conversation, the camera only now allowing us to see Hanekawa's ambiguous feelings. Araragi himself is the source of Hanekawa's stress, a stress born of lies they each told themselves.

Black Hanekawa's confession puts Araragi at an impossible crossroads. On the one hand, Araragi truly has taken Hanekawa for granted and never acknowledged her feelings. While simply ceding to her wishes may be impossible, this is one case where he's been unwilling to help a friend. On the other hand, Araragi's greatest weakness has been an inability to take a stand for himself. Araragi's dedication to Senjougahara may well be the first time he's found value in his own feelings and identity - not in the way he ignorantly hero-worships Hanekawa, but as an honest equal.

Left without a real answer, Araragi almost falls into his classic trap. If Hanekawa can't have him, then Black Hanekawa will have to kill him - and just like with Kanbaru and Nadeko, that initially seems okay by him. As geysers of blood paint the pavement and his consciousness fades, Araragi's philosophy is ultimately redeemed by someone else's help. He remembers Senjougahara's old pledge to Kanbaru - “If you let her kill you, then I'll have to kill her. Do you want to make me a murderer, Araragi?” He can't do that to Hanekawa, and he can't do that to Senjougahara. Even if it's for another's sake, Araragi at last finds value in his own life. And with that resolved, he can finally ask Shinobu to save him.

Remembering Senjougahara's words and asking Shinobu for help doesn't “fix” Araragi. He still probably doesn't value himself, and he's still pretty far away from understanding Hanekawa. His relationship with Senjougahara is defined by uneasy navigations of personal feelings, and his self-awareness can't have improved by much. But that's all just how it goes in the end. We can't live peacefully with apparitions, but we will never escape them. We are all complicated people burdened with unique baggage, navigating individual worlds and attempting to meet in some arbitrary middle. Even acting true to our personal concepts of “honesty” won't necessarily bring communal agreement. All we can do is try to acknowledge our personal shadows, accept that everyone is fighting demons of their own, and try to help others the best we can. We may all be fighting our own battles, but we can still do it together.

Overall: A

Bakemonogatari is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

Nick writes about anime, storytelling, and the meaning of life at Wrong Every Time.

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