by Nick Creamer,
How would you rate episode 9 of
Araragi and his friends haven't had an easy run with mentors. He started off with Meme Oshino, who at the time already seemed like a fairly difficult teacher; distant and inscrutable, Meme more often left Araragi to figure out his own problems than offered any real support. But Meme was as understanding as they came compared to his successors, with Araragi first running into one “teacher” who ended up poisoning his sister, and a second who literally blew his other sister in half. Kaiki has slowly come around, but it still feels like none of these figures can be relied on, and certainly should never be trusted.
And then there's Gaen.
Gaen doesn't come off as inscrutable as Meme, as aggressive as Yozuru, or as sinister as Kaiki. Gaen has ridiculous fashion sense, and in return for more or less direct advice, she only asks for manageable favors. Gaen's motives often seem clear, and are theoretically centered on the same things Araragi and his friends would seek - peace and safety within their hometown. But in her own way, Gaen is just as ominous and imposing as any of her companions.
This episode began by having Araragi quickly dispose of last week's apparition, a creature that seemed awkwardly constructed out of all the apparitions he'd dealt with thus far. Like the samurai lacking its sword, or a separated Araragi and Shinobu, this apparition was “incomplete” - a condition that will likely play into the finale of this arc. After that, Shinobu learned the full story of the samurai from Araragi, and immediately denied that it could be her own old minion. But when the trio finally met with Gaen, she brushed this denial aside with a laugh.
Gaen tends to laugh about a lot of things. Her power comes through knowledge, and the way that knowledge makes her come off as alternately amused by everything or almost callous in her disregard for others' petty concerns. As Shinobu, Araragi, and Kanbaru traded thoughts on the situation, Gaen referred to everyone with a mocking “as expected of…” refrain, praising them even as she indicated how much they were confirming her own thoughts. And tiny pearls of maybe-wisdom scattered throughout her speech (“in the end, keeping the promise is the shortest route to getting results,” etc) felt like barbed digs at all these characters, lines that both implied how much she knew about their stories and how little she was impressed with their actions.
The second half of this episode was dominated by Gaen, as she rambled through a series of monologues on two central topics - how Araragi's nature is tied to the proliferation of aberrations in his town, and how Shinobu's old minion clung to life only to arrive back there himself. Both of these topics play into the characters of Monogatari “taking responsibility for themselves,” a theme that's deeply embedded in most of the major arcs (Hanekawa embracing her own emotions, Nadeko taking charge of her own happiness, and even Araragi coming to grips with his relationship with Sodachi). But even as these stories were playing off many of the major narratives thus far, the real appeal here was the beauty of the telling.
This episode was a visual feast compared to the last two, and most of its gifts were focused in Gaen's stories. Her thoughts on Araragi's responsibilities framed her as a giant looming over their town, examining cut-paper versions of apparitions and acquaintances as they went about their days. And her recounting the story of Shinobu's minion returned to the gorgeous tapestries of Shinobu Time, mixing in shots that looked like traditional animation over felt paper backgrounds and black-and-white interpretive shots vividly illustrating his descent and subsequent rise back to personhood. Monogatari loves its monologues, but when they're illustrated as beautifully as this, the time flies.
The episode ended on a cliffhanger, as Gaen ominously framed the samurai's resurrection as coming to an end “fifteen years ago.” Whether that means the samurai now exists as a living person around Karen's age or has simply been lurking as some kind of spirit since then is still unclear, but either way, this episode's visual wonders and intimidating Gaen theatrics were their own rewards. Shinobu Mail has finally pulled off its first consistently great episode.
Nick writes about anime, storytelling, and the meaning of life at Wrong Every Time.
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