Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Having resolved his conflict with Sodachi, Araragi finds himself reminiscing with Ougi on one more debt, an encounter that occurred just after Mayoi made her final exit. Having promised to introduce Kanbaru to Gaen, Araragi meets her in the abandoned cram school - only to be interrupted by a living suit of armor, an apparition that seems to know Shinobu personally. After just barely escaping with their lives, Araragi works to unravel the truth behind this armor and settle a feud that goes back four hundred years.
Monogatari's bizarre chronology can be frustrating at times. After the relatively straightforward continuity of Bake and Nise, Second Season saw the show jumping all around Araragi's final high school year, before Hanamonogatari leapt far beyond high school altogether. In Owarimonogatari, the first arc had us rewind back to Araragi's first meeting with Ougi, and the Sodachi arcs slotted in right near the end of the pre-college timeline. And now in Shinobu Mail, we find ourselves jumping back to the heart of Second Season, for an arc that takes place at the same time as Tsubasa Tiger.
Of course, this is Monogatari we're talking about, so every bizarre choice is going to be two parts “because Nisio Isin thought it was funny” and one part “because it's thematically necessary.” While Shinobu Mail largely takes place prior to the Sodachi arcs, it still acts as their direct thematic parallel. Just as the Sodachi material reflected on the debts Araragi had failed to pay, so too does this half find us reflecting on the past - but this time, we're returning to a Shinobu story four hundred years in the making.
The overt narrative of Shinobu Mail sees Araragi and Kanbaru being chased around their town by Shinobu's first partner, an apparition slayer and samurai from four hundred years ago. As we learned in Shinobu Time, after nearly being devoured by an apparition, Shinobu revived her servant as a vampire. Learning of his own nature, her samurai flung himself into the sunlight, and burned to a crisp. Now, several hundred years later, he's returned to settle his debts, whether that means simply reconciling with Shinobu, killing Araragi, or finding a new path forward.
All that only becomes clear in this arc's second half, though. The first half is more preoccupied with banter between Araragi and Kanbaru, and as far as that material goes, this is actually one of the series' most successfully funny arcs. Watching Kanbaru torture Araragi with her ostentatious perversion is almost always a good time; Araragi is generally the one who gets to play up his own perverted nature, and so seeing the tables turned is very entertaining. The two have a natural rapport that makes them possibly the most even-sided pair of “friends” in the series; even though Kanbaru can't help but make constant suggestive passes, they seem to have the most healthy and oddly platonic relationship of anyone here. Watching Kanbaru do stuff like commission Araragi to go buy her a new light novel called “Brutal Garcon Huff-Huffs a Half-Blood Boy” is a lot of fun.
The charming dialogue helps smooth over the fact that this is one of the least visually compelling arcs of the series. Sticking to a television release schedule doesn't really do the series any favors; in contrast with visual highlights like Hanamonogatari, this arc is both animation-minimal and generally conservative even in its style digressions. The one exception comes when Gaen recounts the story of Shinobu's first minion. That particular segment is blessed with a wide variety of strong visual ideas, from the classical painted landscapes of Shinobu's past to the evocative depictions of her servant's slow regeneration. The other highlight is this arc's opening song, which is also its only real musical standout. Like in the prior Shinobu arc, there are no clear lyrics here, and instead an orchestral song with chanting vocals conveys Shinobu's relationship with her abandoned partner.
While the early Kanbaru material is fun, it's in the second half that this arc really steps up. Once the mystery has been largely solved, consequences begin to emerge in terms of both character and theme. Like the Sodachi arc, Shinobu Mail is deeply concerned with owning up to the mistakes of the past, and Shinobu's ambiguous feelings towards her former servant are crossed with Araragi's own doubts about what he means to Shinobu.
Shinobu's relationship with Araragi has been one of the series' most strange and consistent threads. It's clear that the two cling to each other out of a fear of abandonment, but as more support structures have grown around Araragi, Shinobu's relationship has begun to feel out of place. Shinobu isn't a pure reflection of Araragi in the way Ougi seems to be, but she still echoes his self-doubt, self-loathing, and fear of abandonment. And in directly addressing her current feelings for her first servant, Shinobu is forced to address her feelings towards Araragi as well.
This internal conflict comes to a head in this arc's best scene, as Kanbaru demands Shinobu say goodbye to her first servant in person. This scene is less a reflection of some high thematic argument than a pure expression of two people's differing views on what relationships demand, each of whom having clear reasons for their feelings. Shinobu is ultimately forced to admit that her high-minded rhetoric hides some very human fears, while Kanbaru breaks down her defenses with the argument that a total lack of consideration for her first partner's feelings would mean she can't trust her feelings for Araragi, either. It's another of the biting, thoughtful, deeply personal conversations that ultimately make Monogatari strong.
Not to be outdone, Araragi's material in this arc's endgame offers uplifting commentary on the series at large. Araragi feels understandably insecure about matching up against Shinobu's sword-wielding, demon-slaying, death-defying partner, and so the final episode begins with him calling Senjougahara for support. Brutal to the end, Senjougahara admits that “if someone better were to come along, I'd 100% dump you for him” - but on top of that blunt declaration, she adds that it's precisely because no bond is permanent that we work to respect and be important to the people we care about. Even if Araragi isn't some demon-slaying hero, “if you can't become a special person, you can be a special person to someone.” And the finale of this arc emphasizes just how special all of these characters have become, as Araragi, Kanbaru, Shinobu, Hanekawa, and Senjougahara all demonstrate their resounding trust in each other.
All that makes me pretty fond of this arc on the whole. Monogatari's visual execution has certainly been better, and some of Gaen's exposition can really drag, but the peaks here are representative of the series' most laudable qualities, and some of the big scenes count among the best in the franchise. Owarimonogatari leaves the series in a strong position as it moves toward the final chapter.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : A-
Animation : C
Art : B
Music : B
+ Overall arc offers excellent growth for both Shinobu and Araragi, some terrific individual scenes
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