Monogatari and the Absence of Actuality

It was the summer of 2017, the summer before I moved to Japan to begin my year abroad.

After years of waiting and procrastination, I’d finally begun to watch the Monogatari series. I was sure that it’d love it. After all, I’d finished Medaka Box not too long before, which had quickly become one of my favourite manga, if not one of my favourite series of all time.

Somewhat predictably, I fell in love with it. It only took me two days to finish all of Bakemonogatari, and then I moved through the other series at a similar brisk pace. As someone who struggles to marathon things since I find it difficult to focus my attention on one particular thing at a time, given that there are so many things I want to experience, this was very out of the ordinary. And that could only mean one thing. I really, really liked Monogatari.

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Owarimonogatari (Ge) – Hitagi Rendezvous

Thus, once I moved to Japan I was in the middle of a state of Monogatari fever. Everything revolved around the series. I thought about the story, the characters, the themes, and tried to relate them to my new life in a strange new country. Mostly, I succeeded. I was able to see the relevance of the stories of Hanekawa, of Araragi, and of Hachikuji, among others, in my own life. But the one thing I couldn’t relate to my own new surroundings was the surroundings of the show itself.

Despite moving to the country in which the series is supposedly set, I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what part of Japan Monogatari’s nameless metropolis was supposed to resemble. It definitely wasn’t Fuchu. Almost definitely not Shibuya, Shinjuku, or Harajuku. Even after making the trip all the way out to Chiba, I still wasn’t able to see the resemblance.

But that got me thinking. Isn’t that on purpose? Why would Shaft and Shinbou, a studio and director I both respect greatly, make this design choice? What meaning could it possibly have?

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Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magika‘s psychological labyrinth

I began my journey by looking back to the past. Or, more specifically, back to past Shaft shows I had watched. Granted, this wasn’t many at the time – Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, which I dropped an episode in back in 2012; Koufuku Graffiti, which I actually managed to make the whole way through; and Madoka Magica, which I also dropped about 4 episodes in a long time ago, and had no desire to give another go given my long-standing gripes with Gen Urobuchi’s writing.

Even so, I had seen enough of Madoka to get an idea of the design choices that Shinbou had made during his time on the show. His modern landscapes were similar to the landscapes he had chosen to accompany Bakemonogatari 2 years before – flat, never-ending and uniform. Yet, this was in direct contrast to the type of landscape he employed in the mahou shoujo world – twisting, horrific ones which curled and distorted to create a literal labyrinth of mental anguish that the characters found themselves in. Clearly, this was a conscious design choice to highlight not only the difference in locality, but also to serve the show’s general purpose of subversion of mahou shoujo tropes through contrast.

If we compare Monogatari to Madoka, we can see that Shinbou utilized a lot of the same ideas. Monogatari’s nameless metropolis bears a striking resemblance to Madoka’s locale, with it’s modernist architecture; repeating patterns of bicycles, buildings and fences; and lack of green spaces. However, Shinbou did not simply utilize the same idea out of laziness or complacency – the locale of Monogatari serves a very specific purpose, setting it apart from Madoka.

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Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magic‘s metropolis

Isin’s main thesis in Monogatari is to deconstruct the idea of a harem protagonist, just like he set out to deconstruct the shounen protagonist in Medaka Box. Araragi’s deliberate characterization as a self-centered, perverted everyman ultimately leads us to question what exactly attracts all of his harem to him from the outset – immediately putting the character and archetype of Araragi under the looking glass.

To reflect this egotism, Shinbou imbues the stark metropolis with Araragi’s own excitable temperament to transform it into something engaging and exciting. He races through the city on his bike, flying past skyscrapers and houses with an energy unbefitting of the uniform, monotone locale. We confront antagonists on the top of skyscrapers, with the wind howling. It is in an abandoned, crumbling cram school that he meets with Meme. As viewers, we understand that the metropolitan locale is not that exciting – especially Japanese viewers, the majority of which experience such a locale every day. Yet, Araragi’s willpower and confidence as a protagonist elevate the locale to a level beyond which it should normally reach.

Even so, this willpower and confidence is not something that the series idolizes or commends. Rather, the series’ thesis is to show the true nature of such a typical harem protagonist. Viewing this metropolis as his playground, Araragi’s willpower is imbued with a sense of savagery and chauvinism. His bedroom contains a rope swing and banana shaped cushion – imbuing that locale too with the feeling of an animal’s cage. Furthermore, many of his encounters occur in the park where he played as a child, from the start of his relationship with Senjougahara in Bakemonogatari to his final briefing from Gaen before he goes to face himself in Owarimonogatari. Through these design choices, we as viewers begin to see Araragi’s willpower and energy as something less positive and as something more negative, thus allowing us to connect with Isin’s initial theses.

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Hanamonogatari – Zoo-like objects in Araragi’s room (right)

But the series’ critique does not stop just at Araragi himself. Frequently, it’s critique addresses the audience, and puts our own actions into question.

This begins with the zoo aesthetic of Araragi’s room. As mentioned, it provides an animalistic and savage tone to Araragi’s hyper-sexual, hyper-masculine behavior. Immediately, this puts Araragi’s behaviour in a questionable, rather than a natural light. We begin to ask if Araragi’s behaviour is justified, and most likely come to the conclusion of no – making his sexual behaviour towards Hachikuji and Ononoki; his seemingly-too-blatant ignorance of Nadeko’s infatuation with him; his objectification of Hanekawa; and his constant undermining of his relationship with Senjougahara because of all this increasingly hard to swallow.

As the viewer, we are forced to reconcile Araragi’s action with our own enjoyment of the series. Is it acceptable for us to be invested in such a irreprehensible character? Are we allowed to care about his development? Most importantly, are we a guilty party in witnessing all of this happen? These questions come to a head in the second season, where the girls ultimately realize Araragi’s flaws and go off in their own direction, leaving Araragi alone for his final confronation with himself in Owarimonogatari. This central question and critique is underscored by the aesthetic and Shinbou’s design choices in the locale, making it absolutely essential in the formation of the series as a modern classic.

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Owarimonogatari (Ge) – Mayoi Hell

 

 

A further conflict is generated in the clash between locale and story. Despite the modern setting, the story revolves around the legends and folklore of old. Rather than this simply being a way to make the story more relatable, this aesthetic ties directly into more of Isin’s theses.

The metropolis and the folklore playing out within it, through the stories of Senjougahara’s Crab, Hanekawa’s Cat or Hachikuji’s Snail, are aesthetically counterpoised yet conducive because of that very fact. On a superficial level, the dialectical relationship between these two elements of the story draws attention to the majesty of the folklore when compared to the uniform nature of the metropolis. The sight of Hanekawa’s Tiger emerging from a field in Monogatari Second Season instead of on the freeway would not be as visually striking, neither would the fateful meeting between Araragi and Kiss-shot if it had not been set in that bright, almost sterile subway station.

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Monogatari Series: Second Season – Hanekawa meets Kako

Furthermore, Isin’s critique of the metropolis emerges through his usage of folklore, specifically Japanese folklore, more concretely than if he had chosen western fairy tales, for instance. Folklore occupies a special place in culture, partly because of it’s universal nature but also because of it’s elevation to a sacred status, in that folklore stories are almost always taught to children from a young age, alongside religious ideals. By choosing such an elevated source from which to pull his antagonists from, Isin increases the universality of his message but also makes his critique more pertinent, because of their elevated status within culture. After all, if humanity has lost sight of the imagination of even folklore within the concrete jungle, then perhaps imagination truly has been lost.

The uniform nature of Shinbou’s metropolis further highlights the destruction of the imagination within the metropolis. Araragi begins the series depressed, cynical and dismissive; yet has grown immensely by the time the series “ends” with Owarimonogatari, cognitive of his own flaws as well as his own destructive behavior towards others. This is mainly due to his exposure to folklore, which acts as a metaphor for imagination and wonder. All of this is set to the background of skyscrapers, houses and other concrete behemoths, looming over our characters who are becoming cognisant of the world beyond their concrete cage. At any point, they threaten to snap their jaws shut and end our characters’ journeys, as the fates of Nadeko and Hachikuji demonstrate.

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Owarimonogatari (Ge) – A better Araragi

Isin also draws on another body of work to underpin his narrative, that of the works of Freud and Nietzsche pertaining to the subconscious. They believed that the conscious mind operated within the sea of the subconsciousness, with changes in that ocean being reflected with changes in the conscious mind and vice versa. Characters such as Hanekawa present the power of the subconscious, since her encounter with the Sawarineko and Kako are fuelled by her own repression of her subconscious needs. Furthermore, Araragi’s final confrontation with himself in Owarimonogatari also happens as a result of his own suppression of his subconscious.

Shinbou reinforces and amplifies this through his choice in locale. The concrete metropolis takes the place of the body, as it houses the characters and the stories which take place within it. The oddities, therefore, represent the subconscious mind and the unknown elements which affect the conscious mind. Moreover, the contrast in visual design between the oddities and the metropolis highlight the conflict between the conscious and subconscious mind. The body or conscious mind is presented as a city, or moreover as a landscape we are familiar with, because we are familiar with the workings of the conscious mind in turn, and also because of the solid nature that the uniform impression of Monogatari’s metropolis gives off, relating to the solid nature of the human body. In contrast, the subconscious mind is represented through the oddities with bold, bright colour palettes as well as inventive character designs, acting as individual agents within the larger body politic.

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Owarimonogatari (Ge) – Freudian spectre enclosed by the metropolis

To raise one last point, it is important to recognise the conscious choice on both Isin and Shinbou’s part to leave the actual setting of the story ambiguous and nameless. This is a point I was only able to recognise by moving to Japan, since as I mentioned, I was actively searching for the Monogatari metropolis, both for curiosity’s sake and in the hope I could write an interesting post about it. I found glimpses of it in Chiba and Tachikawa, but in the end it was a fruitless endeavour, since a key part of Monogatari’s meaning comes from it’s nameless metropolis.

By naming it’s setting as Tokyo, or a city within it such as Saitama or Chiba, Isin would immediately reduce the series’ universality. Not only would audiences outside of Tokyo be alienated from the locale, but internationally the series would become harder to relate to, since if Isin had chosen to specify the locale, then he would have had to also specify certain parts of the world to reinforce the locale – such as the public transport, types of shops and dialect. Obviously the setting is Japan, but it is ambigious enough for international viewers to project their own locale onto it.

Moreover, precisely because of it’s ambiguous nature Monogatari’s metropolis becomes a trope within itself, existing simply because it does, without much actual substance, never developed or specified. This ties into Isin’s criticism of harem tropes and archetypes, which he subverts and ultimately rejects in exploring the many characters of Monogatari, since the metropolis is as vacant as many of the medium’s current archetypes. But more concretely, this means that the metropolis can become a character within in the story, free of any prior conceptions that a viewer may form if they knew it was Tokyo or Tachikawa. Shinbou further elevates this by transforming the metropolis into a character, thus allowing it to reinforce and interact with many of Isin’s theses in the ways previously explored.

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Owarimonogatari (Ge) – Mayoi Hell

But Monogatari being a Shaft work, there is, as always, an element of self-criticism and satire. Monogatari, along with Madoka, cemented the studio’s meme status within the anime community, with the famous Shaft neck tilt becoming a famous example of this. From this comes the over-the-top cinematography and framing that Shaft and Monogatari has become famous for. No doubt this started as an earnest stylistic choice on Shinbou’s part, but as time went on, it would be strange to think that even Shinbou himself would not be affected by this reputation. Thus, Monogatari’s presentation becomes self-aware and over-the-top to the point of self-criticism over time. Particularly vivid in my mind is Owarimonogatari’s pre-final boss fight pep talk from Gaen, which was punctuated with so much over-the-top shot composition and character animation that it was difficult for me not to come to the opinion that both Shaft and Shinbou had become aware of their own flaws and meme status.

I can only hope that this cognitive attitude allows both studio and director to grow in the future, and continue to produce for us brilliant pieces of media that will almost definitely stand the test of time. As for Monogatari, it must be recognised that Shinbou’s directorial choices as to how to represent the world of the series are directly related to the excellence of the show, since they help communicate Isin’s theses in the ways explained.

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Owarimonogatari (Ge) – Ougi Dark

Thus, although I wasn’t able to find the Monogatari city in my own surroundings, this wasn’t such a big deal. It was because of this that I was able to understand the meaning of Monogatari’s metropolis, and how it had subtly helped to portray the theses of the series. It’s not like I’m not disappointed I’ll never be able to take cosplay photos in the authentic Monogatari locale while I’m here, but I’d take narrative weight above that any day.


I’m back after a month – did you miss me? I’ll be posting pretty regularly from here on out, so look forward to that. I also made a new Twitter. Plus, if you’re wondering why I used so many Owarimonogatari (Ge) images in this post, it’s because they were the only ones I had on this laptop I brought with me to Japan. All other images were taken from when I livetweeted them, or from this kickass album of Madoka backgrounds.

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