“When they love you, and they will
Tell ‘em all they’ll love in my shadow.
And if they try to slow you down
Tell ‘em all to go to hell.”
Kanbaru knew who she was, once. She was a runner. A basketball star. A girl in love. She was somebody, at least – a specific person. There were things typical of her; she knew where she stood and where she was running to. But at the beginning of Hanamonogatari, her path has shifted from a fixed track to an open field – her past offers no clues, her future holds no direction. She’s not a basketball star anymore. Her schoolgirl crush has shifted to respect for an absent friend. All that’s left now are hard choices, and a heavy rain of insistent, contradictory advice.
Kanbaru receives a great deal of advice in Hanamonogatari. Advice from her absent mother, who tells her she must be either medicine or poison, nothing in between. Advice from the mysterious Ougi, who tells her not to worry about mistakes. Advice from her rival, Numachi – “if you run away from your worries, eventually they’ll cease to be worries.” Advice from her strange semi-uncle Kaiki, who tells her to eat meat and engage with her problems. And advice from her role model Araragi, who tells her to do what she wants to do.
Very little of this advice makes her choices any easier, and for good reason – making choices is frightening. Choice implies the denial of whole realities, and the total embracing of others. Choice can even dictate who you are as a human being. Every choice you make inspires regrets, every choice you make prompts its own future anxieties. To Kanbaru’s initial worry of the past just being a collection of mistakes, Numachi adds the equally disconcerting “all worries are just anxieties about the future.” So if the future is anxiety and the past is mistakes, what can possibly guide our actions?
Kanbaru exists on the knife edge of young adulthood, stranded between a past that seems like it belongs to someone else and a future with no signposts or visible goals. Compounding her indecision is her mother’s voice, absent in daylight but ever-present in her dreams, telling her she must make choices, must act, must not think too much and let herself become a muddled, indecisive “might have been.” “If you’ve got the time to think, you’ve got the time to act,” she says. But how? And in what direction?
The story opens with Kanbaru glumly monologuing on how life is so much less interesting with Araragi and Senjougahara “gone.” Considering this is Monogatari, the immediate implication is stark – but though Kanbaru corrects herself and clarifies that they’ve merely graduated, in the context of her life, it doesn’t really make a difference. They’ve moved on, moved past her moment and identity – while they’re off experiencing life together, she remains passive, trapped in high school with a cursed arm and a shuttered basketball career. Her own choices have led her here, but “here” feels an awful lot like nowhere. And her old rival Numachi taking back her devil’s arm does little to quell her anxieties.
Numachi is the fulcrum Hanamonogatari turns on, the one who plays the part of Kanbaru’s devilish shadow. Whereas Kanbaru’s career only recently ended, Numachi has been a ghost since middle school – a crippling leg injury ended her athletic aspirations, and in light of that, she’s decided to “make that her tombstone.” She collects sins and idolizes the thought of running from your problems – she’s taken action-fearing stasis and turned it into a full identity. Numachi is essentially a living representation of all the young adult fears Kanbaru herself is struggling with – even her collection of the various devil’s limbs rings of the awkward transitions of late adolescence, as changes in your body are echoed by changes in your very identity. And it’s hard to make choices about your future when you don’t even really know who you are.
Identity is a constant question in Hanamonogatari. Numachi defined herself by her athletic abilities – when they died, her self-image died with them. And yet even now, she still wanders around in her track suit, still seems ready for a pick-up game – even as she curses her misfortune and urges Kanbaru to “live a full life,” she still lives in hope of reclaiming her past self. Kanbaru is the same way – her “I have a tendency to be torn between options” is a revelation she only comes to because she’s been denied her old identity, the security of excelling in basketball and bantering with Araragi. Both of these characters have just reached the point in their lives when they realize they can’t be the same person forever, and the transition out of that requires accepting your self-definition can change without you losing sight of your true self. The specter of the working world hangs over them – Kanbaru frets over finally committing to her studies, Numachi scowls about her poor job prospects. The end of your first identity is a time of uncertainty, of fear.
This fear comes to a head in the arc’s moment of greatest honesty, when Kanbaru collapses at an actual, non-metaphorical crossroads and is picked up by Araragi. When asked if something’s wrong, she lays everything on the table. “I’ve lost control. Nothing is really working out the way that I planned. I don’t even know what’s typical of ‘me’ anymore.” Araragi’s advice is typical of Araragi – “forget the demands of others. Do what you want to do.” It’s not particularly profound, but it’s the push she needs – though she’s almost overwhelmed by the volume of voices telling her the “best choice,” one nudge from Araragi, as well as a sharper push from Kaiki, remind her that there’s at least one thing she truly wants to do.
Ultimately, it’s revealed that Numachi really is a ghost – that her life truly ended when her first identity did, and since then she’s been an apparition herself. She could even be Kanbaru’s apparition – they mirror each other enough, fill in the holes in each other’s philosophy, and might even have been lovers, if life weren’t quite so complicated. But you can’t live in what might have been. Even if, as Kanbaru admits, the pain of failure, of something you attempted and failed, is much greater than the pain of inaction, only action can bring release. “Don’t you want to ascend?” she asks her rival/lover/devil/friend. All of us want to move forward. The path is never clear, and everyone makes mistakes, but you have to keep running. As Kanbaru lies prone at the crossroads, she allows herself a brief moment of reflection. “My legs hurt. I should have paid attention to my form, at least. But if I had, I’d never have made it this far.”
In the end, Kanbaru frees Numachi. She beats her by establishing a brief, sharp connection, allowing Numachi to feel for a moment that she isn’t alone. But “loneliness” is always a question of perspective – to any outsider watching this story, it’s clear that Kanbaru and Numachi were never alone, because they mean too much to each other. This truth of our common influences is made even more explicit in the last scene, as Araragi and Kanbaru each admit they don’t see themselves as strong – they see the other as strong, and try to act how they think their role models would. Identity isn’t something you can claim and forever hold – as long as you’re moving forward, you’ll be continually reinventing yourself, and it’s hard to trust in a strength you can never fully understand. But it’s always hard to see yourself without a mirror’s aid, and we have mirrors all around us – those we influence, those who inspire us. It is up to those we believe in to show us who we want to be, up to those we love to assure us of who we are.
The characters of Hanamonogatari constantly struggle to assign meaning to the circumstances of their lives. “This arm is the symbol of the sins I bear.” “This is my punishment for choosing basketball for such arbitrary reasons.” They seek a coherency in life – if their prior actions add up to a comprehensible road, then perhaps their future might make sense as well. But life is not that simple – much of the time, things simply happen. And by the end of Hanamonogatari, Kanbaru is beginning to realize that. I love the simplicity of her takeaway from her encounters with Numachi – she doesn’t see it as any broad proclamation on the nature of living or constancy of regret, but instead simply acknowledges that it’s nice to run into old friends. You can’t live in anxieties and you can’t live in regrets – all any of us can hope to do is simply live.
“It’s a lifeless life with no
Fixed address to give
But you’re not mine to die for anymore
So I must live.”