For My Sisters, For Myself: Tsubasa Tiger

Tsubasa Tiger could be seen as the first ending of Monogatari, the moment when one of its central figures finally graduates from their apparition’s pain. Of course, in Monogatari, there’s no “escaping” your troubles. Oshino frames the inevitability of psychic pain, and the ways that pain is linked to our fundamental identities, as “we can only save ourselves.” In her audio drama letter to Black Hanekawa, Hanekawa frames this inevitability a little differently. When we tell the story of our pain, we tell the story of ourselves. Raised in a broken home, Hanekawa has herself become a broken home. She finds herself unusual and condemnable, but her story of familial abuse and emotional abnegation only reflects her profound, undeniable human worth.

She starts her letter with thanks and apologies, reiterating the politeness and self-scouring attitude that seem to cast unique but clear shadows on all of her selves. In this case, it is true that she “abandoned” Black Hanekawa. In order to maintain her facade, her air of pure whiteness, her class rep role and excellent grades and constant smiles, she forced all of her stress and negative feelings into her other self. The facade Hanekawa employed in her everyday actions was reflected even in her treatment of Black Hanekawa – not only could she not acknowledge her feelings, but she also could not acknowledge the one who was relieving her of her feelings. As she describes later in the letter, her partitioning was a kind of suicide, but as long as she was only hurting herself, that was fine. With the appearance of the tiger, who puts even her friends in jeopardy, Hanekawa is forced to act.

After a lifetime of bottling her pain and denying her suffering, Hanekawa’s first breakthrough here comes with a simple “help me.” “The only thing I can do is rely on you. The only one I can rely on is you.” Like Senjougahara’s starlit confession in Bakemonogatari, Hanekawa’s words feel like psychological exegesis recast as a love story. Her words acknowledge both her own limitations and the raw power of her denied feelings. All her life, she has embodied the darkest interpretation of Oshino’s mantra – from “we can only help ourselves,” her terrible home life has instilled her with the harsher “no one else can ever help me.” After a life like that, simply admitting you need help is a revelation in itself.

Hanekawa’s tone consistently reflects her long years of self-denial and self-hatred. Her self-recriminations range from the flippant to the psychologically devastating. When describing her emotional partition, she compares herself unfavorably to Senjougahara, as if only those who admitted to their suffering could be said to truly suffer. After making her plea for help, she immediately counters her own words with an offhand “perhaps you have no say in the matter, since you were created to help me. Perhaps asking this is meaningless.” Of course, even if her plea is unnecessary, the fact that she was able to make that plea at all represents a great emotional breakthrough. But Hanekawa cannot value her own emotional breakthroughs, just as she for so long was unable to value her own safety or comfort, and even now detests herself for her coping methods.

Her letter spends long minutes circling her familial abuse, approaching it with the clinical detachment she uses for everything. She postulates that the tiger came about because she’d gotten more comfortable with apparitions – that she’d actually become used to them, and thus Tiger built naturally out of Cat. From this she, lightly flips to “I had gotten used to treating my own heart as an abnormality. You can get used to anything.” Hanekawa describes constructing her emotional partitions as “like getting used to a new contact lens,” her emotional scarring framed in the most trivial possible terms. Listening to the girl who so confidently applied this tone to all of Araragi’s troubles use it for describing her own breakdowns feels like the embodiment of her “whiteness,” the sterilized self she’s adopted to survive her own life.

Hanekawa’s home life, or at least her mental image of it, is framed in the series’ starkest terms here. She opens as if she’s counseling an abused child, stating that “the most difficult task is helping them admit they’ve been abused,” once again distancing herself from the content of her monologue. Hanekawa’s manner of framing this discussion reflects the true pain of what she’s saying, as she admits that “I ignored my own pain, thinking it happened in all families.” She gets caught up in semantic games regarding the meaning of “abuse,” her current words echoing her lifetime of coming to terms with the truth. Only when it comes to the topic of “family” does her true anger shine through, as she matter-of-factly states “if you can’t love your child, you ought never have married or had children.”

More than her rejection or abuse, it is this absence of a family that sits at the heart of her pain and resentment. After stating that the tiger must be the incarnation of her envy, she admits that she never actually felt much envy until just a few days ago. Her coping methods combined a self-assurance that “all families are like this” with an emotional partitioning so effective that she actually felt her life was a happy and successful one – given that, what was there to be envious about? But one morning, coming downstairs for breakfast, she noted that her “parents” were both eating the same meal, together.

This situation was inconceivable to Hanekawa. If her parents weren’t truly in love, and only cohabiting, as they had been for so long… why would one cook for the other? The truth must be that they were actually getting closer together again. From a house of three separate entities, she now lived in a house with two people together and she apart, the only one alone. Unable to accept this bond, this underlining of her own isolation, the tiger rose and burned down the Hanekawa home. If she couldn’t have a home, no one could.

Even in this story, Hanekawa’s self-recrimination and sense of guilt is heartbreaking. The degree to which she doesn’t value her own feelings is clear in how she frames herself as “not human” for not being happy for them. As she admits in her earlier therapy session, it is terribly difficult for a child to understand they are not loved, and those scars carry through even here. She blames herself for the breakdown in their relationship, and blames herself for not loving them even now. All of Hanekawa’s explanations for how horrible and unusual she is ultimately just reflect the fact that she is fragile, compassionate, and absolutely worthy of love.

Hanekawa’s words consistently reflect Monogatari’s overarching feelings on personality and interiority. Though Hanekawa labels herself as some kind of emotionless monster, her feelings and her empathy are clear all across this monologue. The limitations of her perspective result in cruel ironies like her wondering “what if Araragi or Kanbaru had been at the cram school when it caught fire?” Of course, in point of fact, both of them were at the cram school then, and survived regardless. Hanekawa’s fear regarding the consequences of her flames reflects our collective fears about the violence of our emotional outbursts, with the narrative’s own eventual resolution reflecting how these outbursts are something we all suffer through, all overcome, and all accept in the people we love.

In the end, Hanekawa accepts that she can no longer allow her apparitions to bear the weight of her pain. Using the most charged language she can muster, she implores her other selves “come back to me. My heart is your home.” Denied a home everywhere else in life, Hanekawa at last realizes that the disparate, unhappy, often ugly parts of herself are a family she can always cherish. “Let’s stop living apart like this. My heart may be small, but we can live there like a family.” By the final lines, Hanekawa has realized her apparitions are neither a personal failure nor a dangerous interloper – they are her sisters, and they are a part of her. “Please save our other little sister,” she implores her other self. In spite of her constant self-recrimination and the ongoing trauma that has warped her worldview, she makes a promise to these experiences, these feelings and memories so scorned, so hated, so close to her heart. “I will love you both, and I will love myself.”

To truly love yourself is far from a trivial act. It takes great personal strength, a strength none of us should be assumed or obligated to possess, to emerge from a period of tremendous suffering and think “this suffering does not reflect who I am or what I deserve. I deserve to be loved.” It takes great confidence to not think “those who care about me only do so because of the face I present. If they knew they real me, they’d turn and leave.” At the end of Tsubasa Cat, Hanekawa’s resolution is simply that – a resolution, a pledge made to become a different, happier person. But Hanekawa succeeds eventually, still true to her “ugly” self, still embracing many of the mannerisms she scorned as false and unworthy. Our “best selves” will always be just such a composite, a mix of the things we’re proud of and the things we want to be and the things we once believed made us ugly and small. We are all imperfect, all always growing and often wrong and filled with regrets. But like Hanekawa, we deserve to find our families, and families are often found in unexpected places. Love in all directions is a messy, painful process. But that’s life – that is the essence of life, and before all else, we must fight to believe we deserve to succeed. Whatever our dark instincts tell us, we must never give up on this truth: we deserve to be loved, and we deserve to find a way to love ourselves.

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5 thoughts on “For My Sisters, For Myself: Tsubasa Tiger

  1. Wow, I had always hoped someone would do a full breakdown on Hanekawa’s character growth, and my favorite witter on Monogatari happened to do it! Thanks!!! Now that the animated series is over, and several re-watches, I find myself missing something like Monogatari. It was a great ride, though!

  2. Fantastic essay on one of my favorite Nisio chapters. I didn’t realize that an audio version of the full letter was included in the BD release! The anime version was smartly abridged, but a lot of the facets you mention here (her trivialization of her feelings, her sense of guilt) don’t come across as clearly.

  3. “Hanekawa’s words consistently reflect Monogatari’s overarching feelings on personality and interiority.”

    I think that was supposed to be “inferiority”.

  4. It’s interesting that you noted so many of Hanekawa’s bits of self-reprisal and harshness toward herself, because if I remember right, Senjougahara says much the same about Hanekawa in that she seems to be so motherly to others, harshest to herself. You’ll see that again in Tsubasa Sleeping in her viewpoint about how vampires feed, she has a very interesting mindset concerning others and herself I must admit.

    That, and this is a sidenote, but I found something very interesting in an author mockup of all his characters. Shinobu was the strongest in pure power, but yet the most emotionally and spiritually fragile, Hanekawa was the most intelligent, and more interestingly, the character with the most personal integrity of Nisio’s characters.

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