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.
After two seasons, three additional episodes, and a film, I’m still kinda not sure how I feel about this series. I mean, it’s got a lot going for it, to be sure. The direction is always distinctive and occasionally pretty brilliant. The writing is uniquely Isin-ish and occasionally focused. It arguably has a lot to say, even if it sometimes feels like Shinbou’s weird brand of feminism is directly competing with Isin’s strange form of sexism (or vice versa). It’s basically the opposite of a show like Madoka, where everything works together towards a single focused goal – in Monogatari there is rarely narrative focus or anything resembling pacing, ideas bounce all over the place, and it will twist and turn in whatever directions it wishes, focusing one episode on a single joke extended way too far and another on the fundamental nature of family and human connection. It also indulges both these very driven creators in some of their worst instincts – Isin in his tendency towards losing character in favor of his own self-indulgent voice, and Shinbou in his tendency to make the direction itself the point (which, admittedly, sometimes works to actually counteract the Isin problems – I’d probably like Nise a whole lot less if Shinbou were playing it straight). It’s strange. It’s unique. It’s sometimes problematic, sometimes pretty subversively progressive. It’s Monogatari.
0:35 – HANEKAWA’S THE NARRATOR THIS ARC? Wow. Fantastic. Couldn’t have asked for a better choice
1:20 – “This is a story of betrayal for you to all be disappointed in me.” Hanekawa has often come across as a superhuman cypher, which, while extremely true to Araragi’s perception of her, isn’t really helpful as characterization. I’m very happy to see an arc from her perspective. (Incidentally, this is also why Senjougahara isn’t normally that interesting to me – Araragi’s skewed, idealized perspective of her makes for awesome unreliable narration, but much less coherent humanization)
3:32 – I love how people unfamiliar with anime claim it all somehow looks similar. There is no goddamn way you could confuse a Monogatari series with any other series – its visual style is so freaking distinctive. That clean, shining, almost clinical look, the incredibly flat color contrasts, the overbearing brightness of day and overbearing gloom of night. It’s (intentionally) staged like an elaborate but un-lived-in theatrical stage, a decision that perfectly accompanies the hyper-stylized dialogue and extended, monologue-focused scenes that drive the story forward. I have a number of complaints with this series, but goddamn do we ever need more productions this committed to their unique aesthetic
4:01 – “I finished breakfast, changed clothes, and left the house immediately.” I like how instead of Araragi’s elaborate over-explanations of everything physically occurring, Hanekawa’s text frames are extremely matter-of-fact bullet points of her day
7:00 – Goddamn Shinbou you are so good. I can’t really stop and point out every great thing he does, but this tiger scene definitely draws attention to itself that way. The quick jump cuts between her nervous ticks and panicked thoughts underlined by her breathing really trap the viewer in the claustrophobia of the moment
9:00 – Senjougahara advices Hanekawa to overcome her hesitance and call Araragi, but her eyes jump constantly from Hanekawa’s lips, to legs, to skirt, etc. She is terrified of their relationship, but her words would never betray that
9:10 – Hah! Then Hanekawa tries to make eye contact, and sees it all. I thought Neko Kuro was kind of a step down for this series, but this episode is putting its best foot forward
10:27 – “I can die together with you, at least.” A private joke? How much did Araragi actually tell her about Golden Week?
11:24 – “I’m probably completely unable to ask for help from another person.” Oh really, Hanekawa? I wouldn’t have guessed
12:10 – “It was like I was trying to strike out all the contradictions. This was very like me.” Reordering perspective to make her life liveable seems like a pretty persistent theme of Hanekawa’s stories. Fits nicely with the opening shot of a vacuum automatically cleaning up the stray loose ends of her home life, until it bumps right into her and forces her awake
12:39 – “Did I just skip a chapter? Oh well.” Speaking of erasing unwanted loose ends… yeah, that’s probably not gonna come up again
14:36 – “You don’t have to call people like that Mother and Father, do you?” Senjougahara is pretty goddamn over paying lip service to traditional family definitions. Hanekawa could learn something from her
15:45 – I like how they contrast “I now see that what I did was crazy, I wasn’t thinking it through” against a pan across all the clothes and materials she had prepared precisely because she’d thought it through, and given the fact that asking anyone for help was utterly impossible, this course of action seemed perfectly reasonable
16:26 – Staying at Senjougahara’s house. Oh god, I’ve heard about this. Hopefully Shinbou’s steady hand will steer Isin’s overtly fetishistic nonsense into something purposeful
17:00 – “Almost feels like my home.” In that it’s barely one at all?
17:49 – Aaaand clothes off. You could say this scene is Senjougahara asserting that she’s not intimidated by Hanekawa’s sexuality, but I dunno if I’d buy it
19:20 – “Let’s take a shower together.” See, it’s so far beyond normal it feels like it has to mean something, but Isin is such a goddamn perv it could just be his boner talking. But he’s also such a gifted writer that it could also be Senjougahara trying to counteract both the vulnerability she felt in her first scene here and the necessary admission of their relationship (or at least Hanekawa’s importance to Araragi) that this whole letting-her-stay thing implies, by way of making a big aggressive front of not being intimidated by Hanekawa physically. Which would certainly fit in with Senjougahara’s big, defensive, often ill-thought-through gestures in the past. Which makes me think the camera here is Senjougahara’s intent being shown, as she metaphorically growls and gnashes her teeth at the threat Hanekawa represents
19:30 – “No, wait a minute! I sense a threatening atmosphere.” Oh good. I was right. I really prefer shows impressing me to shows disappointing me
20:30 – “I didn’t expect you to say yes.” “It won’t look good if I distance myself from the girl who slapped me while she was crying.” A BATTLE FOR THE AGES. It’s funny that this is essentially no different from characters fighting over a man in a normal harem, but, you know, not written by idiots
21:47 – “But that means we have to handle the tiger here by ourselves.” PLEASE YES. SENJOUGAHARA AND HANEKAWA, SPIRIT-FIGHTING DETECTIVES
One sign of a good show: it’s just as compelling when the main character isn’t even there
Bam! Strong showing right out the gates by Monogatari. This episode was certainly very, well, very Monogatari, and featured a clear return to the focused direction I was so enamored of in Nise. Making Hanekawa the protagonist was also an awesome choice – Araragi’s dominant position in this world can be almost overbearing, and it’s nice to see how the character dynamics work in his absence. The pair of Senjou and Hanekawa in particular is fantastic – the way their rivalry expresses itself, through Senjougahara’s brittle and barely-hidden insecurity and Hanekawa’s offhand, absolute confidence, makes for funny and utterly true-to-character drama and conversation. The minutes kind of flew by with this one – it seemed to combine the sharper narrative focus of Neko with the ostentatiously intelligent direction of Nise. If it keeps up like this, it could easily be my favorite Monogatari yet.