Apparitions. On its surface, Bakemonogatari is about teenagers getting rid of apparitions, gods, spirits and demons that are negatively affecting their lives. You may be looking at the title of this post and wondering: What can a story about ghost busting have to say about how we live our lives? Well, an awful lot, actually. In the world of Bakemonogatari, the actions of spiritual beings are deeply connected to the internal, psychological states of human beings. If someone is dealing with an apparition, you can be sure that it is a result of emotional problems–either their own or those of someone they know–overwhelming them. To exorcise the spirits is to confront these emotional problems.
In this post, I will discuss an issue that the show keeps coming back to, carrying emotional burdens. Burden here is sort of a catch-all for: consequences of your choices, memories of traumatic experiences, regrets, longings…You know? Burdens. Bakemonogatari has very specific things to say about how people walk around living with themselves. There are right and wrong ways to do this.
***BAKEMONOGATARI SPOILERS AHEAD***
You’re Gonna Carry That Weight
Hitagi Senjyogahara weighs almost nothing. Not as in, “Wow, she’s super fit,” or even, “That girl has a problem! She needs to eat.” No, Hitagi is quite literally nigh-weightless, an otherworldly condition that the show refers to as “ominous.” This is the big secret she’s been keeping from everyone for a very long time, but, by sheer accident, series protagonist Araragi Koyomi catches her as she is falling. The two seek the help of urban guru Meme Oshino, a fellow who once helped Araragi out with his own odd condition.
It turns out that Hitagi has unconsciously given most of her weight to a god known as a stone crab. Through stylized flashbacks, we learn that she was sexually assaulted and nearly raped in middle school. This is horrible enough, but Hitagi’s own mother was present and did nothing to stop it. See, the man trying to rape her teenage daughter was an important figure in the cult that Mom belonged to, and he told Mom that what he was doing was a “ritual.” Hitagi fought the guy off herself, and her mother was deeply resentful. The relationship between mother and daughter quickly deteriorated after this event.
Many conflicting feelings bubble inside Hitagi. She hates her mother for letting that happen, for not defending her. Is the cult more important to her than even Hitagi? Yet, she still loves her mother. Maybe she should’ve let it happen. After all, the cult , Mom’s emotional and financial support, was very displeased with what transpired. If Hitagi let it happen, maybe she and her Mom would be on good terms today?
Enter the stone crab. He appears before Hitagi and unburdens her of all these terrible feelings and memories. The result of this unburdening is not that Hitagi is happy; rather, she has become non-human, a condition that troubles her so much that she does violence to Araragi when she believes he will tell others about it.
According to Oshino, the gods see all humans the same. They don’t distinguish us from each other by gender, age or weight, but…one can assume that these qualities distinguish us from the gods. So, in addition to being creatures essentially defined by being finite and having some kind of gender identity, Bakemonogatari tells us that human beings are also defined by having weight and that part of what comprises our weight are our emotional burdens. To give up our burden and let someone else carry it is tantamount to giving up our humanity. No matter how painful Hitagi’s feelings are , she must be the one to carry their weight.
Being Kind to Everyone is a Form of Irresponsibility
Araragi has two younger, twin sisters. Back when he was in the sixth grade, they would invite over a shy friend of theirs named Nadeko Sengoku. Fast forward several years, and Araragi runs into her at a local shrine. Nadeko reveals that she has been afflicted with dark, scale-like markings all over her body, which Oshino informs Araragi is the work of a snake- demon known as a jagirinawa.
Nadeko has been cursed by both a boy who she rejected and her own best friend who had a crush on this boy. She must perform an exorcism ritual to rid herself of the twin snakes squeezing the life out of her body. Araragi and his friend Kanbaru Suruga accompany Nadeko to support her during the ceremony. Something goes wrong, and the snakes become angry. Araragi must physically untangle them from Nadeko’s body to avoid her death, but that only re-directs the demons’ anger to him. They bite him, rip him, tear him to pieces. Yet, Araragi stands to face them again and again.
Until Kanbaru leaps on him, knocking Araragi to the ground. The snakes no longer view the prone Araragi as a threat, so they leave. This upsets the protagonist, and he chides Kanbaru for interfering. After all, those snakes will return to the ones who cursed Nadeko, inflicting pain and death on them. Kanbaru does not typically go against her senpai, but here she defiantly cries out, “Please, don’t choose the wrong person to save!” Her plea is another form of what class president Tsubasa Hanekawa tells Araragi earlier, “Being kind to everyone is a form of irresponsibility.” Even Oshino seems to look down on the protagonist’s propensity to help “even those he should steer clear of.”
Though he is part apparition, Araragi is still only human. If Kanbaru had not pushed him over, the jagirinawa would have killed him. Araragi wants to save everyone, to take everyone’s pain away. He wants to be the stone crab, but Bakemonogatari and its supporting cast evidence that such a path will cost Araragi his life. Kanbaru was pleading for Araragi to choose to save himself. One might call Araragi naive, but, in a way, he exhibits profound vanity by attempting as a human what only the gods can do.
Tsubasa and Oshino recognize the irresponsibility inherent in Araragi’s thinking. He is being careless with his life, and, by extension, he is being careless with the hearts of the people who hold him dear. Preventing the pain that Araragi’s friends would feel at losing him is de-prioritized in favor of preventing the imminent pain of Nadeko’s best friend and her crush. Perhaps the protagonist does not even realize he is making this calculation, or maybe he thinks he can save everyone and live. It’s like Oshino is talking to Araragi and not just Hitagi in the first episode when he says that it’s not possible to save anyone else, that all you can do is save yourself.
Supporting One Another
So, we understand that, according to the show, we should neither give the whole of our emotional burden to someone else, nor take on someone else’s burden, even though that might relieve their pain. We know what not to do, but does Bakemonogatari tell us what we ought do? How do we get along carrying these burdens? Are human beings just meant to function as emotional monads? I think the answer lies in how the characters solve problems.
The plot of most of these episodes can be boiled down to Araragi trying to help friend with spirit problem. What is more, he often has other characters assisting him with the ghost busting. Oshino lends his expertise, steering Araragi in the right direction. Clearly, Bakemonogatari isn’t claiming that it’s a bad thing to help others. I do think it is asking us to maintain a difficult balance.
Though it may be tempting to take on or give up burdens, the Hitagi Crab and Nadeko Snake arcs demonstrate that this is bad for both the one who gives and the one who receives. Completely unburdening oneself and ceasing to struggle with yourself is a forfeiture of one’s humanity, and taking on the totality of someone else’s burden will crush you. Instead, I believe the message here is for us to support each other as we carry our own emotional burdens. Certainly, the cast of the show help each other; none of them faces their problems alone. Without that support structure, it’s doubtful that any of the characters could overcome their problems. At the same time, these characters are choosing to save themselves, accepting the choices they’ve made and carrying the baggage that comes along with them.