Conflict in Early Monogatari Anime

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Conflict is an important concept in Monogatari.  Humans clash with supernatural beings.  Words and bodies collide with one another.  Some character relationships can be defined by conflict.  However, it is not just a plot device; analysis of the meaning of conflict, distinguishing types of conflict, and commenting on the fallout from conflict are all thematic elements of the story of Monogatari.

The “philosophy of conflict” present in the anime really grabbed me.  I decided to follow this theme through the early anime and discuss different kinds of conflict present therein.  For each type, I briefly summarize a scene in which the conflict occurs, attempt to define the type and finally consider how the characters are effected by it.  There will be tangents.

This article is not meant to be a complete taxonomy of the kinds of conflict in Monogatari.  I haven’t seen all the anime in the franchise as of this writing, and the title indicates that the piece only covers the early productions (by this I mean Bakemonogatari and Nisemonogatari).  That said, I stand by the entries in this taxonomy, incomplete though it may be.

Spoilers Ahoy!   

Suggested Soundtrack for Reading – Future Islands “Seasons”

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Conflict As Unwillingness to Understand the Other

We get the show’s first thoughts on conflict during the final scenes of its initial arc, Hitagi Crab.  I provide some context for these scenes here and here.  Hitagi  has just come face to face with the stone crab for the first time, when suddenly it charges her, smashing her slender frame into the abandoned classroom wall.  As Oshino restrains the violent god, he remarks that, “If you don’t speak the same language and can’t ask for something, all that’s left is fighting.”

At first glance, this straightforward statement seems to crystallize what is likely a tacit, societal belief about conflict:  it’s what happens when negotiations break down.  Two parties come together, intent on working out some sort of agreement, only to come to blows when they realize such agreement is impossible.  But, this isn’t exactly what transpires between Hitagi and the crab.  She claims to have been caught off guard by the stone god; he attacked before negotiations had even begun!   By the time she realizes there is a breakdown, Hitagi finds herself planted in the drywall.

I think we should focus on the antecedent in Oshino’s conditional statement.  The problem at the weight transfer ceremony is that the two parties don’t speak the same language. Negotiations can’t breakdown if they never commence.  To reach consensus, parties must be able to communicate with each other.  But, is Bakemonogatari really only making this descriptive claim?

I believe we can go a step further and argue that the show is making a normative claim, namely that human beings have an obligation to become “fluent” in the languages of one another.  No, this doesn’t literally mean we all must become multilingual; rather, we should try to understand each other.  When interacting with others, people should default to tolerance and empathy.  Above, I state that we hold an implicit belief that conflict is what arises out of failed negotiations.  Bakemonogatari tells us that the presence or absence of conflict hinges on us being willing to negotiate in the first place.

An aside:  Some may be wondering what grounds I have for believing that the show goes beyond a merely descriptive claim to a prescriptive one.  In other words, what evidence do I have that the show is making statements about what we should be doing instead of just describing what happens.  First, I’ll  make a non-controversial claim: I don’t think Monogatari is interested in promoting conflict.  I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the anime encourages us to help each other.

My second point lies in the words of Sawari Neko spoken to series protagonist Araragi during Tsubasa Cat, the show’s final arc.  The gods aren’t here to be friends with you, she announces to Araragi, they’re here to be worshiped, loved, hated, and/or feared.  Deity-human friendship would imply that there is equivalence between the two classes of being.  To Sawari Neko, such an idea is foolish.

If we apply her claim to the weight exchange ceremony, then the crustacean-on-tsundere violence seems to make a bit more sense.  Neither Hitagi nor the crab understands the other.  The former is too surprised to enter into the proper reverential state, and the latter immediately assumes Hitagi’s irreverence is deliberate.  Though it may be easy to get caught up in the specific details of gods and our relationship to them, I don’t think Bakemonogatari is commenting on religion or spirituality here (at least not exclusively.  The point I’d like to be clear about is that the conflict occurs because neither party is initially willing to understand the other.  This, I think, is the chief takeaway.

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Conflict As Unwillingness to Confront Oneself

Speaking of Sawari Neko, she owes her latest manifestation to this next category of conflict.  Stress (“Storessu”).  Tsubasa Hanekawa suffers from extreme stress.  Since before the story of Bakemonogatari began, she has been in love with Araragi.  In deep, stomach-twisting, head-throbbing, heartsick love.  The viewer may begin to suspect it during the middle arcs of the show, but the fact of the matter is revealed to Araragi through the mouth of Sawari Neko aka Black Hanekawa (whose hair is white).

While watching Araragi fall for Hitagi, Tsubasa stuffs down her unrequited affection and remains a close, helpful friend to her vampire savior.  Hitagi and Araragi begin dating, and the latter also starts to amass a collection of cute female friends.  Eventually, the sheer stress of internalizing her intense feelings, lying about the existence of these feelings and assisting the object of these feelings with being a good boyfriend bursts through Tsubasa’s defenses, making her ripe for demonic possession.  Black Hanekawa is born.

One of the first times we begin to believe Tsubasa is in love with Araragi involves a cellphone conversation between the two.  Yet again, she is counseling Araragi on his relationship with Hitagi.  As she’s talking, Tsubasa’s voice remains steady, calm; however, the visuals tell a different story.  She is walking through an intersection, cars whizzing by her on all sides.  This illustrates the dangerous waters Tsubasa navigates during the call.  Her eyes are obscured by the light reflecting from her glasses, which is an oft-used visual cue indicating that the bespectacled character is hiding her true feelings.  It’s hard to tell, within the context of the symbolism, if she doesn’t see the cars or she doesn’t care about them.

I raise the last point because the statement the show makes about this kind of conflict changes depending on the way you interpret that scene.  Is the anime saying that harmful conflict is the result of a lack of self-reflection or the result of intentional self-denial?  Whichever statement you feel Bake is making, we can agree on at least part of it:  This particular sort of inner turmoil, if left unchecked, will spill over and effect the very people you are keeping it from.  What has been an internal problem becomes an external, relational problem.  Whether Tsubasa isn’t being honest with herself about how she feels, or she is trying to plug a breaking dam, she eventually loses control of what her love-sickness has grown into.  Sawari Neko possesses Tsubasa’s body and is on a mission to have sex with Araragi or kill him.  Either will relieve her “mistress’s” stress.

Perhaps it is possible to unify the two interpretations of the phone call scene insofar as they relate to the show’s philosophy of conflict.  Lack of self-reflection and intentional self-denial can be subsumed under the umbrella of being unwilling to confront yourself.  Human beings have desires, needs and ambitions.  It is vital that we examine ourselves and take stock of these things within us.  Not every want can be satisfied, but it is important to make peace with that absence of satisfaction.  This is impossible if you’re pretending that want doesn’t exist or outright denying that it does.  If you do either, you won’t reach out to anyone to help you.  Tsubasa largely isolates herself and her feelings, which ultimately leads to her being controlled by those feelings and hurting those she cares about.

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Conflict As Bonding

The two types of conflict discussed above are harmful to self and to society.  Transitioning from Bakemonogatari into sequel series Nisemonogatari, however, we find reference to a type of conflict that has positive effects.  It occurs in the first series to be sure, but there is a particular scene in the first episode of Nise that made a deep impression on me.

Araragi informs his youngest sister, Tsukihi that he is leaving the house to visit a friend.  The two siblings have recently been in an argument.  As her brother turns to leave, Tsukihi tells him that he’s been boring lately.  He’s been a pushover, not fighting his sisters anymore and letting them have their way.  In one of this episode’s rare earnest moments, Tsukihi appeals to Araragi, “Don’t just grow up and leave us behind.”

Siblings be fighting, sure.  However, the phenomenon Tsukihi refers to, conflict as a form of bonding, isn’t the sole property of sibling relationships.  It can be generalized to include most, if not all, familial relationships, romantic relationships, as well as friendships.

So, there’s an obvious objection here, namely that this isn’t conflict at all.  Correct…kind of.  The intentions of Araragi and Tsukihi aren’t to do actual harm to each other when they fight.  Rather, they intend to express love and affection toward each other.  This is but a single example of a fairly common event in anime which I will call indirection (apologies if this term has been coined, or this idea has been discussed in depth elsewhere).  Often, anime characters will forego directly expressing their feelings to someone else , instead opting to engage in a protracted series of actions meant to obliquely communicate their feelings.  Characters sometimes make a game out of it, though it remains important that feelings be indirectly communicated (but communicated nonetheless).

Perhaps anime characters are considering the need to maintain propriety?  Perhaps teenagers, so often the protagonists of anime, don’t want to risk revealing their feelings to disinterested third parties?  I don’t have the authority to speak to the reasons why indirection is as common as it is in anime, but it does happen a lot.  Monogatari is no exception.  Hitagi verbally abuses her less articulate boyfriend, Araragi.  Kanbaru makes all kinds of sexual advances toward Araragi, despite the fact that he is dating Hitagi and is devoted to her.  The Araragi siblings argue.  Though each of these instances is intended by the participants to be a means of bonding, that intention remains internal to the participants (occasionally, Hitagi will poke her head above the waters of ridicule and have an honest conversation with Araragi, but only occasionally).  Externally these instances have all the appearance of conflict, so I think they can legitimately be treated us such in this rough-and-ready taxonomy.

Unlike other types of conflict previously mentioned, conflict as bonding creates or reinforces intimacy between participants.  Tsukihi clearly values her fights with Araragi on a deep level.  It allows her to feel connected to her brother.  She feels that the absence of such conflict with him signals that he is somehow becoming more distant from his sisters.  If he stops engaging in their familial ritual, he will “leave them behind.”  This conflict is just as valuable in Araragi’s other relationships.

Imagine if Araragi stopped his conversational jousting with Hitagi, or he just told Kanbaru to shut up.  Valuable methods of transmitting affection would be lost.  How would they interface with one another?  Over time, the characters have built their everyday interactions on a foundation of bonding via apparent conflict.  In many ways, Araragi’s relationships with these girls are defined by indirection.

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FIN for now

Again, this is by no means an exhaustive list of types of conflict in Monogatari, nor necessarily the best instances of the types listed.  As I continue to make my way through he franchise, I may add more types or exemplary instances of already-listed types to this article.  Or I could make a part two?  Watch this space.

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Conflict in Early Monogatari Anime

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