Monday, April 21, 2014

Bakemonoallegory: A Premise for the Thematic Work Occurring in the Monogatari Franchise

Or, Has it Really Been 2 Years Since My Last and Only Other Post

Shh It's Just You and What's That About a Lain Article? Hah No That's Not Me Yo 

          Getting started is the hardest part of writing. But there, it's done.
          Because I'm self-conscious, or maybe because I'm highly introspective – is there a difference between those two things? - I find the need to justify, or rather contextualize, everything I talk about. It should be clear by now that the topic at hand is Bakemonogatari, a Shaft production from the 2009 Summer season that aired beside the third installation in the Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei franchise. I'll say now that I can write forever about this franchise, it's what motivated me into putting something down on paper, as usually this stuff just happens in conversation. This all being said, I have a long series of articles on the series planned, so I'm here to talk a little (a lot) about what work Bakemonogatari is doing.
          For the uninitiated, Bakemonogatari is a juicy little project, an anime adaptation by the singularly established Shaft, at the hands of its lead creative force Akiyuki Shinbou working again with character designer Akio Watanabe (Uchuu Senkan Yamamoto Yohko, Soul Taker, The World God Only Knows). The original is the first two part installment of the Monogatari Series by Nisioisin, known also for his work on Medaka Box and Katanagatari. I may not need to tell you this, but it's pretty great.
I love Shinbou, isn't he dreamy~
          It's not my intention to be a reviewer, but considering the topic here is slightly more general, I feel it wouldn't be amiss to give you a little on that end. Bakemonogatari really has the full suite, excelling with a variedly quirky and emotive score, paired with a frenetic, humorous, and never-boring visual style. This franchise moreso maybe than his other work showcases Shinbou's eccentricity and hyper-active timing, while also showcasing and sometimes introducing signature shots. His use of silhouette, abnormal framing, as well as his wonderful sense of balance and usage of lighting give us one impeccable frame after another. Just take a screen shot at any moment in the show. Make it a desktop background. Print it and put it on your wall. You'll never regret it. 
          Even then, as a story Bakemonogatari is pretty unique. It's one of the few modern fantasies that feel less like a shoe-horning of fantasy concepts into a modern world and
more like a truly mysterious, threatening, tense place. Tonally, the story is incredibly comedic while managing to capture real threat and emotion. There's some great romance, and even better drama. To top it all off, the sense of scale and consequence has gradually been growing throughout the further installments of the franchise, something that I think is fascinating considering at its core Bakemonogatari is a highly personal story, something I intend to talk about in later articles.
Best girl pictured here
          Of course, the greatest highlight of the show is the characters; they're why we care. It's not whichever Shintou deity that we care about, it's who they possess and why. Here, the story shines just
as much as anywhere else, with genuinely engaging, multi-faceted, motivated and emotional characters. They're never simply platforms for theme, but they aren't without consideration either. 
          So it has technical presentation with outstanding visuals and sound design, with an engaging and mysterious plot and likable, organic characters. Basically, the makings of great television. More than this, what makes Bakemonogatari a really rich text is how this elements come together to not only provide a cohesive piece of entertainment, but also communicate a structured thematic narrative. This is to say that what really makes Bakemono- fuck it, just Bake from now – worth talking about and not just talking up is what it is that it's doing – of course, not to suggest that it is doing any one thing or that every over the shoulder shot and close up of a vending machine has a specific symbolic intention. Bear with me, you pedant.
          Now, often times this is where the shows detractors, S. Man, pictured left, will scoff at the pretentiousness of it all. First of all, if you consider Bake pretentious and you are somehow still reading this, I can tell you truthfully I did not intend to bait you here and make you hear why I liked something you don't like. That being said, I'm not going to tell you to leave, but you're not really my audience. Though, I mean, no one's really my audience I'm just kind of writing this.
          At any rate, 'pretense' isn't really a meaningful criticism 9 times out of 10. It really does seem that every show and its mother are being labelled pretentious, though this could be an elaborate and systematic troll, but hey I'm no conspiracy theorist. The issue of pretense is one near and dear to my heart so I'll be sure to talk about that some time in the future, but suffice it to say for now that if the following few pages don't convince you that the franchise is not denotatively pretentious then you may need to go reconsider your understanding of the word 'denotative,' and then 'pretentious.'
          This is all to say I love this show and you should too. Anyways let me get on with it, will you?
The point is this: Bake uses its narrative, its characters and plot, as a systematic framework, an interlocking grid of symbolic scenarios to communicate a progression of thematic concepts. This is all to say that Bake is engaging in some lengthy allegorical work. Let's work that out a bit more.
          As you may know, Bake functions on a basic structure of multi-episode arcs focussing on one particular situation at a time. Our highly reliable and super-unbiased narrator Araragi Koyomi (暦) – henceforth Calendar (暦) – finds himself looking in on the life of some person afflicted with a spiritual malady. These characters are being plagued by some unnatural, otherworldly force that they do not understand and that is disaffecting their life.
          In plot terms, this consists of gods and spirits from a slew of Eastern mythologies, given new meaning in how they are viewed and defined linguistically. For instance, the movement from Weight Crab (重し蟹) to Memory God (思し神). I think that's pretty interesting and I'll talk about it in the future, but anyways these spirits come upon the characters and invade their lives to some extent.
          Being the super helpful and selfless person that he is, Calendar, with help of the extended cast, gives his two cents on the subject of what this oddity truly consists of. At this point, the oddity will often be redefined in terms of its emotional significance to the victim – usually by a mentor figure in Meme Oshino, and later Izuko Gaen or Kaiki. The origin of the oddity, the nature of its affects on the victim, and its exorcism are all framed in the progression of a character on a psychic front.
          As we move further in the series, we see the real meat of it all: lengthy scenes of discourse on the oddities, what caused them. Often, considering the necessary interrelation of the oddity and the emotional life of the victim, this results in lectures or debates on the subject's emotional state. The conversations appear socratic, with the subject being lead to a conclusion that is taken as a premise on the means by which a person can interact with their issues, whether they be in dealing with trauma, or unrequited love, or familial disputes.
          Through it all, though, each arc becomes an anecdote packed full of maxims on the topics of how the victim interacted with the people around them, how they managed their own emotional well-being and responded to pain, all of this manifested in the infliction and expulsion of the oddity. Each interaction is establishing a discourse on the construction of identity: how we interact with and define
our sense of selves in terms of the people around us and our experiences. Gradually the scenarios build into a secondary, elevated text of themes elaborated upon and reconsidered in coordination with the development of plot and character. This here is the real beauty of Bake; its existence as an allegorical text, the structural development of theme derived from gradual, interrelated characters that are all put in discussion with one another.
          In a quick aside, let me stop a moment and talk about what I view allegory to be. It's less of a well-defined issue than one might think, but I see allegory as a systematic utilization of symbolic agents in a narrative that can be laterally elevated to create new understanding of the concepts. More simply, when what is occurring in the plot and with the characters can all be looked at together to create a whole new dialogue on a topic.
          Now, the nature of allegory is something I love to talk about, and I can demonstrate how that functions here in comparison to classical, pedagogical texts like de Pizan or Beothius, but I will save that for another time. Look forward to it, you of letters. Clerks need not apply. For now though, let's look at an example of how this works textually.
          As she comes first and stands as foremost in the franchise, Senjougahara (戦場ヶ原) – henceforth Battlefield (戦場) – and her circumstances will serve as ample content to demonstrate my point. Senjougahara is a mysterious, melancholic beauty that suffers from a peculiar trait. Ever since her fateful encounter with a ghostly crab in the streets, she has been virtually weightless. This is of course due to the work of the aforementioned Weight Crab, or more aptly, Memory God, or Thought God. You see, in her weightlessness, Battlefield has also lost her weight – as in emotional or personal gravity – in the loss of the memories of her mother.
          Though the work of the crab – and Battlefield's decision to accept it – is made explicit, the connection between the two and its relevance to the subject's character constitutes the symbolism of the scenario. Senjougahara is faced with a depth of emotional pain, dealing with near-fatal illness, watching her mother fall into the clutches of a cult due to this, and suffering sexual assault by the hands of this cult. Her circumstances are worsened by her mothers acquiescence to the assault, and the eventual dissolution of her family, the divorce of her parents, the loss of her father's fortune, and her mother's disappearance into the cult system.
          The sheer weight of the pain Battlefield must grapple with appears insurmountable. It would be enough to make anyone want to run away, and rather than face the issues head-on, to take the pain unto herself, Battlefield does just this. She disassociates herself emotionally with the experience, with the good and the bad of her mother – the good that brings her melancholy for the loss, and the bad for its own value. This allows her indefinite respite, but it takes from her her emotional being in total, necessarily irretrievable from the affects of the trauma. Having escaped pain, Battlefield escapes feeling entirely, and in this introduces a whole slew of issues, primarily the stasis of her character, her inability to ever grow beyond this trauma. Rather than surmount the issue, she hides it away far beyond her sight, languishing numbly in its wake. Forgive my poeticisms.
          Battlefield's psychic situation, her circumstance as a character, is manifested symbolically in the affliction of the oddity. The crab arrives at the moment when she must decide to either face her pain or shut it away, and she consciously opts for the later. In return, she is deprived of her weight. loss of her emotions, the loss of her memories. The consequences of this become plain in her daily life. She has become paranoid, sluggish, shut-off from others. Her loss of weight becomes a physical damper on her existence, and though she does not feel pain she cannot meaningfully continue her life. Emotionally, this represents – and is read by Oshino – as the deferral of the confrontation of her trauma.
          This is the premise of Battlefield and her crab problem. The moment it becomes a discussion of the nature of her affliction, the issue becomes a reading of the character by the cast. Oshino muses on how this befell her, and why this is problematic, explaining that “no matter how heavy they may be, you have to be the one to bear [your feelings]. Leaving it to someone else isn't the answer.” Matter of fact, Oshino presents his own point of view, providing a critique of Senjougahara's character itself, critiquing her manner of constructing her identity.
          In instances like this, we see the characters engaging in a discourse concerning Senjougahara's emotional, existential experience. Moving outwards to the aforementioned structure of the franchise as a series of arcs similar in content to the one just given treatment, Bake as a whole becomes a story concerning a discussion of approaches to being as manifested in the character's affliction with trauma and reaction against it.
          Moving past Senjougahara, we see how Hanekawa uses other people as an outlet from her own stressors through her escape into Black Hanekawa. In Mayoi Snail, we see – as much as he will let us – how Koyomi uses other people as a focus to distract himself from his familial problems in has
entrapment by the Lost Cow. (Are we seeing a pattern form? Maybe for another time).
At any rate it becomes clear that each arc in the scale of the text as a whole provides examples of how these characters, considering their circumstances, reacted in the face of emotional distress. In what they have to say for themselves, and what other characters have to say about them, a criticism begins to form concerning the nature of their reactions.
           Hopefully now we can accept this is the basis for the thematic work occurring in the franchise: a running discussion and criticism between the characters concerning how they choose to construct their identity – identity being of course inclusive to their emotional being. This is basically the run of it.
          Now I don't mean to suggest this is all that is going on in Bake. By no means is it. Rather, I want to function off of this premise in future discussions, using it as a point through which other, more interesting points can be made. Really, all I've done here is demonstrate that Bake is doing something somehow. In the future I'd like to talk about what.
          Because really, there's a ton to talk about. The way Bake has decided to manage itself may appear to simplify and make orderly an otherwise complicated text riddled with dissimilar characters, oddities, and circumstances, but in reality it only raises more questions. That is, it puts us in the state of mind to ask questions in the first place. The basic ones, as outlined here, are “how has this character chosen to react? What consequences have their been for that? Where do they go now?” More importantly, on a larger scale, “what has been said about constructing ourselves?” It only gets more problematic from there.
          So, considering I've been out of touch for 2 years, I think this is a fair amount of product. Generally, yes, my work tends to be long-winded, and I understand that this is not suited to the medium but I do in fact write to make my thoughts clear to myself. If you bear with me I think a thing or two of value exists to be found however.
          Just in this piece alone I think we can see some insight to what more can be said in the future. Shall I tally the topics?
  • Growing sense of scale in a pedagogical text, or why I hope Nadeko never comes back
  • Pretense as a criticism
  • Character bias in allegory
  • Language as reality
  • The instability of language oh god where is my dream
  • What Koyomi refuses to let us see
          That aside, here's some more I plan to talk about in the future.
  • Dark Souls 1+2, where I beat you to death with allegory
  • Marginalization of mediums of expression
  • Sacrifice and the Death of Kings in Fate/Zero
  • The failure to manifest ideal in Madoka
  • Lain and communication
  • Sophistry in Monongatari
  • Self-deception and consequence
  • Vampirism in Monogatari

                That's in no particular order. But I'm feeling pretty motivated at this moment, so expect more to come.

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