Why I love it – Monogatari’s Characterization

The Monogatari series is far from perfect. It’s a show which is overly sexualized, overly wordy, and overly indulgent. I can hardly watch two episodes without groaning at some minor aspect of it. Despite that, it’s managed to become one of my favorite anime, even through multiple watches. What makes the series so enjoyable and valuable in spite of all the flaws is the characters and their interactions.

What makes Monogatari stand out among many other shows is that unlike many similar dialogue-heavy light novels, the show possesses strong character voice. The many important characters in Monogatari are meaningfully unique people who are more than archetypes, and this comes through in the show’s many conversations. The dialogue is always full of unique interactions that lead to one of the most memorable casts in anime. I’ll go through all the important characters thus far to explain why they mean so much to me.

Hitagi:

Hitagi is a good place to begin, since she doesn’t change much after her initial arc. She starts off incredibly guarded and resistant to outside help, before quickly coming to value Koyomi and open up to him and others. Hitagi serves as the series’ baseline — she’s always there to back Koyomi up and to serve as his foundation without much change on her part.

While she doesn’t change much after the first few episodes, her change over that period is quite major. Hitagi’s shift from her introduction to when she’s dating Koyomi is fantastic. Her love for him is always heartwarming, especially since we usually see it at times when he’s in trouble and needs her support. This element shines through the most in Hitagi End, when we see her willingness to cry due to Kaiki promising to save Koyomi, something she wouldn’t have been able to do before dating him.

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Ultimately though, Hitagi’s best moment is in the universally-renowned episode 12 of Bakemonogatari. Hitagi’s full acceptance of Koyomi in spite of his many flaws, and her willingness to display her acceptance and love to him is always touching. Hitagi shows how important it can be to have another person to rely on, and that reliance goes both ways in her relationship with Koyomi.

Mayoi:

Hitagi doesn’t change a ton, but Mayoi changes even less, to the point that she could almost be called a static character. Besides accepting that she’ll never again meet her mother, Mayoi never has a major shift in personality or outlook. In spite of that she remains interesting, though mostly due to her interactions with and effect on Koyomi.

In their relationship, Mayoi is very clearly the mature one in spite of her young age. Mayoi is, to some extent, both a close friend and a mentor to Koyomi, especially after Oshino’s departure. She’s always there when he needs somebody to talk to, and she serves as a sort of crutch for when he needs help.

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This position of a crutch is why she had to disappear in the end. Mayoi is too helpful to Koyomi, often to the extent that he lets her tell him what to do. What makers her disappearance so emotionally powerful is not just that we won’t be seeing her anymore. It’s a strong moment because we know how much Koyomi relies upon and needs her, and we know how alone he’ll be without her there. Mayoi is a character who only works in relation to Koyomi, so when he needed to be separated from her, she had to go.

Kanbaru:

Kanbaru embodies how Koyomi would have turned out if he had made the wrong decisions. Kanbaru’s love for Hitagi was just as great as Koyomi’s, if not greater, but she wasn’t willing to sacrifice herself for Hitagi like Koyomi was, and that was the root of her failure. Kanbaru embodies jealousy, scorn, and obsession as the Rainy Devil, but she’s much more than that.

What makes Kanbaru one of my favorite characters in the series is how well she bounces off of Koyomi. Her conversations with him are generally some of the most joke-laden and lewd in the show. They’re often funny and usually enjoyable, but more than just being fun, they help make everything all the more serious when the two get down to business. In Hana, when Kanbaru is agonizing over what to do in regards to Numachi, she and Koyomi switch from joking around to serious conversation in an instant. Their friendship is one of the strongest in the show, almost as if related to their mutual love for Hitagi.

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The other thing which makes Kanbaru so interesting is her love. Kanbaru is always in love with Hitagi throughout the entire show, even when she doesn’t show it. Kanbaru jokes about having sex with Koyomi, but it’s clear from her first appearance that what she really wants is Hitagi’s love. Of course, she’s too late to receive it by the time she actually goes after it, but it’s clearly her main priority. Owari shows well enough that she still loves Hitagi, as her argument with Shinobu makes it clear that she still isn’t over it.

By the time of Hana, Kanbaru has moved on to the extent that she’s able to develop a crush on Numachi during their interactions, remarking at one point that she regretted not kissing her. Even then, Kanbaru didn’t give up on her love, but accepted defeat without giving in, which is both inspiring and endearing.

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Nadeko:

Nadeko is a character who was totally uninteresting at the start. For the first two seasons, she has absolutely nothing going for her other than her crush on Koyomi and her shyness. These two traits deceived me–and I assume other viewers–into thinking she was nothing but a cute girl, which makes her narrative all the better.

Nadeko’s entire character is centered on how good she is at lying and tricking people into believing she’s nothing but a cute girl, including Koyomi and the viewer. Nadeko is a constant liar who uses her cuteness in order to get out of doing things, but this isn’t fulfilling to her. She gets out of things she doesn’t want to do, but that rarely helps her get the things she does want, such as Koyomi himself. This inability to become self actualized through her trickery leads her to abandon her normal life and give in to her more base instincts.

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Nadeko is at her best as the snake god. Petty and vindictive while childish and naive, she spends all her time bored and distrustful. A lot of Nadeko’s appeal is in how wholeheartedly she carries out her actions. She’s bored to death waiting around for the day she can kill Koyomi and Hitagi, but her desire to kill them is so strong that she can endure the pain of sitting around doing nothing.

What makes her such a great character though, is how much she really just wants to make manga. She does sincerely wish to kill and/or marry Koyomi, but what she really cares about most is hiding her embarrassing hobby. Becoming a god was just another part of her facade, just another way of ensuring that her secret would never leak, giving her the hope of one day fulfilling it. We all have dreams and other things we wish to hide, and while I hardly want to do what she did in order to hide them, it’s easy to empathize with her feelings of shame about her own work.

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Hanekawa:

Kanbaru gives a picture of what Koyomi would be like if he hadn’t forced his way into Hitagi’s life. Hanekawa on the other hand shows who Koyomi would have ultimately ended up with in that scenario, but it’s clear how much of a disaster that could have been.

Hanekawa’s biggest issue is that she’s never been loved. Her family was, despite her inability to admit it, abusive, and it’s heavily implied that she’s never been close enough friends with anyone to share any feelings that could be called love. It’s this lack of love which is the ultimate cause of Black Hanekawa. Her stress is what causes her to lash out, but this stress from her personal life goes unfettered and boils over because she doesn’t have a loved one to support her.

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Her attachment to Koyomi comes as a result of this. He was the first one to appreciate her for who she was, even if she was careful to only present her good side, and he became the first real positive force in her life. Unfortunately he can’t actually fix her, so every time she returns to normal she’s really just burying her negative emotions again, putting the issue of actually dealing with them off. He cares for her enough to help, but he doesn’t love her, and that prevents her from being saved.

Hanekawa shines through the most when she manages to conquer her issues on her own. The Tiger is her creation, and it forces her to come to terms with her hangups. She realizes she’s done nothing but repress her feelings, and upon this realization she resolves to accept and merge with all of her feelings, represented by her newly streaked hair. Only then, after accepting herself, can she confess to Koyomi and demand her parents’ respect. To some extent, receiving love from others, or even trying to get it, requires a love of oneself. No one can truly love you when you’re denying major aspects of yourself, something Hanekawa ultimately learns.

Shinobu:

Shinobu has closer ties to Koyomi than anyone. She’s lived for nearly 600 years, and in that time she’s seen far too much tragedy to care about the affairs of humans anymore. By the time she meets Koyomi all she wants to do is die. But in her moment of desperation she begs to live, and that leads to one of the most interesting relationships in anime.

Describing the relationship between Koyomi and Shinobu isn’t easy to do. They’re much closer than any friends, and there certainly is some element of mutual attraction in their relationship, but both avoid talking about it and it’s clear they’re not lovers. Koyomi and Shinobu are determined to ignore their issues–and their relationship’s status as a whole–until they absolutely have to deal with them, and that’s their biggest issue itself.

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Shinobu values Koyomi more than anything, and literally killed the entire human race out of loneliness in the world where he died. She has no one else, and any time spent without him is unpleasant for her. But this isn’t something they’ll really acknowledge. They know how important they are to each other, but they’re incapable of actually voicing these feelings, out of pride and out of fear.

That refusal to address the relationship, and the lie that they aren’t happy with it, is reflect in Shinobu’s very nature. She is an oddity, one who exists and is defined by belief, just as their relationship is defined by their ignoring of it.

Their true feelings however always remain clear. They only want to die if they are to do so together, and this is enough to demonstrate what they actually think. With Kanbaru’s help Shinobu begins to confront her issues, pushing Koyomi to the point of considering that he may one day be happy with the situation, and driving the two of them closer to talking about it. It’s hard to deal with tough things, but it has to be done in order to move forward, and stalling doesn’t work forever.

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Karen:

Koyomi is idolized by Karen. Her entire ideology and desire to deliver justice comes from his past and current antics, and as strong as she wants to look, she wants nothing more than for him to approve of her actions and tell her that they’re right. Unfortunately she has a hard time getting this approval, since the help she gives is often unwanted and selfish.

Karen delivers justice in a terrible way. She almost sees her self-sacrifice as a prerequisite for truly helping, intentionally using her safety as a means to get what she wants. She sacrifices herself not from necessity but from a desire to do so. Koyomi chastises her for this, explaining that sacrifice should only be performed on the part of those who ask for it. Karen tries to solve people’s issues for them, refusing to let them save themselves, making her selfish by action if not intent. Ultimately she still gets her brother’s love, but it’s clear that she needs to reevaluate her methods.

Kaiki:

A man obsesses with money, Kaiki is a frequent liar who freely admits as such, and furthermore, takes pride in it. He is a man who’s the only one able to reason with Nadeko, since she too is a liar, but his lies go much further. Every relationship he has, outside of the one with Kanbaru, is totally fake, and he’s a very good character for it.

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Kaiki’s first lie is that he doesn’t care about others. He doesn’t present this lie to Kanbaru, but it’s very clear in his interactions with Koyomi and Hitagi. Kaiki pretends to care only for profit, but when asked to save Hitagi he’s quick to find a rationalization for why the persona he presents would do so. He’s just as quick to find a solution to Nadeko’s problem which truly helps her, as opposed to merely stopping her from killing Koyomi and Hitagi.

This lie is so large that it may as well be a truth. He’s willing to do awful things, including tricking middle schoolers, just to make money. He’s so devoted to this lie that he can abandon his own conscience in order to try and make the lie true.

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This is a lie that has come into being for a real reason. Kaiki fails his missions when he gets emotionally involved, and so he has to deceive himself into not caring. He can’t truly make himself not care, but as someone who believes that the fake is better than the real thing, he’s sure he can bring himself to the point of functionally not caring.

The truth is, of course, that he has no shot at actually doing so. He does things he know won’t help and will only burden him, like taking out the cult Hitagi’s mom was in, solely due to his emotions, and it hurts him every time. Kaiki is a man who can never truly be emotionally disconnected from what he does, which is what makes him so interesting. His lies become so incredibly transparent in light of this knowledge, that they stop coming across like lies, and begin to come across like stories or deadpan jokes. Kaiki is arguably one of the most empathetic people in the show, even though he often tries to hide it.

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Sodachi:

Sodachi’s issues are depressingly real. She doesn’t have any oddities which tie into her existing issues. She’s just someone with severe depression and an abusive past, someone who lacks an oddity to blame for her issues and therefore blames others for them. Sodachi never heals, and she never resolves her issues. Without a clear target to get rid off, her problems persist after her arc.

What Sodachi does get is a small amount of resolution. She learns that her mom died and she realizes that to become happy she can’t just simmer in her hatred of Koyomi. She has to try in order to be happy. That doesn’t happen in the show, but the knowledge of how she has to go about fixing things makes the point clear. In real life, with real issues, problems like depression can’t go away in a day by defeating an oddity. But with a lot of time, happiness can slowly be found.

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Koyomi:

The protagonist himself is an odd mix of traits. Koyomi is utterly despicable in so many ways, and yet he manages to remain very relatable.

Koyomi’s biggest problem comes from his lack of a preservation instinct, or at the very least his ignoring of it. He’ll do whatever he has to in order to help people, and that leads him into a lot of bad situations that he doesn’t need to be in. Rather than let people handle themselves, Koyomi will ignore the rational decision and help anyone in need, from vampires, to demons, to ghosts.

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Koyomi’s relatablity and likeability come from his determination. Koyomi has many, many vices, but he’ll stop at nothing in order to help those he can. I can’t say that I, or most other people will go that far to help others, but we all have something we care about more than anything, and for Koyomi that’s his sense of justice.

Koyomi is interesting in many other ways, but he’s almost always more interesting for helping to characterize others, and I’ve covered them in a great deal of depth already.

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Every character in Monogatari, including those I didn’t write about, contributes to the show’s fantastic conversations and characterization. Monogatari is known for its witty language, and everyone in the show plays a role in that. Monogatari exemplifies a character-focused narrative to me, and that’s why I love it.

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