Kanbaru Suruga is a character defined by regret. That might not sound like an uncommon statement to use in regards to a Monogatari character. Hitagi regrets her inability to save her mother and play the perfect daughter. Mayoi regrets her early passing and the foolish acts that led to it. Shinobu regrets the monstrous decisions she’s made in her centuries as a vampire, the many killings and betrayals, the simple horrifying boredom of it all. This is a series where regret is the norm, a crushing weight that every one of our characters must somehow lift themselves from.
But I believe it’s fair to say that while the other characters experience regret, Kanbaru’s struggles revolve around it. Both of her currently released arcs are focused on the painful memories that define her, as are many of the scenes that feature her in other parts of the series. As one of the characters whose outward persona is almost an inverse of their true feelings, it can be hard to grasp exactly what Kanbaru is searching for at any given point, how she wants to change things in her life. She ranks up there — or perhaps I should say down there — with Kaiki in terms of how easy it is to trust her words and apparent actions, and that all comes back to her strong feelings of regret.
Surely, we all have things we’d like to change about our pasts. Decisions we made or failed to make which would’ve ultimately turned out far better had we chosen one of the other options. Things we said that we really shouldn’t have. Relationships that we destroyed, perhaps not even because we did anything explicitly wrong but just because humans can be confusing with little missteps often snowballing into something bigger. It’s not hard to connect with someone who feels a desire to redo things because of course they do, we all do.
And it’s not too big a leap from there to sympathize with the thought of hurting someone. Come on, we’ve all felt that way at times. Not a serious thought, not actual plans, but just a visceral feeling that someone deserves to be hurt, perhaps even killed. Being slighted can put us in a mood that makes it easy to envision damaging a person as some sort of revenge. It’s an especially potent feeling if tied to regret — offloading the blame onto another who “deserves punishment” is a neat way to brush aside your own feelings of guilt and avoid having to seriously confront the mistakes you’ve made.
And that brings us to Kanbaru, a principle example of the misplaced feelings I just described and the horrific actions they can lead to if they go too far, with all the self-loathing that comes with. While oddities in the Monogatari series have many meanings, I believe that Bake, in particular, makes the most sense when you interpret the girls’ various supernatural issues as outward representations of their internal problems, hence Oshino’s requirement that they save themselves. The crab which stole Hitagi’s weight works as an allegory for the self-hatred she displayed following her sexual assault and the disappearance of her mother. Nadeko’s snakes represent her tendency towards self-harm and self-loathing. Black Hanekawa is quite explicitly an expression of Tsubasa’s stress. So of course, the Rainy Devil should be seen as the natural outcome of Kanbaru’s inadequacy, anger, envy, and regret.
Her actions towards Koyomi are fundamentally rational, if very emotional. First, her desire to befriend him must be recognized as entirely genuine. Not just because he’s the guy who somehow managed to catch her beloved Hitagi’s interest but because he’s a legitimately interesting human being in his own right, the kind of personality that meshes well with Kanbaru. She truly likes him; though not romantically of course. They’ve got a great dynamic and play off each other well, leading to conversations which are unquestionably fun for the both of them.
And yet that does nothing to stop her rage towards him. If anything, it makes it worse. Because Kanbaru knows that Koyomi is a person whose got positive attributes. She can’t pin Hitagi’s interest in him on deceit or a lapse in her decision-making abilities. And that makes it so much more painful because it means that Kanbaru failed. She doesn’t merely regret being unable to help Hitagi when she tried. It’s not just that she wanted their friendship to continue, or perhaps, to evolve into something more. She lived with that for a year without hurting anyone. Things changed because she was confronted with her own inadequacy, making the regret go from a simple longing for a better outcome to a much deeper sadness which was inevitably going to result in her lashing out through the Rainy Devil.
Koyomi really is the perfect target for Kanbaru’s rage, the ideal candidate to make her upset. He succeeded where she didn’t in helping Hitagi, yes, but equally key is the simple fact that Koyomi is male. All too often discussions on Kanbaru overlook her lesbianism, something I can only describe as a massive misstep. Had Hitagi fallen in love with another girl, her feelings still would have bubbled up into a dangerous concoction of antipathy and self-hatred, of course. However, the dynamics are only amplified by the genders of those involved. As Kanbaru says, she had already accepted that her and Hitagi’s relationship was not going to lead in a romantic direction. However, accepting that in an intellectual sense is not the same thing as fully grasping it on an emotional level, something Kanbaru failed to do. She still harbored some hope that things could lead somewhere, hopes which were crushed by the arrival of Koyomi. The pain of being rejected by the object of your affections is naturally a universal feeling. But that pain is amplified many times over when it becomes clear that your gender precluded you from ever grasping that person’s hand in the first place. Kanbaru’s sexuality directly feeds into her hatred, as to her, it would obviously seem like part of the reason she felt this grief.
So really, it’s no shock Kanbaru lashes out given the pain she felt, bad as it may have been for the both of them. For as much as she enjoys Koyomi’s company, she has too many regrets, too much self-hatred. A part of her wants to cut off her arm, to atone for her sins, recognizing that this violence is not a suitable outlet for the agony caused by her missteps. But a part of her wishes to give in to her base impulses, to pulverize the boy who stole her precious Hitagi, doing what she had never had the will — or perhaps even the ability — to do. It’s hard not to relate to this on some level despite the fact that, hopefully, none of us would go this far.
And so, Kanbaru indulges in these lesser desires, nearly killing Koyomi in the process. She could not accept her regrets, moving forwards. She continued living in them, at the same time running from the process of actually dealing with them in any sense. She allows these feelings to fester, wallowing in them to an increasing degree as she beats him to a pulp. That is, until Hitagi enters, forcing her to meaningfully confront her past. Certainly, she does nothing more than finally confess while breaking down in tears. But even that is important. She never got to confess and be open about her feelings in the first place and that was one of the principal sources of her regret. Hitagi accepts her, turning down the prospect of a relationship but rekindling their friendship, never making any attempt to shame her feelings. She’s allowed the chance to finally continue her life for herself, living freely as she wants, unburdened by her past.
Well, she could have been allowed that. Perhaps if Nisio had only ever released the Bake novels, that’s how we’d interpret her arc. She began to move on from Hitagi, buddying up with Koyomi and even helping him in a time of great need. She became a good friend of the both of them who had moved on, perhaps one who had even fallen in love with Koyomi. Certainly, she wasn’t hung up on Hitagi anymore, so clearly, she no longer had any regrets. I mean, just look at her scenes with Koyomi in Nadeko Snake. How could you see this as a girl whose problems are still present?
Well, let’s recall one key fact: the Rainy Devil remains active. There’s a reason her arm continues to be bound, a reason that she can no longer return to basketball for years to come. Simply put, her regrets and anger haven’t gone anywhere. A part of her still despises Koyomi and an even larger part of her continues to desire Hitagi.
She is, without a doubt, a changed person. She can casually joke with Koyomi, making consistent sexual and romantic advances on him in the knowledge that he’ll never respond to them with anything but another quip. She has the self-control to prevent herself from going too far, attacking him once again. And she can talk freely with Hitagi, something she hadn’t been able to do for years, rare as it is for us to see her do so.
But the exterior she presents to the world is far cheerier and more certain than what lies beneath the mask. Her joking around with Koyomi is just that, an attempt to keep their relationship fairly light, never going too deep. She’s willing to come onto him because she knows it isn’t going to lead anywhere, on account of her lesbianism and his relationship with Hitagi. That’s not to say that the jokes aren’t an expression of her true personality. Without a doubt, they make up a part of her. But they only make up a part of her while the other aspects are often hidden, from Koyomi and thus from the viewer. She’s a smart girl who’s more aware of her own feelings than many in the cast and yet she rarely puts that in explicit terms, especially around him.
Just look at her conversation with Shinobu in Shinobu Mail. Certainly, it shows how she’s progressed. She hates the idea of half-assing things, of putting in anything less than full effort. She knows that problems cannot be solved by simply ignoring them, as she ignored her relationship with Hitagi for over a year. She demands that Shinobu make a real decision because she knows that Hitagi declaring outright that she’d continue to date Koyomi helped her in the long-run.
But it’s equally clear from how she talks that she has utterly failed in moving on in any real sense. She’s incredibly angry at Shinobu for wavering and ultimately, like in her talks with Koyomi, that hides her true feelings of self-hatred. She hates herself for acting like Shinobu’s first minion, someone who’s possessive of one he does not own, someone who refuses to give in even when his beloved has already moved on, something she herself could not do, something she herself still has not fully done. Everything she says to Shinobu is true but it reflects her feelings of hypocrisy, as she can’t put these words into practice. The agony has not faded much at all and the loss of basketball only tossed another regret onto the pile which is quickly becoming a mountain. That she even said all this to Shinobu is only possible due to the theoretical absence of Koyomi, even if he was peeking in for much of it. She has not moved on nearly as much as she’s tried to imply in her discussions with our ever-popular protagonist.
And so, her seniors graduate, leaving Kanbaru alone as we reach Hanamonogatari. She’s had something of an arc already but it is not complete. The opening scenes really tell the whole story. She continues to cling to her regrets in the form of the Rainy Devil’s arm but there’s not even any weight behind it anymore. Sure, she can still talk to Hitagi or Koyomi but no longer are they fixtures of her life. All this silly high school drama that nearly had her kill someone is becoming increasingly irrelevant. And does that leave her elated? No, it leaves her empty. She’s lost the people in her life who gave it value, even if that value wasn’t always of a positive sort. Her regrets remain and while the rage may be fading, the wish that she could’ve made better decisions certainly isn’t. What direction can she even go? She doesn’t know. Her room remains as messy as her mental state, her long hair weighing her down and her nail clippers nowhere to be found. She’s utterly unconfident in her ability to get the things she wants and seems to consider her failure to do so as a simple fact of her life. She still needs to move forward and for that, she needs a push.
So Numachi arrives to give her that push. In their initial confrontation, Kanbaru fails to truly reckon with Numachi as her former rival, as another human being and not a mere actor, hating her for what she says rather than paying thought to what Numachi’s words really mean. To some degree, she just sees her as another symbol of regret, with the both of them feeling lost in their current inability to play the sport that connected them, the sport they mutually loved. And so she “allows” her to take the Devil’s arm, theoretically freeing her of the symbolic representation of all her anger. She runs away from her problems again by simply allowing Numachi to do as she wants. She lacks the rage behind her past feelings but still holds all the longing that came with them and nothing has come in to fill the rage’s place in her heart.
So she just keeps running. After losing the arm, she’s even more lost than she was before. She runs from the voice of her mother, from Kaiki, from Numachi, all of whom tell her what she should do, where she should go. She might not know what she wants but because she’s made some progress, she’s at least conscious of the fact that simply listening to them can’t lead in a positive direction. So she literally runs until she collapses, letting out her stress and confusion in the only way she knows how, in the way she initially dealt with her feelings after first using the Rainy Devil.
It’s this that allows her to finally engage in an honest conversation with Koyomi, having hit her lowest point. Unlike their usual talks, it isn’t sexual, nor is it tinged with a spiteful tone. The arm is gone, after all, she doesn’t hate him any longer. And she’s far too tired to put up a front. She bares her emotions to him and he’s able to respond with simple advice: do what you want to do. It’s what he did in finally coming to love himself — even if that happened in a future arc — and it’s exactly what she needs to hear even if it doesn’t tell her everything. She can’t run away. After all, she was so angry at Shinobu for doing just the same thing. She can finally stop being a hypocrite, stop dwelling in the past. She can confront her problems, to prevent more regrets from arising, to at last move forward.
So she meets Numachi once again, for the final time, and there’s a clear change. Kanbaru treats Numachi as an equal now, as someone who has problems she can help with, as someone she once respected and someone who still deserves respect today. She’s able to accept her as an individual because they once cared about one another, in their own unique ways. She wishes to help free her, assisting her in passing on but conscious of the fact that, as always, you can only save yourself. One exchange in this conversation is key: both Numachi and Kanbaru agree that it’s better to regret not doing something than to regret doing something, as they both did in the past. But Kanbaru truly has changed and declares that the best thing is to not regret what you did.
And so, she plays Numachi in one last game of basketball, freeing the both of them. They’re able to connect on a deeper level and perhaps they would have been able to go even further had Numachi remained alive. But even without that possibility, they both come out of it satisfied. Numachi is able to pass on and while Kanbaru might not have gained a place to go in the future, she’s found value in her relationships outside Koyomi and Hitagi, in her own worth. She’s learned a way to move beyond her regrets and to make new decisions she’ll be pleased with. And that’s good enough.
Koyomi returns in the arc’s final scene, helping to tidy up Kanbaru’s room now that her mind is clear and she’s truly able to walk forward. As is so common in this series, she has him cut her hair as a sign of growth. She’ll deal with any upcoming problems head-on, not dwelling on what-ifs or wallowing in her past mistakes. She’ll find a direction to go in life even if she doesn’t have one right now. Because ultimately, regret isn’t inherently bad. It’s beneficial to look at what you’ve done and question yourself, to examine what paths you could’ve taken instead. The hard part is taking that analysis and transforming it into a meaningful, positive change in behavior. And Kanbaru manages to do so in her last duel with Numachi, finally channeling her past mistakes into a present success. Hopefully, all of us are able to do the same. Because we all have regrets but we don’t have to let them turn us into devils.