I just finished rewatching Nisemonogatari, the somewhat controversial second entry in the Monogatari series, and I am incredibly glad I did. When I first watched it over a year ago, I remember being kind of underwhelmed after really liking Bakemonogatari. I rewatched Bake earlier this month and my feelings on it remained mostly unchanged, but I liked Nise considerably more than before and even more than Bake.
I’m not going to talk about the fanservice complaint a lot of people had with this season–yes, there are some gross scenes, including the unfortunate running gag of Araragi molesting Hachikuji and one scene with Araragi and Tsukihi, but I don’t feel like that’s any worse than the first season, and I think this is one of the few series that’s able to use sexuality in a meaningful way. (Bobduh has an excellent essay on this topic if you’re interested.)
What I do want to talk about is what a fascinating work this show is on a thematic level. I’m definitely a fan of shows with ideas, and Nisemonogatari is both really relatable and very interesting to think about.
There are a number of different threads here. One is the idea of justice, which is the driving motivation of Karen in her arc. Nisemonogatari doesn’t present her conflict with Kaiki as a “good versus evil” kind of thing, though–it’s a lot more nuanced than that.
First of all, it’s important to note that Karen is a mirror for Araragi. Her desire to help people and lack of self-preservation are very similar to her brother’s ideals, and as such a lot of the show’s criticisms of her reflect on Araragi. It’s actually really clever to do it this way–because the show is in the first two seasons very closely tied to Araragi’s perspective, the viewer doesn’t really internalize the direct criticism aimed at him because Araragi doesn’t. But when it’s his sister, both Araragi and therefore the viewer’s opinions begin to shift.
The first thing that comes up is something that came up last season: self-endangerment. Karen goes to see Kaiki alone and ends up with a mysterious fever, which is a lot like Araragi not telling Senjougahara about Kanbaru and ending up badly beaten. The point is that even if you don’t mind if you’re hurt, other people who care about you do. Humanity is connected–you alone don’t define your worth.
Then once we get to Kaiki and Karen’s actual conversation (prefaced by a very interesting reminder from Araragi that this is what he heard and may not be the actual truth of what happened), more questions come up. Karen blames Kaiki for selling the charms and ruining relationships between middle schoolers, but, despite Nadeko’s problem, it’s important to remember that the charms don’t actually do anything. They’re fake. (I’ll get to this in more detail in a bit.) What really caused the ruined relationships was the middle schoolers’ own desires, not anything Kaiki did.
I’m not excusing Kaiki from all wrongdoing here–he is trying to make some money by selling people something that’s bad for them, sort of like a tobacco company. But what Karen is doing paints him as a villain and all of the middle schoolers as victims. It denies that they have any agency at all and therefore doesn’t really treat them as people. This is what Araragi does by solving people’s problems for them. There aren’t actually that many of these situations in Bake–Senjougahara is super dependent on him but solved her problem herself, Nadeko totally lacks agency in general and wants to be saved, and Hanekawa, well, that was a complicated situation. But it’s the principle behind this that’s important.
The other major theme here is the idea of fake versus real. I really loved Kaiki’s answer to the question he posed to Oshino and Kagenui, “Which is more valuable, a real object or an indistinguishable fake?” Oshino and Kagenui’s answers are both logical given different points of view: Oshino thinks the two are of equal value, and Kagenui thinks the real thing is more valuable. But Kaiki’s answer is fascinating: he says that the fake is much more valuable, because in its attempts to become real, it becomes more real than the real thing.
Take the story of the wraith-fire bee. Totally falsified history. But not only did Araragi believe it, he believed it enough that he even got himself sick from the bee. Kaiki says he doesn’t believe in the supernatural or use it. He’s just a con man. But in some ways, he’s more real than the real thing.
Of course, this idea reaches its climax in the last episode, after Araragi learns his sister is an immortal phoenix. He encounters strong resistance from Kagenui, who says that even if he doesn’t care, what would his family think if they knew they were living with a monster? I actually think this conflict makes a lot of sense if you compare it to a family learning that their child is gay (without Tsukihi’s personal conflict over it). I mean, yes, she’s not technically human, but knowing that doesn’t change anything about her–she’s still the same person you’ve known all of this time and grown to love.
And to tie back into the show’s ideas about justice, Araragi proves himself wrong. He told Karen “The first requirement to being a hero isn’t being right. It’s being strong.” But after getting beaten to a bloody pulp, he manages to be a hero by having passionate views about supporting his sister. It’s true that he’s not preserving himself and that he’s not giving Tsukihi or any of the others a chance to express themselves, as Kagenui says. But we get a reminder that every once in a while, there are situations where you can be a hero and be justified.
So that’s my experience with Nisemonogatari! There’s a lot more I could’ve talked about, like Araragi’s relationship with his sisters, Senjougahara, Hanekawa, or just more in depth about these topics, which I think goes to show how thematically powerful this show is. It’s this rewatch that made me put Monogatari as high as I did on my list, and while I didn’t think it was flawless, I’m giving Nisemonogatari a revised 10/10.