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The Nature of Happiness in Owarimonogatari November 13, 2015

Posted by navycherub in Anime, Essay, Monogatari Series.
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Note: This was originally posted as a response to a conversation in a club on MyAnimeList. It isn’t a traditional review or writeup that I usually post here – it might come across as more messy or unfocused than I would usually like. However, it turned out much longer than I expected it to, so I figured I would post it here for posterity’s sake, though very slightly edited. You can find the original context here if you are interested. Oh, one last thing: spoilers for Owarimonogatari through episode 6 ahead.

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Even concerning happiness, after learning some tips, she’s sure to pass me in no time. But happiness isn’t a race. If she passes me, I just need to learn from her in return. That’s how we learn, teach, and take each other to a higher place. Let’s hold a study session. Even though our foolishness is endless, we can become wiser together.

-Koyomi Araragi, Owarimonogatari episode 6

Monogatari gets better as it goes on almost by its very nature – it begins as a story about a boy who aims to “solve” problems, and has slowly evolved into a story about how problems can’t actually be solved, but they can be worked on.

Ougi Riddle/Sodachi Formula/Sodachi Lost combine to create a poignant story that takes into account the growth of both Koyomi and Tsubasa to put forward a newly matured articulation of Monogatari‘s strongest theme – the idea that happiness is something you grab through your own efforts, or as Meme originally puts it, “People have to save themselves”. Of course, as we’ve seen through the events of this show, that is a deceiving and even simplistic way of putting it. People do find happiness through their own realizations and actions, but it is not actually a one-person affair the whole way through; having support in the form of family, friends, and so on is important for various reasons, too, most relevantly their differing perspectives and personal experiences. At this point in the story, Tsubasa knows that all too well, and Koyomi is starting to realize it, too. We’ve long moved past Meme’s simple phrase.

Thus, this arc works to prove the complexity of achieving happiness by throwing in Oikura Sodachi, who essentially stands in as the anti-Meme. Right away she makes her stance clear – your place in life, your happiness, is the result of those around you, and happiness is impossible without those outside influences. “People can’t be happy unless someone else saves them.” She opposes the idea that your life has anything to do with the efforts you put in, and by confronting Koyomi with their shared past about how he was unable to “save” her (therefore, by her standards, being the sole cause of all of her problems), she stirs doubt in his mind as he questions the validity of what he’s done all this time.
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This is followed by a slow piecing together of the past, revealing interesting aspects of Koyomi that also comment on his (and the show’s theme’s) growth from a simple self-assigned savior to a more mature person who understands the various complicated ways our interactions inform our views and general happiness. For example, his penchant for mathematics, which was only briefly mentioned before as a joke about his grades, becomes a metaphor for the simplicity he once felt about “justice.”

When other subjects confused him, math was a saving grace, because unlike more interpretive fields of study an equation has one answer and strict rules governing how to arrive at that answer. Dealing with people is nothing like that, of course; people, situations, feelings, and relationships are all complex weaves of circumstance and emotion that cannot possibly all be understood at one time by one person, and therefore can’t be “solved,” but they can be made better through real effort and empathy. With this contrast it becomes significant in hindsight (as many things do in this franchise) that Koyomi works with Hitagi to improve his grades in other subjects after meeting her and experiencing all he has.

The “mystery” format Sodachi Riddle takes is itself an effective way to represent the inherent problems with Sodachi’s worldview. Sodachi tries to convince Koyomi that he is the root of all of her problems; Koyomi and Ougi go about to find out what she means by this, visiting old schools and homes to rediscover the past. In doing so, they put clues together, and those clues themselves form a story that reveals how problems snowballed into the current situation. In other words, they spend two or three episodes slowly and meticulously peeling back layers that each point to failures on the parts of everyone involved, by the end proving Sodachi’s simplistic solution of blaming solely Koyomi to be naive at best. The most interesting part about it, though, is that it works as a sort of reverse mystery – we begin with Sodachi’s solution, and by the end arrive at the conclusion that there is no one solution. The mystery only becomes more difficult to “solve” as key elements come to light, instead of having clues leading toward a singular answer, as in a math problem, or a traditional mystery story.

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Of course, I don’t want to stop at how the narrative expresses this sudden realization of complexity. The art design does, too. Ridiculous setups that call into question the structural integrity of the building evoke a sense that things aren’t right, but could be put right through pure logic. The irony being, of course, that it is exactly that emotion that is intended to be brought out here, that contrast between this being a cartoon with no need for real physics or geometry and our desire to fix it with logic anyway. Also, the general constant messes of Sodachi’s surroundings and living spaces that are simple but she refuses to fix are a constant reminder of how she feels about individual responsibility and her own role in her happiness; she is willing to take care of her mother’s body, but can’t even tell that she could fix her situation through her own efforts, too.

This whole thing comes to a head through the verbal conflict between Tsubasa, Koyomi, and Sodachi. Sodachi’s past is fully revealed, and she expresses all sorts of things from anger to an unspoken expectation of sympathy. However, Tsubasa’s situation practically mirrors Socachi’s, so she has no tolerance for a sob story. “Nobody can make someone that’s not trying to be happy into someone that’s happy,” Tsubasa says. They are tough words, and in another, less explored show, they might come off as straight up callous and unhelpful. This is Monogatari, though, and we know what they mean, especially coming from Tsubasa. Tsubasa spent much of her life pretending to be happy, writing off injustices as necessary evils and keeping her stress bottled up in the vain attempt to prove they don’t need to be dealt with. She of all people knows that you can’t just put a nice bow on a bad situation and call yourself happy, and that this is exactly what Sodachi is doing by trying to use Koyomi as her “villain.” Reality is more difficult than all of that, and the first step toward happiness is simply wanting to be happy. Koyomi chimes in to wrap up – to do take that first step, you have to accept that you even can be happy in the first place, and after that, you have to start putting in the effort. Everything after is a lifelong push toward a better situation, a more happy you.

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With that, Sodachi gets her helping hand, and is set up to take her first steps toward finding the happiness that she has unwittingly denied herself for so long. Her positive resolution lets Monogatari show off the benefits of Tsubasa’s entire character arc, which is probably the one that best reflects Monogatari‘s ideas. More relevantly to where the show will probably be going in the future, it gives Koyomi a direct attack on the beliefs he has garnered through the story as well as a real result that allows confidence in those beliefs. It is really the perfect setup from top to bottom, attacking Koyomi’s present with his past, and letting the strongest character show off directly to him how effective that empathy and understanding in the face of human complexity really is. Both Koyomi and Tsubasa now have not only the experience of their own evolution under their belts, but with Sodachi’s case resolved, they also have the confidence in themselves that will allow them to move into adulthood with new strength.

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