A review of Nekomonogatari Black

Finally we come to the end of this “first season” of Monogatari. This series is certainly broken up in a weird way, and it progresses in a weird way too, because Nekomonogatari Black is another prequel. This one tells the story of what happened during the short holiday of Golden Week: the “Black Hanekawa” incident that kept getting brought up through the first and second series of the show. It’s only four episodes long, but there’s plenty here to examine as usual.

Before I move on, here’s the usual spoiler warning: there are spoilers in this review. Again, they probably won’t make a lot of sense if you haven’t seen any of the series, but even so, fair warning and all. This one is especially violent in parts too, though not on the same level as Kizumonogatari. I guess that’s true of the other sets of episodes I’ve reviewed, actually. Lots of blood and limbs being removed and that sort of thing, but those parts are all concentrated in a few very intense action scenes.

Don’t let the screenshot fool you: this catgirl will fuck you up.

The broad outlines of what happened during the Golden Week break from school are already known by the time the series starts, shortly after the events of Kizumonogatari: we know star student and high achiever Tsubasa Hanekawa was possessed by a violent supernatural cat spirit, causing her to go on a rampage until she was stopped and turned more or less back to normal by her new friend/series protagonist Koyomi Araragi, mainly thanks to Shinobu’s intervention. Nekomonogatari Black gives us the whole story, albeit only from Koyomi’s perspective. There’s still a lot going on in Tsubasa’s life that only she can tell us.

At the start of the series, our semi-vampire slacker protagonist Koyomi is trying to work out his feelings. He can’t get his mind off of Tsubasa and is wondering whether he’s in love with her. So he asks his younger sister Tsukihi for her advice, because by his own admission, he’s never been in love before. After a lot of the usual dialogue and wordplay joke stuff, Tsukihi tells Koyomi he’s not in love but just sexually frustrated, so he decides to head off to the local bookstore to get a dirty magazine (just like in Kizumonogatari; maybe he doesn’t have his own computer, or maybe he’s old-fashioned and prefers print media.) And of course, leaving the bookstore at the same time is Tsubasa herself.

We don’t get much of the lighthearted banter from now on, though. Koyomi notices that Tsubasa has gauze taped to her cheek. After dragging a promise out of him that he won’t tell anyone, Tsubasa tells him that her stepfather hit her that morning.

This naturally pisses Koyomi off, but Tsubasa reminds him of his promise. She also tells him that it was only natural this happened. If you had a daughter who talked back to you early in the morning, and wasn’t even related to you by blood, and you were under stress at work, wouldn’t you feel like slapping her too?

Of course, the answer is “no, that’s completely fucked,” and so Koyomi says. But he agrees to keep silent about it.

At this point, Tsubasa finds the body of a cat lying in the middle of the road. She’s not the type to just ignore that and asks Koyomi to help her bury it, which they do together. Of course, we already know this isn’t an ordinary cat. As we learned all the way back in the last arc of Bakemonogatari, Tsubasa Cat, this was a “meddlecat” (translated from sawarineko, which looks like it has some relation or connection to the supernatural cat spirit bakeneko, or maybe to the nekomata.) This spirit has the ability to possess humans and causes them to act out violently, requiring an exorcism.

We’ve also seen the effect this possession has on Tsubasa. Later that day Koyomi visits his benefactor the spirit/demon expert Oshino, who senses that something’s off and asks what’s going on with “Miss Class President” as he calls her. From the hints Koyomi is able to drop without breaking his promise to her, Oshino figures the situation out, warning him that Tsubasa is in danger of possession by a violent spirit and that he should go to her house to check up on her.

But it’s too late. On his way to Tsubasa’s house, Koyomi spots a white-haired girl stalking around the streets in her underwear, with a pair of cat ears sticking out the top of her head, and he realizes that Oshino’s worst fears were realized. This catgirl has the form of Tsubasa but seems completely different in personality, almost like a wild animal. Speaking with a different voice and referring to Tsubasa as her “master”, the girl dumps two unconscious bodies in front of Koyomi — the bodies of Tsubasa’s parents. And when Koyomi tries to stop her from leaving, this possessed Tsubasa attacks Koyomi, ripping his arm off.

His regenerative ability lets him reattach the arm and heal with Shinobu’s help, but after retreating back to the cram school, Koyomi is faced with a dilemma. Oshino tells him based on his own research and experience that this meddlecat has not only possessed Tsubasa but is merging with her somehow, allowing it to combine its own physical skills with Tsubasa’s considerable intelligence to essentially create a broken, unfairly powerful character that Oshino refers to as “Black Hanekawa.” So broken that even Oshino, the guy who seasoned vampire hunters run away from, hasn’t yet been able to defeat her in the many fights he’s had with her during Koyomi’s recuperation.

I like this traditional-looking art over Oshino’s explanation.

Thankfully, Oshino confirms that Tsubasa’s parents aren’t dead; they’ve only been made victims of Black Hanekawa’s energy drain ability, which she’s since been using to attack and drain people all over town. But he warns Koyomi that if they don’t manage to exorcise the meddlecat, it will merge with Tsubasa completely, making it impossible to save her.

That’s the setup of Nekomonogatari Black, though it takes us through the first two episodes out of four. The last two deal with how Koyomi actually goes about both rescuing Tsubasa and defeating the cat possessing her. To do this, however, he also has to defeat Tsubasa herself — because by the last episode, Koyomi discovers that Tsubasa is actually conscious and is in control of her actions at least to some extent. As usual in this series, nothing is how it seems at first.

It’s easy to see why Tsubasa would fall under the influence of this kind of wild spirit. Being the top student in her class, famous for her high achiever status among the other students, would normally be stressful enough with the support of a caring family, but she doesn’t even have that. Neither of her parents are related to her by blood; a series of deaths, divorces, and remarriages placed her with two relative strangers at a young age.

You’d hope that her stepparents would care for her as though she were their own, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Tsubasa says to Koyomi that blood relation is important in a family, but the fact that there are plenty of loving non-blood-related families around suggest there’s more going on. No, she gives the impression that her parents, who we never see except as unconscious figures in episode 2, act as though they were stuck with her, like the secondary consequence of getting remarried. “Oh, you have a kid too; I guess that’s fine” — that sort of thing. Considering that, it makes sense that Tsubasa felt free to go out and wander the streets on nights and holidays as we see her doing when she runs into Koyomi in Kizumonogatari and Bakemonogatari. She lives at the same address as her adoptive parents, but those parents don’t seem to care about what she does.

Tsubasa’s situation can be contrasted with Koyomi’s. He doesn’t have an ideal home life; he’s emotionally broken off from his parents, as far as we know because of his failures as a student. He’s still part of his own family, though, and he does have close relationships with his younger sisters Karen and Tsukihi, relationships we saw develop in Nisemonogatari. When they face a threat, we see the siblings close ranks and support each other no matter what other disagreements they have.

This might be a little too close actually.

Then again, Koyomi himself might also be a source of stress for Tsubasa. We already know that she has feelings for him that she hasn’t expressed, feelings that started back during the events of Kizumonogatari when Koyomi went through his vampiric ordeal. That’s not actually revealed until later on, well after Koyomi gets together with Hitagi during the events of Bakemonogatari, but even at this point there’s plenty left unsaid between the two. Throughout this first season of Monogatari, including the prequel movies when they first meet, the nature of their relationship is sort of unclear — they’re certainly friends, but beyond that they’re both carrying around more intense feelings that may or may not count as love.

Again, there’s a strong contrast to be made here with the relationship between Koyomi and Hitagi. Hitagi even says she hates “unclear relationships” or something similar when they officially become a couple, asking Koyomi to express his feelings for her unambiguously. Maybe some of Tsubasa’s stress comes from an inability to act in such a straightforward way. That’s certainly the case later on, in the last part of Bakemonogatari.

All that makes it all the more depressing that Tsubasa is never actually freed from her demon. Before they have their final fight, Koyomi and “Black Hanekawa” have a perfectly civil talk during which she tells him that she plans to relieve Tsubasa’s stress by attacking and energy-draining as many people as possible. Koyomi argues that even if that were justified, it wouldn’t relieve Tsubasa’s stress but simply put it off for a while, but the cat refuses to listen. When Koyomi finally draws her out to the cram school for their final fight, it takes Shinobu’s help to resolve the matter by using her own energy drain technique on Tsubasa, leaving her exhausted and powerless but physically unharmed. It also seems like getting possessed with a cat demon causes memory loss. In the end, at least, it’s for the better that Tsubasa ended up not remembering any of the ordeal she went through here, considering the burden of guilt that would cause her.

However, although Shinobu’s energy drain subdued that cat spirit, it’s still in there. Tsubasa’s stress still isn’t relieved, and when it builds back up near the end of Bakemonogatari, the wild cat reemerges to possess her again. I don’t know if Nisio Isin meant that to be a comment on the difficulty of truly relieving stress, but it read that way to me. Much of Monogatari throughout this “first season” deals with demonic and spiritual possession, but those possessions are always caused by or related to the affected character’s internal struggles, the kinds of anxieties and insecurities that a lot of us deal with. And those issues aren’t so easily dealt with. As Oshino says so often, though the victim can be helped, in the end they have to save themselves. Despite how perfect she might seem on the outside, Tsubasa can’t manage that. Not yet, anyway.

Things are going to keep being tense for a while, aren’t they?

So I guess this isn’t quite a satisfying end to the first season of Monogatari, at least not for our characters. But all these series have left problems and ambiguities lying around, seemingly all on purpose. This ending feels pretty fitting for that reason. The next series up, in fact, is Nekomonogatari White, which starts off the “second season” of Monogatari. As the title suggests, this story also centers on Tsubasa, but this time it’s told from her perspective. I like Koyomi a lot as a protagonist, but it will be nice to get out of his head for a while. Especially to get into Tsubasa’s, because she’s my favorite character in the series at this point. I was never the top student in my class (I was really more of a Koyomi in high school if I had to compare myself to one of them) but a lot of Tsubasa’s anxieties make her pretty sympathetic to me, even if I can’t say I relate to them.

But that’s it for this first season of Monogatari. This closing mini-series maintains all the technical and style standards set by the earlier series, with excellent art, voice acting, and backing music (and another nice set of themes in Perfect Slumbers and Kieru Daydream. I always appreciate those great OP and ED themes.) I’ve liked the series as a whole a lot so far, enough that I feel bad for mostly writing reviews of these series full of spoilers. For that reason, I was thinking of writing a general first season review without spoilers, if I can even manage that. If so, after that’s done I’ll probably be moving over to other anime series for a while. But I know for a fact I’ll be back for more Monogatari at some point.

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