Management: While my opinion of the show is generally positive overall, this essay, by no means, is meant to serve as a comprehensive review, but rather, as an articulation and analysis of some of what I feel is this series’ most integral and interesting themes. This essay discusses Zaregoto, Medaka Box, Katanagatari, and The Monogatari Series. Several points on The Monogatari Series were borrowed from previous posts on the show here, here, and here.
The first Nisio Isin/Nisioisn work I encountered was The Monogatari Series, specifically Bakemonogtari. Nisemonogatari followed shortly after that.
I admired how closely the narrative formula of Bakemonogatari’s supernatural apparitions and normal school girls paralleled Sigmund Freud’s concepts of neuroses. Ambivalent feelings and beliefs become so sharply contested between the other for dominance that a cognitive dissonance, an unbelievable amount of mental and emotional stress, is almost bound to plague the person afflicted. Take, for instance, Hitagi Senjougahara’s conflicting feelings of affection toward the mother that raised her and rejection toward the mother that let her almost get raped. To avoid this debilitating stress, a person may develop a neurosis. A neurotic dissociates himself/herself from the current reality that is painful and a creates a new reality that isn’t. In the Monogatari verse, neuroses manifest as the oddities of the series. For Hitagi, that oddity was a weight crab deity that unburdened her of both the physical weight of her flesh and the emotional weight of her feelings toward her mother, feelings pleasant and painful.
And then I watched Nisemonogatari, an addition to the Monogatari franchise, I’m told, wasn’t originally supposed to be published and, given this fact, should be seen as more frivolous than fascinating. Fascinated I was though by what I saw despite its fan service, especially with anything involving Kaiki Deishu, but for reasons I wasn’t initially entirely sure of. I felt there was some profound message that Nisemonogatari was trying to communicate that wasn’t entirely pretentious. I also felt there was more thematic fruit to Bakemonogatari than I originally took for digestion.
And then in the same university class where I studied Freud, my professor began his lecture on Friedrich Nietzsche, a man whose books were long-winded, whose points within said books were roundabout and confusing to decipher, and whose ideas within said points, once deciphered, were nothing short of provocative. I realized how plainer it was to understand Nisioisn’s works if I approached them through a Nietzchean framework. Now, I wanted to elaborate on Nisioisn through Nietzsche long before this post, but I was afraid I might be usurping Nisioisn’s authorial intent for my own. However, after picking up Nisioisn’s Zaregoto, Book 1: The Kubikiri Cycle, and happening upon a quote a page before the story’s prologue attributed to Nietzsche, I grew confident enough to discuss the connection directly. At the very least, Nisioisn was familiar with Nietzsche.
“Why is it wrong to kill people?”
“So this is my answer: there is no reason… Killing is wrong… That’s an absolute. You don’t need a reason.”
The male protagonist and first-person narrator of Zaregoto, “I,” responds to a moral question about murder in a manner consistent with Nietzsche’s understanding of morality. To spare you the convoluted way Nietzsche puts it, he imagines moral objectivity like he imagines the contents of a bottomless, fathomless abyss. There was never anything in the abyss to begin with. Manachaeism, right and wrong, good and evil, these moral dualisms and morality itself doesn’t exist in nature. No matter how logically vetted current variations of secular ethics may be, the foundations these varied ethics are built upon are based on assumptions that are ultimately taken a priori, on faith. Nietzsche was notoriously hostile towards faith.
Kantian deontological ethics of duty based on universal maxims deduced from the categorical imperative? Kant is pretty dry reading, if I say so myself. Say if “I” were to claim that murdering a person is permissible. If “I” were to invoke the categorical imperative and turn murdering people into a universal maxim, then logic would suggest that it would be impossible for that maxim to hold. There be no way to fulfill the universal maxim of murdering people because everyone save one possible person, at some point, would have been murdered by another person. Therefore, murder is wrong. But why do we have to invoke the categorical imperative to begin with? Because, Kant would say, reason. But that reason is a priori, which is faith. I can narrowly tailor my claims for murder by saying murdering a specific person, and no other, is permissible. I wouldn’t run into any contradictions there, because only one specific person is deprived of life if you were to turn that claim into a universal maxim. And yet those claims would reek of blatant arbitrariness.
Utilitarian ethics based on the consequentialist conviction of net maximization of happiness? Say if “I” were attempting to murder a person with the knowledge that successfully murdering that person would cause more net overall unhappiness, to the person targeted for murder as well as the financial and emotional dependents of the person being targeted. Murder, in that case, even if it purchased me happiness, would be wrong. What if I’m a narcissistic bastard and don’t care about anyone except myself? Why should I be forced to prioritize net overall happiness over my personal unhappiness? Prioritizing net joy over my personal own for the sake of ambiguously universal obligation is a reason that is a priori, which is faith. I can narrowly tailor my standards of utilitarian ethics based on my personal preferences rather than simply net overall unhappiness. And yet those standards would reek of blatant arbitrariness.
Virtue ethics based on the proper development of a person? But what constitutes “proper?” I like making this brick analogy. Bricks were originally conceived for the purpose of building edifices. Say I argue that that’s what’s proper, natural, and true of bricks. But what if someone decides to use bricks to create non-edificial works of art? Is that someone violating nature because the use of those bricks deviate from their original purpose? Are those bricks now an aberration of nature? Say there were a pile of bricks lying in a meadow and no one ever uses them. Are those bricks now an aberration of nature as well? What if “I” decided to use a brick from that pile as a murdering tool, in place of, say, a gun? Am “I” violating nature? Are those bricks committing a sin? Nietzsche would argue no. There’s no such thing as propriety. Meaning, or truth, in the abstract is dynamic, fluid… in a word, arbitrary.
Then there is morality older than the secular: religious. Religious morality… well, is faith, and faith, to Nietzsche, is and has always been arbitrary. Religious faith, also according to Nietzsche, is arbitrariness in denial.
If there is no objective morality, if life has no inherent meaning, if the abyss is void, then is Nietzsche a nihilist? No. To Nietzsche, where there is no objective morality, you create your own morality. Where your life has no inherent meaning, you make your life have meaning based on what you fancy. Where the abyss is void, then you fill that void with what you desire. Understand that faith is all arbitrary. Embrace the arbitrary for what it is and dictate, according to the power of your will, your “will to power,” what you value. Because, deep down, we have it in us to be arbitrary tyrants, what you initially conceive as your morality isn’t a morality that, hence, becomes unchangeable, set in stone, absolute, irreplaceable. Morality can change as how you see fit, until you find a morality that suits you. Different from moral relativism, your individual morality becomes your morality, and other people’s individual moralities become theirs.
When “I” from Nisioisin’s Zaregoto expresses why he finds murder wrong, he doesn’t dress it up with independent excuses. He finds it wrong because he says it’s wrong. It’s how he feels. There is no other worthy reason for him than that.
Before returning to a discussion about The Monogatari Series, Nisoisin’s understanding and at least sympathy towards Nietzsche’s philosophy is carried into his other major works, Katanagatari and Medaka Box.
In the beginning of Katanagatari, a show where myriad characters are trapped, or rather trap themselves, under the weight of legacies they believe they must dutifully suffer, Shichika believes absolutely that his role in life should be to do what Togame says. Togame herself believes absolutely that her role in life is to claim vengeance on the shogunate for its role in the murder of her father. As they spend time together and fall in love, both gradually influence each other’s thoughts. However, Togame, in spite of her desire to abandon her quest for vengeance and live with Shichika, cannot bring herself to deviate from her self-imposed mission, dying before mission’s end while saying aloud (ultimately being unsure if she could bring herself to carry it out) that she have might murdered him if she thought the mission ultimately required it. In her dying moments, Togame commands Shichika to forgo fulfilling her revenge, live a long life, and forget her.
Shichika, however, doesn’t obey, killing the current shogun from atop his keep while trying to have himself killed in the process of getting there.
The plot driver of Katanagatari, translated as “Sword Story,” is set up as a standard weapon scavenge quest. With each sword collected, the collection of swords gathered, collectively and aptly referred to as the “Deviant Blades,” becomes more unusual and diverse, from your conventional looking and functioning swords to practice swords, bladeless swords, Western-style plate armor, and Western-style revolvers. Deviant as these swords may be from the normal convention, they are nonetheless consistently denominated as swords in the series by the characters, with the final sword in the set being revealed as none other than the Kotouryuu head and human being Shichika himself. In another deviation from the conventional sword role, Shichika gradually begins to realize and exercise his capacity for free will beyond a mere weapon as a human being. Rather than remaining a sword like Enzaemon, unquestionably devoted to his master’s, Hitei’s, will, Shichika becomes the sword that is his own master, independent of Togame’s commands unless he chooses to follow them.
Shichika refuses to follow Togame’s final order to him.
Medaka Box’s Zenkichi Hitoyoshi shares with Katanagatari’s Shichika an initial large degree of dependence on their female partner. Whereas Shichika conformed his role in life to Togame’s commands and orders, Zenkichi conformed his purpose in life to being the crutch for Medaka’s character flaws. Overtime, as Medaka gradually matured out of these flaws, Zenkichi begins to lose what served to give him a prominent role in the story. The story is awfully meta in how Zenkichi, in order to prevent himself from being permanently reduced to a minor character, seeks to reestablish himself as a main one. To do this, Zenkichi has two methods he could successfully pursue.
1. The former method is that is that he can reduce Medaka’s currently strong and independent character into something so flawed that she would have to continue to rely on him as her crutch.
2. The latter method is that he can become a person equal to and worthy of the currently strong and independent Medaka’s respect and affection. To become equal to and worthy of her, he himself needs to become independent of her.
It’s the latter method he chose. Medaka Box is, above all else, a coming of age tale.
Medaka Box also features a confrontation between Medaka Kurokami and Unzen Miyouri, one is as much physical as it is metaphysical. In his attempt to usurp Student Council President Medaka’s imperious moral authority over the school, Public Morals Committee Head Unzen Miyouri challenges Medaka’s understanding of what constitutes justice. Justice is neither inherently conciliatory or hardline. He personally makes his version of justice harsh, however. He resents Medaka for trying to impose her friendly version of justice on him when her justice is just as arbitrary as his. Her justice is something that she feels, and his justice is something he feels. They come from similar origins.
Returning back to The Monogatari Series franchise and, more specifically, Nisemonogatari and Koimonogatari (of The Monogatari Series: Second Season anime), are all the arcs where Kaiki’s has a physical presence. While making a minor appearance in the Tsukihi Phoneix Arc, Kaiki Deishu, as he was presented in the Karen Bee arc, as a philosophical foil to Kagenui Yozoru, the arc’s chief antagonist. The latter treats morality in Manichean terms of objective and absolute right and wrong. The former understands morality in a Nietzschean framework of abstracts such as justice, purpose, good, and evil being subjective.
Kagenui, hunting what she believes to be an evil apparition, sets her sights on Tsukihi, Koyomi Araragi’s little little sister. The reason why she believes Tsukihi is evil, as she demonstrates to Koyomi, is because she is not his true sister. She is a supernatural phoenix apparition who destroyed the original Tsukihi while she was developing in her mother’s womb and took the original Tsukihi’s place. NiseTsukihi, or the “fake” Tsukihi, was born and raised in the Araragi family without her family and even her being any wiser of the switch. She has no recollection of either the switch or being a phoenix. Were they to continue to live ignorant of these facts, none of the Araragis, including NiseTsukihi, would likely have found out. Through no conscious fault of her own, because NiseTsukihi’s not Koyomi’s proper, not Koyomi’s natural, not Koyomi’s original, true, real sister, Tsukihi is evil. She must be evil, she must be destroyed, and Koyomi must step aside and allow her destruction to take place.
And then Koyomi retorts back:
She is his sister.
She is the only little little sister, the only Tsukihi he has ever known.
That’s enough for him.
She is his sister because he says she is his sister, and he will fight to protect her, risk his life for her, because he loves her as one.
It’s in this instance that something Kaiki asserted, paraphrased in the following, resonated in my mind in my rewatch of Nisemonogatari, or “Imposter Story,”
as Kagenui pummels Koyomi’s skull: The fake is more real than the real thing.
While the theological understanding of god/God is seen as some divine being/supreme divine being, the philosophical understanding of god is simply the ultimate, and therefore objective, source of truth. The events of Otorimonogatari ended up propelling Nadeko Sengoku to become a snake deity with a firm desire to murder Koyomi and Hitagi after a set period of months. Kaiki, hired by Hitagi to con Nadeko into not murdering the two of them, succeeds in instigating the killing a god.
It’s not so much killing Nadeko as convincing her to relinquish her deity status, which turns out to be intimately and unsurprisingly tied to her desire to kill Koyomi and Hitagi. How does Kaiki do it? He does it by convincing Nadeko that she has other desires, goals, and jobs she could pursue. Set in this belief that she absolutely had to be a god and play out this dogmatic role of having unrequited love for Koyomi, Kaiki widens her worldview beyond Koyomi, to her parents that she abandoned yet confesses to caring about, to a potential career as a (trashy) manga artist. But to return back to her parents and have a chance at becoming a (trashy) manga artist, she has to give up on her obsession with Koyomi. She has to give up her obsession with Koyomi being her god.
Kaiki frames it for her with one of the core beliefs of his that drive how he thinks, acts, and behaves. Kaiki likes money. He spends his time earning money in whatever way he can, but he doesn’t hesitate spending the money he earns either. He, therefore, doesn’t earn acquire money for its own sake. Money is precious enough to buy a lot of things, but what is especially precious to him about money is that it is replaceable. Like losing old money and gaining new money, people like Nadeko can drop old ambitions and pursue new dreams. People like Hitagi can shed old loves and find new ones. And for someone like Kaiki who experienced tragedy through the death of a woman he loved, his philosophy is flexible enough that he live on watching over (in his own peculiar way) his beloved woman’s daughter, Suruga Kanbaru.
It’s in Kaiki Deishu and so many of Nisioisin’s characters that Nietzsche’s understanding of morality, social reality, and how people should live their lives is expressed. Nisioisin’s works, Nietzsche’s philosophy, and the themes of The Monogatari Series in particular has been incredibly formative in how I approach the world and people. They may or may not be as paradigm shifting to those reading this article, but I hope they are ultimately informative. Oh, and while this personal sentiment of might sound as an oxymoron, I do think there’s such a thing as a benevolent tyrant. Kaiki’s occasionally one.
Management: For other great articles on Nisioisin’s works, check out the articles linked by Bobduh and Emily: Bobduh’s article on Katanagatari here, his article on The Monogatari Series here, Emily’s article on The Monogatari Series here, and her article on Zaregoto here.