Welcome to my arc-by-arc breakdown of the Monogatari series! For the previous entry, click here, and if you want a directory of every post so far, click here. Now, onwards with Bakemonogatari’s “Mayoi Snail” arc.
Mother’s Day takes on different meanings for all of us. Those who have strong relationships with their mom revel in celebrating their love. Others whose relationships have soured will find it to be a day of uncomfortable emotions, be they anger, sadness or regret. Or maybe they’ll just try their hardest to ignore it but be forever in the cultural construct’s clutches. Regardless, Mother’s Day is happening annually regardless of your affectation.
Koyomi Araragi absolutely dreads the holiday. After his grades started to fail so too did his relationship with his mom, causing strain on his entire family life. This is exacerbated when he draws the ire of his sisters by running off to spend Mother’s Day alone every year. He’s thus personified his mother as the symbol of his failings, one that having to face strikes him with fear. He struggles to face both his shortcomings as well as his mom because to him they’re the same.
The Mayoi Snail arc is really about establishing Koyomi who acted as little more than a vehicle for Hitagi’s development in the first arc, as well as further establish Hitagi. The three episodes are framed as an exchange between the two where they struggle to express their feelings for one another, subsiding only when they’ve overcome personal hangups.
For Koyomi this comes in the form of realizing that it’s not a selfish act to accept or reciprocate the affection of others. He’s deflective of Hitagi’s (often veiled) praise and admiration, humbled to the point of denseness. By recognizing this he rejects his “light novel protagonist” archetype much like how Hitagi previously rejected her tsundere archetype. Nisio Isin’s characters can’t be boiled down to formulaic stereotypes as by definition stereotypes and archetypes lack this level of nuance.
Meanwhile, Hitagi has to overcome her unease with vocalizing touchy-feely emotions, a personality flaw that is shown through the lens of her hatred of kids. Anyone that feels discomfort around children knows the drill: you become very uncomfortable because you have communicating with people not on your wavelength. Hitagi seems to feel the same way, rebuking after having to comfort a young child she bumped into in a department store when she was in middle school. Her feelings turned to spite in order to repress her discomfiture at exerting the tenderness required in such a social situation.
It’s for this same reason that she beats around the bush with Koyomi and tries to get him to confess to her, only to realize she has to overcome her mental blockade and make that move herself. Koyomi was never going to do it; he had yet to fully realize her feelings for him let alone his for her (and by the end of this arc he’s still in the midst of the process).
You can almost look at it as Hitagi seeing him as a child because of the emphasis she puts on him being a virgin. This all changes when she’s outed to be one as well, bringing her down to his level whereas before she used her lies to look down upon him. I mean this quite literally as before she reveals her virginity there’s a sequence where the two are playing on playground equipment, Hitagi always positioned in front of and/or above Koyomi. I’ll be touching back on this in a moment.
Their relationship growth is furthered by how Hitagi can’t see Mayoi. She doesn’t want to hurt Koyomi by making him feel “different” so she plays along, only revealing her charade when it’s necessary to help him overcome the arc’s oddity. She finds herself able to empathize with him due to her own troubles from the previous arc. While this is all well and good it only exacerbates the process of Koyomi expelling the oddity. Honesty is important between couples which is why he requires that they be open with one another as a stipulation for becoming romantically involved.
Hitagi later comments on Koyomi’s “smallness as a human being” in her usual offhandedly cold yet amiable way. It asserts something else very important about relationships: it’s about what somebody makes you feel, not the individual parts that quantifiably make up who they are. Whatever Hitagi means by this sentiment, she makes it clear that it doesn’t factor into her affection. At the end of the arc She tries to rationalize Koyomi’s willingness to save people due to his selflessness as the reason she fell for him before realizing it’s just because she enjoys his company. Given her own personality quirks it’s pretty clear that this level of interest in another person is rare and why Koyomi is special to her.
A great piece of symbolism to gauge the the moment-to-moment communication between Koyomi and Hitagi is the structure in the center of the park’s circular bench. It resembles a broken down communications tower and the way the characters are positioned in relation to it often has significance. There are enough examples that it would be cumbersome to cover all of them but here are a few that tell the overarching narrative present in the first half of the arc’s first episode:
Here we see the lapse in communication beginning. Before this shot the characters had been sitting on the same side of the tower. When Hitagi first tries to goad Koyomi into making a confession of love he leans across the tower, unsure of her intents. He suspects she might be about to confess to him but also figures she must only want to be friends when she fails to convey it.
There is a lot of imagery following this wherein the characters are on the playground equipment. In the shots where it’s present the communications tower is situated between them as they move up, down and around their side of the frame. In motion, the above scene has Hitagi and Koyomi alternating being above and below one another on a see-saw. As I mentioned previously, the positioning of these characters shows a struggle for dominance that Hitagi increasingly wins. This is emphasized in this scene as Hitagi both begins and ends in the upmost position.
Here’s one more screencap from this sequence, notable because the two have ended up on the same side of the tower. By this point Koyomi has tried to close the communication gap between them, engaging Hitagi in conversation about the free favor she claims to owe him for his help in Crab. They’re still separated by the metal equipment though and she being on the outside positions her to have the power to walk out of the frame, and also out of the conversation. She still holds the cards.
The significance of this shot is that it takes place right before Hitagi discloses her virginity to Koyomi. They’re on equal ground at this point which means her only way to escape is by creating distance. Koyomi is hugging the center while Hitagi is trying to escape it.
And after we learn about Hitagi’s virginity they’ve reached a common ground and are sitting together on the same side of the communications tower, thus bringing the sequence full circle.
Of course, a romance series inevitably needs a love triangle and we get that here in the form of Tsubasa Hanekawa. We’re still early in her character’s development (and won’t get the full package until Bakemonogatari’s final arc) but it’s more evident than ever that she’s crushing on Koyomi. Try as she might to hide it, it’s clear that Koyomi and Hitagi’s budding romance is weighing on her. We see her sweetness give way to the suppressed emotions she’s holding within when she speaks of spanking babies, her expression darkening for a moment as her glasses glare white from the sun and the animation takes on a serious sheen. As I’ll hit on in a minute this is a euphemism for her anger towards Koyomi for not choosing her.
Unlike Hitagi, Tsubasa isn’t somebody that Koyomi can relate to enough to be more than friends with. He states that talking to her is like studying and that she knows everything (to which she responds by humbling herself as “only knowing what [she] knows”). This may seem like an obvious sentiment but it highlights an important distinction: it’s not that Tsubasa and Koyomi fail on an intelligence level more than a communications level (they’re always situated on the same side of the communications tower, after all). In essence, Tsubasa is trying to level the playing field with Koyomi because he’s not as studied as she is, creating a dichotomy not unlike that between Hitagi and children. It’s no surprise that Tsubasa appears as a motherly figure here in demeanor and dialogue (the spanking!), scolding both Mayoi and Koyomi while ruminating on how to discipline children.
What the show posits here is that we can find ways to break through a barrier of communication and understanding but when we try to apply that same logic to IQs we’re inherently faking it. Again, genuineness and honesty are key to a healthy relationship. Hitagi and Koyomi find this middle ground but Tsubasa will never get there with him because she needs to fake a lower intelligence to meet with his mind. That can work in a friendship but beyond that it’s a much larger gap to bridge. Ultimately this stress will build up to a fever pitch in the arcs to come.
But what happens when such a lapse in communication leads to outward frustration and even violence? Look no further than the arc’s namesake loli Mayoi Hachikuji (yes, it took me this long to address her).
Mayoi and Koyomi are intertwined with her being the snail oddity haunting him (however, she’s different from the usual oddity in that she was once a living human herself and is an actual character rather than a spiritual being). The two share a common theme: they’ve separated from their mothers, only Koyomi has done so intentionally while for Mayoi was forced into it against her will and as such she’s trying to find her way back to her mother. As we learn it was on her initial journey to her mother’s house that she was hit by a car and killed, leaving her to endlessly continue her journey in the afterlife to no avail. By Koyomi helping Mayoi find her way home he’ll see the value in his own mother and other relationships he’s been neglecting.
Not everything goes peachy between the two though. Mayoi might be 11-years-old in body but it’s actually been 22 years since her birth. She still exhibits the tendencies of a child such as crumbling to Koyomi’s will over the promise of ice cream but also shows maturity in how she also crumbles to his will for money. Because of this his rapport with her harkens back to both Hitagi’s anecdote about children and his dichotomy with Tsubasa. Koyomi snaps, but the way he snaps comes out differently depending on what side of Mayoi he’s rebelling against.
In their first interaction we see Koyomi and Mayoi fight, leading to the latter getting knocked out. As Koyomi explains, he took advantage of a grade schooler in a physical battle just to assert himself and he should feel more ashamed than he does about it. She had no chance which is what made him do it in the first place: it was easy bait to take his frustration out on.
Later, in the most controversial scene of the arc, a discussion between the two turns sexual in nature as Mayoi realizes Koyomi had groped her in the previous fight. Then, Koyomi (in his words as the action is obscured) “sexually harasses” her. Coming right after Tsubasa left the park, this signifies his frustration over his lapse of intelligence with her while also seeing her as a sexual being. This was established in the opening scene of Hitagi Crab where he looks on at Tsubasa as her skirt is flipped by a gust of wind. This is all to say that Koyomi’s interactions with Mayoi encapsulate both of the main women in his life, making her an apt character to be at the center of the arc even if it’s not entirely about her.
So, why a snail? It boils down to the nature of the mollusk: snails can retract inside their shell, just as both Koyomi and Mayoi are apt to do. The goal is for them to become slugs, to free themselves from the shell of burden. As such, Mayoi’s backpack is the physical representation of her shell. The crying bear plushes on either side represent the emotional baggage contained inside and the bear claw scraping over the top threatens to overtake her unless she confronts it.
When Koyomi and Hitagi consult Meme Oshino on the topic of Mayoi he notes that the Lost Snail is an offshoot of the Lost Cow. There may be significance beyond being a play on their similar spelling in kanji: an NPR piece in August 2008 highlighted a study wherein it was found that cows have an internal compass that aligns them with the magnetic poles of the Earth when grazing or resting. This is an interesting tidbit that plays into how the group must navigate to find Mayoi’s home but there’s little likelihood that Nisio Isin intended for this when he wrote the light novel as it was released two years prior. I’m unsure if this was known knowledge in any capacity before this 2008 study.
At the end of the arc, Koyomi meets once more with Mayoi who states that she’s become a wandering spirit. She’s still got her backpack on which means her inability to move on is likely due to lingering regrets. It’s not yet her time to become a slug.
Next time on Monogatari…
We venture into Suruga Monkey where somebody isn’t quite pleased with Koyomi and Hitagi’s budding love (and it isn’t Tsubasa this time!).
See you then and as always thanks for reading!