It’s a common practice in Monogatari fandom – ‘best girl’ ranking. Logic takes a spectator’s seat to the side; watching, but rarely taking part in the tumult of opinion and maelstrom of emotion. There are a few clear heads that stand above all the rest, this much is true, but I think I stand alone in defense of Nadeko Sengoku, the arc Nadeko Snake being one of the most thematically driven and narrative tight arcs of that first series.
But let me clarify a few things. First and foremost, I am, and always will be, a Hitagi-ist – have been since the beginning. That being said, I do not claim Nadeko privy to the title of ‘best girl’, but she is in the top three. Second clarification, I will not be covering Monogatari Second Season, I don’t think it imperative to this article. Second Season has cast such a shadow over what was already present; what occurs later in the story does not undo what has already been done, much like a sequel does not ruin it’s original. Finally, I don’t like Hanekawa nearly as much as everyone else does. Sue me.
I am still surprised this hasn’t been mentioned before. Out of all the analysis that Bakemonogatari has been subject to, I would have expected someone to have written extensively on the themes portrayed within this arc. I expected some guy to have argued on somewhat wobbly standing that Nadeko was deep character. I expected some some Sengoku zealot to have explained away criticisms with his undying love for snake-girl. While not exclusively a Sengoku zealot, and though my love falls far short of undying, I guess I’m that guy. But lets see if I can make that standing less wobbly.
Nadeko and Jizo. To fully understand my praise for this arc, we need to look at Jizo. Jizo becomes relevant to the conversation in the opening of episode 9. Two aspect shots are used to establish our location, both shots feature statues of Jizo, the ‘patron deity’ (if such terms can be applied) over travelers, protection from thieves, health, and children. It is the last sphere of influence that will hold greatest sway in my argument, as Nadeko is very obviously a child, but it is the whole of Jizo, what he stands for, that I find so compelling.
Let me start off with a story. A traveling clothe merchant, weary from his travels, reaches a village along his route, and stops to rest. In some accounts, the village is poor, thus explaining the inciting theft that occurs of a most prized fabric of sea-green/blue hue. The merchant discovers the theft, and unable to determine the perpetrator, calls upon the great judge, Ōoka Tadasuke, to correct this injustice. After failure to produce witness, Ōoka calls for the local statue of Jizo to be bound and brought to court for neglecting his protective duties. The sight is too much for the townsfolk, who burst into a mocking laughter. This angers Ōoka, who demands token tax as recompense. Too poor to provide the required amount, each of the townsfolk instead provides a portion of clothe. Foolishly, the thief produces fabric of matching color of that stolen, outing himself. Even bound, Jizo granted Ōoka‘s wish.
Jizo is also know as Bound Jizo for this very reason. Although the story doesn’t have much to do with children, it’s does illustrate the origin of tying a rope around Jizo when making a wish. When that wish comes true, that same person returns to untie the rope, while ropes of unrequited wishes remain until they are cut by the priest at the end of year. With that knowledge, it’s easy to see why Jizo would be heralded as patron of travelers and protection from thievery. It’s all very fascinating, and has a role to play in this analysis, but what of the child connection mentioned earlier?
You might be more familiar with this aspect then you think. Tying in with the protection of travelers, Jizo has been featured in anime many times, most notably in Hideaki Anno’s Totoro homage in Evangelion. Most real life shrines of Jizo are like this, roadside ornaments to help guide the lost. But what can be more lost than a damned soul? In Buddhist thought, karma is he basis determining where our eternal soul will travel into the next life. It’s fairly straight forward: good karma elevates the soul towards nirvana, while evil deeds lead to torment for an extended amount of time until compensated for. So lacking good karma, yet still being subject to judgement, where do young children go?
It’s the Limbo concept. Children who pass prematurely lack any good karma to show for, but still left behind grief for their parents – the hardship of baring a child. Their souls are innocent, but they have no karma to benefit them. Thus they are judged to reside by the river of souls, Sai no Kawara, where they stack pebbles and small rocks trying to climb free of their judgment. All the while, they are beaten by oni with iron clubs, and their accumulated pebbles are knocked down. It is here that Jizo comes into play. Putting aside his own nirvana, Jizo hides the children in the fold of his garments, protecting them from the oni of the underworld, assisting them in their escape from purgatory. This is also why we see Jizo adorned with bib and hat; just as he clothes our children, so too do we clothe him in gratitude.
So how does this relate to Nadeko beyond her being a child? Look at the narrative structure of Bakemonogatari. Whenever a new girl comes into Araragi’s life, he has to discern what it is causing the problem. Is it the weight of memories, sexualized jealousy, pent up stress, or wanting to stay away? With Nadeko it’s different, she is not the one with the problem, she is the victim of others’ desires – or wishes. In a way, she is in a sort of purgatory – innocent with no karma to show.
The name of Sengoku’s apparition is also a testament to this: “Jakiri, Janawa, Jagignawa.” Beaking the name down, it makes sense. The first part of the name ‘Ja‘ – 虵 is an old way of saying snake. ‘Kiri‘ – 干刀 rather straightforward, is to cut with a sword. Thus ‘Jakiri’ is snake cutting, ‘kiri‘ becoming conjugated to ‘giri‘ when adding the final kanji. The last part, ‘nawa‘ – 縄 the word for rope or cord, has a direct correlation to Jizo. The curse of the Jagirinawa was placed on Nadeko for turning down a boy’s feelings; not a deed that would earn bad karma. However, if that boy were to place a wish on Jizo, he would bind it with a rope. Thus, Jagirinawa is a snake cutter rope. The fact that the apparition takes the form of a white snake is also an interesting thought, as white serpents are often associated with money. We learn later Kaiki was the one to play the curse, but that’s another story.
All this would be inherent thought privy to a native viewer. Nadeko Sengoku needs saving, just as Jizo saves a child, but at the same time is a Jizo, bound by the wishes of others. It’s all quite clever, actually. But none of this is why people dislike Nadeko in Bakemono. That final scene in Araragi’s bedroom, at the end of episode 9 makes people uncomfortable. If it was there for the wrong reasons, I would agree, but first let me ask you a question. Do you value what you don’t like? Ever have a car you ran into the ground? A meal you had no taste for? Most naturally, the answer is ‘no’, we don’t take care of things we don’t value.
This scene asks you that question, or at least, asks Nadeko that question. The scene is prepped with lewd jokes about Araragi’s dirty magazines, then moves to an undressed Nadeko, poking fun at the situation the characters find themselves in. There’s a tension, an awkward one that at that. But that awkwardness was capitalized in the end. “I.. I.. don’t like this body,” she stutters as tears fall from her eyes, begging Koyomi for help. That line only works under one pretense, we see Nadeko as she sees herself. Was she sexualized in that scene, yes, and the characters do well to point it out. But there was a reason. She’s a person stuck in a very personal purgatory, one of self depreciation, hoping the boy she liked would appreciate her. But did we as viewers depreciate her too?
Enter episode 10. Araragi and Kanbaru have established the curse, Jagirinawa, was cast by a classmate of Nadeko’s when she rejected a boy’s confession. Love triangles have this odd effect. The girl likes the boy who likes Nadeko. Nadeko is head over heels for Koyomi, who is oblivious – he doesn’t see any romantic potential in her. When Nadeko rejected that boy, he was hurt, and so too was his admirer, the other girl. And thus curse was cast. Except there’s more to the story – what we thought was one Jagirinawa is actually two. The boy held feelings of contempt as well.
Come the climax of the episode, the first Jagirinawa is exorcised, angering the second, the one cast by the boy. It is the admirer’s Jagirinawa that attacks young Nadeko in a explicit fashion. Nadeko is the statue of Jizo, and two classmates bind her. Much like a priest, Koyomi removes the bindings, because their wishes do not come true. Intrestingly enough, however, the boy’s wish is the very thing he binds. And what happens when you hold contempt and anger towards what you desire? That is what was depicted, that’s what the subtext is.