We have reached the penultimate arc in the second season of Monogatari, a four-episode story titled Shinobu Time. It is an absolutely magnificent run of episodes, for reasons I will enumerate later in the article, but first I need to start with a warning. I can’t possibly do this one justice without getting very spoilerific, so if you haven’t seen this you’ll want to go and watch it first before reading. More importantly, this is one of the most controversial arcs of the series due to Koyomi’s attraction to the physically youngest female characters. It is so integral to the arc that I’m not going to chicken out of discussing the issue, and the review that follows will contain images that may be considered NSFW, and plot details some readers may find disturbing.
We start with Koyomi and Mayoi encountering a terrifying entity, which is represented as a cloud of angry, swirling darkness. They try to escape on Koyomi’s bike, and despite being in great danger Koyomi takes the chance to make the most of the physical closeness of the bike ride, getting Mayoi to press herself tightly into him from behind and then hold on to his clothing with her teeth. The expression on his face, played for laughs, makes it clear he is getting a kick out of it. They are saved for the time-being by Yotsugi, a previously very occasional character who has a major role to play throughout this arc. Viewers who have followed the entire Monogatari story so far may recall that she had a grudge against Shinobu, and she provokes her enemy into emerging from Koyomi’s shadow by kissing him. Pay attention to that sequence (never easy when you’re trying to follow the subtitles for the fast-paced dialogue), and you will see that she grinds her foot into his shadow while she kisses him. That provocation brings a very angry Shinobu out into the open, and Koyomi silences her by kissing her as well. By the end of the first episode, we’re two out of three for underage girls who have locked lips with Koyomi, so it’s not hard to guess where things are eventually heading with Mayoi.
From the point of view of a Western viewer, this is hard to brush off, unless you have become desensitized to it all, thanks to the drip drip approach of Koyomi’s twisted encounters with young girls over time. If it were ever possible to excuse what happens due to the actual age of the girls rather than their physical ages, that is not really possible here, because he is specifically attracted to them because of their physical ages, and much of the comedy springs from his triumphant reaction to being thrown together with the three physically youngest girls in his life. For Koyomi, all his Christmasses just came at once. Let’s be specific here: Yotsugi is literally 15 but physically 12. Mayoi has a literal age of 22 and a physical age of 11. Shinobu has a literal age that can be counted in centuries, but a physical age of just 8. Koyomi is 17, and one of his favourite hobbies is to try to find ways to grope Mayoi. Shinobu stops him from ever going that far, although on two occasions she is unconscious or asleep and he sneaks a peek up her skirt. The kindest thing we can say about all this is that it’s played for laughs and it’s a form of comedy that doesn’t easily translate.
But if we look at the translation of the dialogue itself we can understand much further the ameliorating factor here: unless we understand Japanese to an intricate standard, a huge amount of what is going on here gets lost in translation. This show is so full of word play that a native viewer would probably watch this in fits of laughter. We are at a disadvantage. A prime example can be found after Mayoi’s eventual kiss with Koyomi, when she says “sorry, I bit your tongue.” This of course makes matters worse if you’re focussing on being offended rather than the emotion of the moment (of which more later), because it implies that Koyomi has stuck his tongue in her mouth, but the ambiguity of the words used and the absence of a personal pronoun, so often omitted in Japanese, means her line could be interpreted as “I bit my tongue” or “I stuttered”, so this is a play on words, a reference to a long-standing joke about the way Mayoi speaks to Koyomi, and deliberately ambiguous and funny. Unless you take the trouble to translate the original Japanese yourself, which is obviously not practical for most viewers, so much gets missed or misinterpreted, because the original dialogue simply cannot be subtitled in a way that captures the original meaning.
Leaving aside the underage kissing for now, this is a superb arc. The second episode is a visually stunning and incredibly artistic flashback to 400 years before, when Shinobu encountered the entity for the first time. Izuko Gaen, the woman who “knows everything”, eventually turns up and explains what the entity wants, and it’s utterly heartbreaking: Mayoi was a wandering spirit (quite literally) who was saved by Koyomi, but has not passed on to the afterlife. She no longer fulfils her purpose as an entity who makes living people lost, and she has been hanging around for all this time because she is having so much fun with Koyomi. The entity destroys anomalies like Mayoi. The only way around their predicament is for her to accept the situation and ascend to heaven. She confesses her love, kisses him goodbye (standing on Yotsugi’s shoulders, because this show never forgets to contrast humour with raw emotion) while the tears roll down her cheeks, and rips the viewers’ heart out by departing from the series. Whatever you think about Koyomi’s attraction to her, Mayoi was a magnificent character.
Look, this all boils down to a fairly simple equation for the viewers. You are going to fall into one of four camps when it comes to the kisses and Koyomi’s attitude to three young girls. You might hate it all and be deeply troubled by it, in which case I’m amazed you’ve got this far into the show and can’t see how that can be the case unless you’re lying to yourself or deliberately torturing yourself in some way. Just stop watching it already. You might be somebody who gets a kick out of it with or without the context of any given scene, in which case the least said about those viewers the better. You might have been desensitized by this show or even the wider world of anime having a culturally different attitude to the age of the characters it portrays (and nobody should ever stand in judgment over another culture unless they’ve taken the trouble to understand it intimately, and probably not even then). Or finally, you might understand some of the humour, realise a lot of it is lost in translation, and feel like it excuses much of what happens, while remaining perhaps slightly uneasy about the whole thing. The fourth option seems to me the most rational.
Whatever the case may be, that final kiss is a moment of high emotion, and Mayoi’s departure after a high-stakes adventure is a roller-coaster of excitement and bittersweetness. I hope that’s not the last we ever see of Mayoi, as she has been such a fun character. The coda after the credits hint at some unfinished business, because Koyomi forgot to say goodbye, so maybe…. just maybe… RP