Chronologically the last instalment in the main series, "Suruga Devil" follows Suruga Kanbaru, now in her last year of high school, as she investigates the mysterious "Akuma-san," or "Sir Devil," an entity rumoured to solve any problem it is given by supernatural means. Kanbaru soon discovers that the real identity of this erstwhile magic fixer is none other than Rouka Numachi, Kanbaru's middle school basketball rival, a prodigy whose career was destroyed by a crippling stress fracture, posing as a wish-granting demon for personal reasons.
The day after their disturbing encounter at the site of the old cram school, Kanbaru awakens to find that her possessed arm has reverted to one of human flesh and blood. Thus, the story begins.
I have come to understand over the course of watching the Monogatari series that NisiOisin—and Akiyuki Shinbo, Fuyashi Tou, and the other adaptors at SHAFT, if to a lesser degree—has a message for his audience, about which he is quite passionate. This is more evident than ever in Hanamonogatari, which devotes the vast majority of its running time to one person telling another person a story and their subsequent argument about its meaning and moral. The storyteller is Rouka Numachi, the story, how she became what she is: A bitter, spiteful wanderer, first a false saviour and collector of others' miseries, then a far more ominous sort of collector.
Numachi is, from the first, a disarming antagonist. Devoid of the sort of memetic (and mimetic) cuteness endemic to the show's female characters, she is rumpled, unkempt, charismatic without being conventionally "pretty"—butch-handsome, in other words—yet possessed of a soft, distinctly feminine voice, with which she relates a carefully cultivated philosophy of remarkable cynicism. Direly embittered by the premature end to a career and a talent which she sees herself as having squandered, Rouka exalts in the petty misfortunes of others, which she sees as easily solved by time or by simply running away. Her role, as "Akuma-san," is one of a seemingly sympathetic ear; she takes on the troubles of others for her own edification, and the problems solve themselves. "And what's so wrong with that?" Indeed, her other, less conventional pursuits follow the same line, benevolent in practice yet equivocal in motive. One sympathises and is repulsed in equal measure.
Her interlocutor, and our narrator, Kanbaru, is the perfect foil to Numachi's relentlessly cold worldview, not so much because she is her polar opposite as because she is unsure if she is all that different. In the wake of Araragi and her beloved Senjougahara's graduation, Suruga is adrift, unsure of what she believes and how she sees other people. Once easily the most self-assured character in the series, rivalled only by her acolyte Karen in that department, her life has been thrown into disarray by the perceived loss of her friends who, although she may be defined by many other things, were always her polestar. Into this world comes a rival without bonds worldly or moral, a figment from her past who she had for so long thought so little of. "Sir Devil" is a problem that she could easily ignore or run away from, accepting that what has been lost or stolen was better off never had in the first place, yet to do so would be for Kanbaru to accept her nemesis' premise as well, and this struggle torments her.
Setting aside the obvious shadow archetype here—further enforced by that it is, yes, "Spooky" Ougi Oshino who brings this particular Devil to her attention—the potential for a queer reading here is, well, not even subtext for the most part. Numachi's ironic send-off following the revelation of her true plan that Suruga should "find a boyfriend, get married, have kids, fight with your kids... things I could never do," not long after admitting that she had always known that Kanbaru was gay and herself had "no use for boorish boys," suggests that the ultimate capitulation to Rouka's cynicism is self-abnegation: Remaining in the closet in which the less sociable, less conventionally feminine Numachi could never comfortably hide, living out a full, fake life vicariously while the hidden part withers and dies. In this light, Rouka's much earlier use of an unexpected grope of the breast to distract Suruga from a far more meaningful shoulder grab becomes less gross (although it still is, and well worth the slap she gets for it) than horribly sad—and the final word on her motivations all the more heartbreaking.
The supporting cast here is extremely sparse, even compared to other instalments in the series; extraneous people exist in Kanbaru's world where appropriate but, like her forbear Utena Tenjou, as the going gets weird, the focus narrows, and those without ties to the unfolding crisis begin to disappear. To whit, the isolation of Kanbaru's world befits her sense of disconnection in the wake of her friends' departure: Although Koyomi Araragi makes two memorable appearances in the show's final acts, Hitagi Senjougahara is a looming absence in the same way that Meme Oshino was throughout Second Season. It is clear that Suruga is still madly in love with her despite knowing and wholly accepting that her love will never be requited, yet we are never told as much. We simply know from how she speaks of her, thinks of her, sees her in her mind's eye. Similarly, the presence of the late Tooe Gaen, Suruga's mother and Izuko's sister, pervades Hanamonogatari, her daughter's memories of her voice and their strange relationship woven throughout. The Portuguese word for the emotion here is saudade, and it is omnipresent.
What cast do appear here leave their own marks, however. Ougi Oshino returns to haunt us all, this time as a surprisingly cute boy—a cosmic retcon even he seems to be coming to grips with—yet still serving the same role as ever, performing ludicrous bike tricks while leading unsuspecting protagonists into yawning plot chasms. That said, he doesn't seem to be playing the same sort of sinister long game as in Second Season; one longs for the inevitable Zoku-Owarimonogatari adaptation to come just a bit sooner to explain this change in tone... and gender. Kanbaru's followers are somewhat simpler folk—Karen Araragi is still Karen Araragi, while future team leader Higasa is, well, what you'd expect—but still entertaining enough. However, it is Deishuu Kaiki who, as ever, steals the show. His appearance is somewhat unexpected due to his ambiguous status in the last minutes of Koimonogatari (way to leave us hanging, jerk!), but it is a pleasant surprise, as it not only follows up on several dangling plot threads from his last appearance, but continues to reveal new angles to that same reliably unreliable personality we have all come to know and... yeah, "love" isn't too strong a word here, at least for me. Kaiki is a delight, and his meeting with Suruga is similarly delightful, in the moment but even more so in retrospect. Koyomi's aforementioned appearances are also great fun, and while the second also provides the context for two of the only truly lewd jokes in the arc—and it's really two halves of one joke, itself something of a callback to a text gag much earlier in the show—said joke is actually pretty funny, and both scenes are genuinely sweet.
This contrast of warmth and alienation defines the timbre of Hanamonogatari as much in its art as its plot and characters. Vast, still, abstract setpieces like the gymnasium full of floating basketballs contrast sharply with the claustrophobic intimacy of Hajime Ueda's spidery sketch-figures and beautiful silhouette animations. While in comparison the more static and CGI-intensive sequences can feel drawn out at times, buoyed mainly by the dialogue and ever-appropriate soundtrack, the sharp shifts in technique and feel are consistently refreshing; as I was watching it, they always seemed to come at the exact moment that I was beginning to go, "Well, this is gonna get old pretty soo— Oh! Huh!" The overall aesthetic feels at once like a continuation of Second Season's more eclectic visual storytelling and something of a throwback to Bakemonogatari's starkest moments, particularly the psychedelic collage of "Hitagi Crab", although perhaps the minimalist theatre of "Mayoi Snail" is a better comparison. Either way, the effect is hypnotic.
Hanamonogatari is not quite the perfect marriage of emotional resonance and aesthetic experience present in something like The Tatami Galaxy, nor does it have the apocalyptic intensity and righteous fury of Kunihiko Ikuhara's work. For a Monogatari arc, it is remarkably light on humour, which is arguably one of the series' great strengths; even "Nadeko Medusa", still maybe the single best arc in the entire series, was defined as much by its comedy as by its relentless darkness. Yet that is not what Hanamonogatari sets out to do or be. Its intentions are more reserved, and consequently its pleasures are more subtle.
Bearing in mind that any later entry in this series is fairly context-sensitive, I am fairly sure that anyone who has dropped off this train at an earlier stop can safely re-embark here; and while certainly one of the densest and least eventful instalments in the franchise, it also stands alone better than most, and as such I can even see some new viewers starting here, if a select few.
Which is a relief, because I really can't recommend this one highly enough.
Entrancing. Drop one star if the relative lack of comedy is a turn-off. If the endless talking bothers you, though, I'm not sure why you're even here. — Julian Malerman
Recommended Audience: Save for a few risqué jokes near the end, Hanamonogatari is devoid of overt fanservice, although Kanbaru's occasional (decidedly non-sexual) dearth of clothing and Numachi's (decidedly sexual) psych-out tactics will certainly raise some eyebrows. Violence is similarly scant. That said, the themes here aren't exactly light or easy to process—teen pregnancy, suicide and debilitating injury are all on the agenda—and there is a slight body horror element that crops up later. Older teens might get something out of this, but having emotional history helps. As for homophobic audiences... why are you even reading this?
Version(s) Viewed: Digital source.
Review Status: Full (5/5)
Hanamonogatari © 2014 NisiOisin / Kodansha / SHAFT
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