Let’s get this part over and done with straight away then, shall we? I was warned about episode 8 of Nisemonogatari. Something about a toothbrush. A toothbrush? I thought. What can you do with a toothbrush that would be so objectionable? Does Araragi stick it up his sister’s butt or something? The show itself thankfully rules out that particular horror in a preceding dialogue scene. But what proceeds is one of the most uncomfortable/hilarious 5 minutes of anime I have ever watched. I would say I have no words, but that would be a lie. I have words.
This one-disc blu-ray set contains only four episodes, 8-11 of Nisemonogatari: Tsukihi Phoenix parts 1-4. It is much shorter, and in some ways much less self-indulgent than the story Karen Bee that comprised the previous seven episodes (reviewed here). There are many things about this story that are better than the previous, and that tie the themes of the whole 11-episode series together. Then there is The Toothbrush Scene.
A brief declaration of interest(s) - I am the father of three children - two boys and a girl. I have been watching anime for well over 30 years now. I have experienced some truly disgusting animation (including the entirety of the - uncut - Urotsukidoji saga). Nothing has repulsed me quite as much as Nisemonogatari episode 8. Perhaps the root of this visceral reaction is that my eldest son is not far off Koyomi’s age, and my daughter is of similar age to Karen. It is impossible to view this scene without invoking analogues from my own life. This may give me a different vantage point to the average reader of this site.
15-year-old Karen wishes to meet her 17-year-old brother Koyomi’s female friend Suruga Kanbaru - you know, the perpetually naked/perverted comedy lesbian character? Perhaps wisely, Koyomi is not keen to facilitate this meet-cute, in case Kanbaru corrupts his sister. Karen pushes the issue though, so in frustration Koyomi makes her bet that she can’t stand more than 5 minutes of him brushing her teeth. He argues that if getting one’s hair cut is an intimate act, then allowing someone to brush your teeth is even more intimate. Quite what his ultimate intent in following this line of reasoning is, I don’t really understand, but Karen agrees.
With dramatic posing like something out of Welcome to the Ballroom, he perches over her and slowly inserts the implement into her gaping, quivering mouth. She moans with pleasure as he rhythmically stimulates her - in and out, in and out, her cries intensifying as she grips the sheets, opens her legs and drools out the side of her mouth. Koyomi gets a little too into the action and moves to fondle his sister’s breast - just as younger sister Tsukihi walks into the room to interrupt them with a perfect WTF expression and a very appropriate line of questioning.
Even just recounting this very abridged version of the scene (remember this lasts five whole minutes) makes me feel soiled. Taken at face value, this is utterly horrifying. The toothbrushing itself is pretty weird, but the way it is shot like a porn movie with Karen’s moaning and convulsing with pleasure, plus how Koyomi is very clearly turned on by his sister - at one point comparing her to his “perfect woman” Tsubasa Hanekawa - the clear intentions of the director and the writer seem to be titillation. It’s pretty uncomfortable to be watching a show that’s trying so hard to sexually stimulate you by showing a brother essentially toothbrush-fucking his sister. Nisemonogatari succeeds in crossing lines I never even knew existed.
However - I do think there is a bit more to the scene than that. It seems so ridiculously exaggerated. I forced myself to watch the episode a second time, and this time I could not help but laugh at how ridiculous it was. Can this scene surely mean to be taken seriously? Or is it some kind of meta-commentary on ecchi scenes in anime as a whole, or more specifically those shows about brothers and sisters who see each other in that way? Perhaps, but I do think the moaning and throbbing text kind of drowns out any potential subtext the director thinks he is trying to communicate. As an experiment, I showed this scene to my wife. She asked several times throughout for me to stop it, it was creepy and inappropriate. I persisted, because I needed to share the pain with someone. Anyway, after the full 5 minutes had elapsed and I turned it off, she beckoned to me with a husky voice “brush me like you’d brush your sister,” then promptly slapped me hard across the face. “That’s what you get for making me watch that.” It still stings now. I really hope my actual sister never reads this.
This leads me to discuss - once again - the biggest problem I have with the Monogatari series as a whole - the excessive, intrusive and downright uncomfortable horniness. Monogatari has some great things going for it - fascinating characters, a beautiful and creative, colourful aesthetic, witty and clever dialogue, an intriguing, mysterious world and an engaging story. It could easily become a crossover success apart from the high bar of entry. Unless you’re deliberately looking for titillation from crass paedophilia or barely metaphorical sister-screwing, if you stumble upon this show randomly, you’re highly likely to stumble straight back out again immediately as fast as your shaky legs can carry you. Why does this otherwise awesome story insist on gatekeeping itself to either pervs or numbed anime-weebs? (I do not use this in a pejorative manner, I’m the most anime-weebiest person I know.) Mainstream popularity is of course not the be-all and end-all for art, but perhaps this creepy shit is a niche interest for a reason?
Let’s look at the other instances. After Tsukihi runs off to the store to buy some nice sharp awls with which to severely punish her siblings, Koyomi and Araragi completely fail to learn their lesson and appear to go for a round two, as in the picture above. I’m hoping that was just a punchline to an extended, uncomfortable joke but I could be wrong.
After their mutual oral explorations, Karen and Koyomi have another bet about rock/paper/scissors where Karen cheats and somehow ends up carrying her brother on her shoulders. Never a series to miss a creepy vibe, Karen comments on how erotic the situation is, cuts off her hair and suggests cutting off her brother’s genitalia. Was I bad for thinking do it girl, you’ll do all of your fellow characters a massive favour? An aside - seems like most of the female characters have changed their hairstyles throughout Nisemonogatari. Is that meant to represent the development of their characters somehow? (Though Tsukihi- for plot reasons - appears to sport multiple different hairstyles.)
14-year-old sister Tsukihi is not left unmolested by Koyomi’s wandering eyes and groping hands. No - at one point Koyomi forcibly tears off her kimono, leaving her naked and splayed in the hallway, if only so he can “check her” for scars (that have all miraculously healed). Obviously both wrists are tied together to restrain her and he then gropes her bare breast first with his hands, then with his feet! Tsukihi appropriately screams at him but Koyomi doesn’t seem to flinch.
Later on he also kisses her - so that’s both of his sisters he’s kissed - much to her disgust. Although there is an important plot reason for this - for once - which I’ll get to later.
As I mentioned in the comments in my previous article, this flippant and suggestive treatment of the topics of incest and sexual abuse trivialise these very serious and criminal activities. Drama can and in fact should address these issues, but the way that Nisemonogatari mines them for sexual thrills is deeply inappropriate and irresponsible.
I would normally expect intra-familial relationships, i.e. between brother-sister and parent-child to have no sexual component between them. Close family bonds should be a safe place for a child to retreat to without the expectations/obligations/vulnerability that come with sexual relationships. Any sexual activity between an older family member and a younger family member not just upsets the family dynamic but is a betrayal of trust and removes that safety. I am very suspicious of media that tries to blur the lines of something that in my view should not be blurred.
Poor Mayoi Hachikuji barely gets molested at all in this story, because little vampire Shinobu (who lives in Koyomi’s shadow) appoints herself the heroine of sexually harassed girls everywhere by tripping creepy Koyomi up mid-predatory lunge. Koyomi complained. I cheered. Yay Shinobu! She’s getting to be one of my favourite characters, naked bath scene last story notwithstanding. Here are some more pictures of Shinobu for your wholesome entertainment:
Shinobu and Koyomi run into corpse-like Kaiki at the donut store. Seriously, that guy needs some sunlight. His signature music theme is so amusingly out-of-place: dour, low strings that evoke an air of hopelessness and depression. His facial expression radiates the same aura. Although I was underwhelmed by his villain status in the last story, I’m intrigued by his ongoing presence. I suspect there is a lot more to him and his story. (I have tried to avoid finding out any more about future stories, to avoid spoiling myself). Kaiki turns out to be the origin of Koyomi’s woes in this story once again.
Tsukihi Phoenix introduces two interesting new characters - Onmyoji Yozuru Kagenui and her familiar/shikigami Yotsugi Ononoki. Yozuru is a college friend of both Kaiki and the now-absent Meme Oshino. It seems like there was one other in their group, who I imagine will probably become an important plot point later. Yozuru’s odd quirk seems to be a dislike of touching the ground - she leaps from one raised object to the next. I wonder if that’s just a quirk or will it be explained? Her character design reminds me a of a combination of Motoko Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell with the singer/model Saffron from 90's British alternative rock/electronica band Republica.
Yozuru and Yostsugi hunt and kill immortal supernatural creatures. Obviously Koyomi assumes it is he and Shinobu that the pair are after, but it turns out that his sister Tsukihi is their target. Apparently she is not his real biological sister as she’s really a kind of phoenix who took up a place cuckoo-like in his mother’s womb. That’s a pretty interesting idea, and explains why she heals quickly and also that her hair grows very fast which facilitates her repeated hairstyle changes. (This is alluded to in the video for opening track Platinum Disco. I love that song by the way, possibly the best Monogatari opener yet.) Koyomi almost loses it when Yotsugi attacks Tsukihi, blowing apart the top half of her body with a bizarre expanding finger attack. It’s ok though, Tsukihi’s body instantly regenerates itself.
In a series of scenes that start to tie the overarching themes of the Nisemongatari (literally “fake story”) series together, first Koyomi kisses his sister to see if it sexually arouses him. Apparently it doesn’t, therefore he feels that even though she is a fake, he loves her as if she was a real sister. Although to him as the older sibling, he hasn’t always had a younger sister, he has always been her brother since the moment she was born. Karen also says she would happily die to protect Tsukihi. This realisation propels him to take action to protect his loved one. So what does that mean for his relationship with Karen? He seemed pretty damned turned on by her earlier. Is this part of the theme of the show that perhaps a fake is better than the original in that by trying so hard to be like the original it eventually surpasses it? That seems to be Kaiki’s philosophy, a kind of twisted “fake it till you make it”. Incest seems like a weird way to explore that topic.
Koyomi and Shinobu’s climactic “fight scene” is pretty interesting in that it mainly follows Koyomi who doesn’t fight so much as get eviscerated by Yozuru. An adult form of Shinobu (powered up with a large quantity of Koyomi’s blood) beats up Yotsugi offscreen, and all we see is the aftermath - the doll-like Yotsugi hanging limply from the scenery. Shinobu, Koyomi and Yozuru talk philosophy about human nature and then decide to stop fighting. Like the previous story, this conclusion was anticlimactic in a way but I think the intention was more for emotional catharsis rather than an all-out violence-fest. I really did empathise with Koyomi’s determination to protect his sister, no matter the personal cost. I’m sure the cost of using his powers like this will come back to bite him in the ass later.
Despite the first episode’s bizarre and perverted toothbrush scene, overall I enjoyed Tsukihi Phoenix far more than the previous story Karen Bee. There was much less pointless conversation, most of the dialogue was more relevant to the plot and themes. Koyomi showed real emotion and care for his family, over and above the creepy lust he normally expresses. Shinobu was a delight. Mayoi escaped more or less unscathed. Kanbaru’s pointless nudity was kept to a minimum. I hear that from this point on, the storytelling improves and the fanservice becomes much less of a problem.
Join me next time as I brave the final part of Monogatari’s first season: Nekomonogatari: Black. More cat girls. I’m excited. I think I might be broken.
Nisemonogatari Part 2 Blu-ray
Director: Akiyuki Shinbou (Studio Shaft)
Adapted from the light novels by: NisiOisiN
Original Japanese TV broadcast: 25th Feb-17th March 2012
UK Blu-ray Release Date: 13 Jan. 2014
Language: Japanese with English Subtitles
Runtime: 96 minutes (4 episodes)
Region: Region B
Classification: BBFC 18
Distributor: MVM Entertainment