For only four episodes, there was a lot packed in there. As the backstory (but not the backstory backstory) of the Monogatari series, I have to look at Nekomonogatari: Kuro and applaud SHAFT for choosing to adapt this after Bakemonogatari and Nisemonogatari. It was an excellent choice, because the third installment of this adaptation of Nisio Isin’s novels feels richer after and greatly benefits from having the two stories set in front of it.
Because it was only four episodes long, I basically want consider Nekomonogatari: Kuro an OVA series, despite the fact that it is absolutely necessary to the overall story of the series, and despite the fact that it might almost be easier to frame it as an extension of Nisemonogatari. But nothing about this franchise is ordinary, and so, in the end, I’m not really quite sure how to classify it. Does it matter? Not so much. Neko Kuro, despite the fact that I don’t know if I actually want to rate it in my normal system, essentially winds up as a 6/10 for me on its own merits (but scores higher as a part of the enter series). It is so dependent on what has come before (and also on what is to come), that it’s tough to assess it on its own. And yet here I am.
In fact, because of all that, I’m not particularly interested in making this a standard review. At this point in the series, anyone who has watched so far basically understands what they are getting in terms of visuals (Shinbo is cutting like crazy, once more), sounds (the OST is wonderful, again, though the OP and ED are just standard-level good), and what I consider to be problematic content (sexual fanservice). So, with all that out of the way, character analysis takes the stage.
The big take away from episode one was the very frank confrontation of Araragi’s wild sex drive. As Tsukihi describes it, he’s sexually frustrated. This is where having seen Bake and Nise previously enhances Neko Kuro. Araragi has been portrayed over and over again as something of a oversexed character, and to have it all laid out on the table (with the very obvious evidence of his mindless grope of his sister) kind of cleans the air. It doesn’t make it any less disturbing, but it finally provides textual grounding for his behavior. And this hormonally driven part of his character necessarily obscures he thoughts and feelings as he attempts to unravel the mysteries of his own heart.
The second important part of the first episode is Neko Kuro beginning to tackle the nature of Araragi’s feelings towards Hanekawa. As a Senjougahara x Araragi shipper, but also generally as a viewer of the franchise, this was of particular interest to me. It seems, at least in the first episode, that Araragi genuinely feels nothing but lust for Hanekawa, something acutely portrayed by his energetic reaction to her promise that she will “do anything he asks” if he keeps quiet about her parents. However, his primal desires remain unvoiced as he heals her wound. It’s a tender moment, a kind-hearted moment (as expected of Araragi) and perhaps even a loving moment. Perhaps a loving action, but not a particularly unique one; after all, Araragi has done as much, and more for other girls. His actions may indeed betray some deeper feeling for Hanekawa, but that feeling cannot yet distinguished from his ever-present inclination to help those in need.
Episode 2 steers into Araragi’s relationship with Shinobu, not for the first time in the franchise, but for the first time in such depth. It’s implied in Bake and Nise that Araragi has a sort of symbiotic relationship with Shinobu, but Neko Kuro comes at the issue from two unique and fascinating angles. The first facet is explored during Araragi’s encounter with Shinobu as he brings donuts to Oshino. Araragi alternately treats Shinobu like a child and like a dog in the scene, but receives a stern warning from Oshino when Araragi remarks that Shinobu seems to have not only regressed in body to being a child, but also in mind. Oshino tells Araragi that Araragi’s expectations of Shinobu affect the way she behaves. Interestingly, this somewhat places Araragi in a position of power of Shinobu, but that particular set-up is turned on its head later in the episode.
After powering up by having Shinobu drink his blood, Araragi encounters Black Hanekawa and gets his left arm torn off. He awakens several hours later to find Shinobu at his side, Oshino explaining that Araragi’s regenerative powers are strengthened by near proximity to Shinobu. The importance of Shinobu to Araragi’s powers, which allow him to function in the world of apparitions, upsets the authority dynamic set up in the donut scene. Rather than Araragi being able to completely control Shinobu through his expectations, he is likewise under her power due to her presence and role in maintaining and strengthening his powers. Araragi knows he is no match for Black Hanekawa without his vampire powers, and so Shinobu gains some measure of influence over him.
At this point in the series (as Kizumonogatari has not yet aired), the exact nature of Araragi’s symbiotic relationship with Shinobu has not yet been revealed, but this episode provides a number of clues as to the way their relationship works. The bath scene in Nise considered, it seems that their mutual dependance (or is it truly that?) is the basis of their relationship, and those seeds are being sown in this episode. But there are just that here, seeds, and no more. The balance of the relationship is not stable here (nor will it be resolved by the end of Neko Kuro) because the give and take is not normalized. Araragi, it seems, still holds the majority of the power, as he can directly influence Shinobu’s state of existence, while Shinobu can only serve as a gatekeeper of sorts to Araragi’s encounters in the world of apparitions.
What is love? How do you know if you are in love with someone? Episode 3 returns to the questions Araragi posed to Tsukihi in the first episode, but here Araragi thinks he has found his answer. He believes his feelings have passed beyond the level of love, to the point where he would die for Hanekawa. Once again, without Kizumonogatari the full truth is still in hiding. The basis of Araragi’s feelings towards Hanekawa is still unknown. We know that he owes Hanekawa some debt from the incident through which he became a vampire, but her exact role in the story is still unknown. What is clear is that he has strong feelings of some sort towards Hanekawa, and this particular episode doesn’t quite unveil those feelings fully, perhaps because Araragi himself still doesn’t know what they are. Is it love? Is it lust? Is it stronger than love? It is something else entirely?
Let us assume for the moment that it is love, and then consider the fallout of Araragi’s breakdown after breaking in to Hanekawa’s house. After running through the house and finding that Hanekawa does not have a room of her own, he returns to his own home in a panic, collapsing inside the front door. His terror is indicative of some deeper emotion; fear is, after all, a surface emotion, although a primal one. Whether it is the sheer horror of witnessing something as horrible as a home that is not a home or something else, his agitation betrays that Araragi isn’t, whether he does love Hanekawa or not, really ready to love her.
His panic must, in some fashion, be based on some measure of pity (after all, if he had no pity for her, why should he care if she has a room or not?). Empathy, sympathy and an eagerness to help are three of Araragi’s defining characteristics, and they are altogether incompatible with Hanekawa’s emotionless perfection. It is Hanekawa’s refusal to pity anyone that draws Araragi to her, yet it is the same trait that blocks him from her. She is far too perfect, too forgiving, too honest for Araragi to ever truly love her. Her nature necessitates that she stand on a pedastal for Araragi, but one cannot love a statue or an ideal.
In the final episode, Araragi finally confronts both Tsubasa Hanekawa and Black Hanekawa. This is the critical encounter and the critical relationship of the episode, but I would be remiss to discuss the episode and ignore Shinobu’s role. She appears at the very end to save Araragi from certain death and solve the meddlecat problem by using her Energy Drain until only Tsubasa Hanekawa remains. Shinobu’s position in the subtle power struggle between her and Araragi improves, although her actions are somewhat necessitated by his close encounter with death.
As for Hanekawa, Araragi begins the encounter by lecturing Hanekawa for accepting the meddlecat and tells her that she cannot change reality and must accept the way things are. His final trick is to enrage Hanekawa until she attacks him, an attack which separates his torso from his legs and would have killed him if not for Shinobu’s intervention. The attack also cuts the meddlecat with Heartspan, but Hanekawa refuses to let the meddlecat go, causing them both pain. As his blood drains from his body, Araragi reflects that he is happy to be able to die for Hanekawa, even if doing so didn’t save her. It’s a troubling statement that seems to indicate that Araragi does not, in fact, love Hanekawa. After all, dying for someone to save them is a noble thing to do. Dying for them just to die for them is not; rather it is a selfish act on Araragi’s part, a twisted desire to repay his debt to Hanekawa. It is a ultimately futile gesture towards someone who refuses to offer pity.
However, after the incident ends and Hanekawa forgets about her time as Black Hanekawa, Oshino suggests to Araragi that he marry Hanekawa and become the family she lacks. Araragi rejects the idea, claiming that he does not and could not ever love Hanekawa. Perhaps Araragi understands at this time Hanekawa is beyond his reach, but his repeated denials of love begin to ring false the more he utters them. It again points to the idea that Araragi does not himself understand and cannot identify his feelings towards Hanekawa. And the answer certainly isn’t given in Nekomonogatari: Kuro. Thank goodness for Monogatari Second Series.