*Note: This article has been written in such a way to be completely SPOILER-FREE. Read without fear of spoilers!*
Christianity has, in the past few decades, had a confusing relationship with the post-modern movement and its refutation of objectivity. On one hand, many Christians agree with post-modernism’s skepticism of modern culture, skepticism of everything really, and acknowledge the possibility of many different existences or ideas. However, on the other hand, many Christians simultaneously disagree with these same notions that nix the possibility of one true objective belief and one true objective God. A sticky situation (and one that I’m sure most post-modernists would love to discuss for that reason!).
My goal here today is not to sway you one way or the other, but rather to reflect some of my appreciation for the healthy dose of skepticism and reliance upon symbolism and metaphor that post-modernism has either caused, or at least brought to society’s (relatively) recent attention.
In the scheme of anime and otaku culture, the recent release of Hanamonogatari, the latest entry in the Monogatari (or 物語, literally meaning “Story”) series well-known for its “off-the-beaten-path” directing style, reminded me of this modern skepticism that pervades today’s culture. In no other series will you find the same kind of dialogue, story-writing, art direction, and cinematography together in one piece of media. In fact, Shaft (the studio responsible for the series) has turned the Monogatari series into something of a trademark of theirs, to the extent that any other work of theirs, even from before the first entry in the Monogatari series, Bakemonogatari, can be traced to it in some fashion.
And what word best describes this inimitable (though oft-attempted) style?
Though perhaps not as overt as it is in the Monogatari series, symbolism is something that forms the very basis of the works that we collectively refer to as “classics.” Literature like Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby, The Lord of the Rings… the list goes on. Although symbolism is still employed in modern works, it is perhaps less of a lost art (though it seems to me that it sees less attention in modern writing than it once did) as much as it has lost appreciation, or maybe simply an audience interested in appreciating it.
And thus I draw a comparison between biblical imagery and Hanamonogatari.
As a huge, though careful, fan of Monogatari, I would be the first to tell you that Hanamonogatari was not an incredible entry to the series. Good? Yes. Intriguing? Yes. Entertaining? Also yes. But great? Probably not. But for all its flaws (or relative flaws compared to its sister entries), Shaft’s metaphorical magic was working at full steam. And in that vain, if there is one thing that I greatly appreciate about Shaft and director Shinbou Akiyuki, it is their intentional use of “suspension of disbelief.” From fantastical (though also fantastic) background and settings to frequent talk of supernatural relativism, the viewer must be ready to accept some things that are both difficult to understand and difficult to accept.
While I’m still working through some of the story and dialogue, and what some of it actually means, I have always been an enormous fan of the Monogatari style of conversation setting. The building the characters are speaking in may often shift mid-sentence, or inanimate objects may become animated, with no more acknowledgement from the characters than they would give a standing chair or a closed door. And that is how the viewer is notified that their existence is not as it appears. the spontaneously rolling and floating basketballs that appears in numerous shots of Hanamonogatari number in the hundreds, perhaps even thousands in some shots, and it is obvious that something like that cannot actually exist, and if it could (say, standard anime supernatural effects are taking effect), it would at least be shown some attention by the characters. But if they were not important, they would not be so painstakingly written in and animated. So why do they exist?
The answer is simple. They exist as nothing more than symbols to contribute to the story. While the surrounding setting of a conversation in Monogatari may not be literal, the conversation itself surely is. Thus, the surrounding physical nature become a part of the metaphysical: the human intellect.
Why does any of this matter?
The reason I feel compelled to write on this, especially in such a broad sense without delving into details, is that this concept is of paramount importance in interpreting Scripture. From parables to visions, some of the Bible is simply not meant to be taken literally, lest one would have to resort to the same thing one would have to resort to in Monogatari: a convoluted explanation of the unexplainable (e.g. hundreds of unacknowledged floating basketballs creating various three-dimensional shapes). The most obvious example of this in the Bible is likely in John’s visions of end times in Revelations. For instance:
The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had the feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion.
-Revelation 13:2 (NIV)
It is beyond the scope of this article to dive into any explanation of this (and likely beyond my ability), but allusions like this are obviously not literal. a creature that looks like a leopard crossed with a bear and a lion is nothing if not impractical, as well as horrifying and simply strange. However does that make it unimportant? The opposite! Metaphors are among the best possible methods of explanation of the unexplainable, of understanding with our five senses something that exists in a sixth (hence the use of the aforementioned parables by Jesus).
Pictures like this are painted through the entire narrative of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation. But that does not make this concept a religious one exclusively, as we have seen classic media employ it as well. Though Hanamonogatari may only be one of the most blatant and recent examples of this, it serves as a great reminder of the incomprehensible conveyed by the intellectual.
As a final note, I must mention for our Christian readers that, although the Monogatari series does not include explicit adult material, the series is traditional labeled as “R-17” and contains themes that may make some viewers uncomfortable. In addition to that, some seasons have been labeled under the genre of “ecchi,” so viewer discretion is advised.