Inspired by Under the Scope’s The Problem with Problematic Media
If there was ever an example of problematic media, it is the Monogatari series.
I absolutely love what this series offers in storytelling, visuals, philosophy, music, and exploring the human psyche. The Monogatari series is the perfect fit for Shaft’s directing and animation style for tone, vibe, and artistic deconstruction of visual storytelling and art itself. While there are plenty of other titles that make use of Shaft’s trademark sparse scenes, head tilts, abstract backgrounds and philosophical discussions, there is no other anime that is truly “like” it. There are other stories and anime that have a similar genre or premise, but there is a strikingly bold and unique style exclusive to Monogatari.
With such glowing high praise, why isn’t this a name you hear thrown around all the time like Full Metal Alchemist, Naruto, Neon Genesis Evangelion or Death Note? I wish I could say “Oh, it’s because it’s too artistic, psychological, and dialogue driven rather than being an exciting action piece,” which is a contributing factor for sure. But the main problem with Monogatari that can’t be ignored or swept under the rug is how it handles its ecchi aspects.
Ecchi isn’t something I abhor. I think Food Wars is one of the best anime ever, and it frequently has metaphorical “foodgasms” and clothing exploding off characters. You’ve likely seen some of the spicier games we’ve streamed (specifically in February), and know that we love us some good innuendo and don’t scoff at the occasional fan-service.
Monogatari is different though. Not only does a lot of the ecchi aspect not contribute anything positive to the story, but it’s downright uncomfortable, unnecessary, and takes you out of the vibe. A disgustingly large portion of the sexualized scenes involve Araragi’s 14 and 15-year-old sisters, or other characters who though they might “ackshually” be 400+ years old, have the appearance of 9 to 13-year-olds. And all of our protagonist’s inappropriate actions are gone unchecked. There are no consequences for his comments, skirt flipping, groping, and downright criminal behavior.
It’s one thing to have dynamic stories with complex characters in which the heroes don’t always do good and the villains don’t always do bad. I prefer it that way, as the “Everything is White or Black, You Must Pick Sides” narrative is toxic and tiresome. But the problem comes when media has our heroes do something bad, and tell us it’s good; it’s just for laughs. Especially when that same hero then goes on to be a champion who decries the evil actions of others. I understand that Araragi’s hypocrisy in this aspect is one of the points being made, but it’s made poorly.
So, while being the most distinct and unique anime, different from all others, it also bears with it some of the most loathed tropes. Does this mean it should be “cancelled” entirely? Personally, I think not, but it needs to be approached with a mature mindset.
No media that we consume is perfect or flawless, as it is created by humans which are imperfect and flawed. Does liking problematic media mean that you endorse, approve, and like the elements of it that are problematic? Absolutely not; you can acknowledge its failings while still enjoying it. It becomes a problem when we latch on so strongly to what we like about it that we ignore, downplay, or rebuff any critique of it. So often people will love a tv show, a game, musical artist, or movie so much because it resonates on some personal note. This love and attachment make that media “a part of who you are” to the point that any critique or attack against it becomes a perceived critique and attack against your taste, moral convictions, and very identity. If you personally attach your worth to your taste, you’re more likely to blindly defend the media you like to an unhealthy degree, looking for any and all excuses of why the bad parts aren’t actually bad.
For many people, problematic media (media that irresponsibly handles subject matters, espouses harmful ideologies, etc.) if blindly consumed and accepted creates very real issues of safety. I fully understand that “fiction is fiction” and that “it’s all fantasy,” but not all people have the capability of making that separation, at least at a subconscious level. Especially since, in my opinion, fiction is only good in as much as it is rooted to reality. We engage with fiction because at some level it’s rooted in the human condition, and the best fiction helps us look at our own reality in a different light or connects with our emotions.
While I feel it irresponsible to say “it isn’t real, people aren’t actually dying” or “it’s just a movie” for a lot of media, I also feel it irresponsible to completely “cancel” or tune something out the moment it presents something we disagree with. Not only does this deprive you of experiencing the good things that media has to offer but ignoring and shutting out the problematic isn’t much better than sweeping it under the rug as “just fiction.” Both avoid the real action of discussing or even just personally approaching the topic and evaluating where you stand on it.
While this sounds a lot like me saying “y’all are prudes and babies if you don’t watch R-rated slasher flicks or incest-pedophilia anime” it’s not the point I’m trying to make. Humanity is to a large degree shaped by the media we consume, be it fiction or otherwise. 2020 should be an obvious proof of that. As such, we can’t sweep problematic aspects of media under the rug with blanket “it isn’t real” statements, because it can and does make very real changes in how people think and act for the worse. If we completely cancel and ignore or censor any and all media that has ideas we disagree with, we isolate ourselves into our echo chambers and miss out on expanding our horizons, seeing things in a new light, and are ignoring the problem ourselves.
I can’t give a blind blanket recommendation for Monogatari to anyone as a “must see” because of its problems. It’s still one of my favorite pieces of art that I’ve had the pleasure to consume. Had I never picked it back up after my three month break partway through Second Season, I would have missed out on the absolute genius that went into its crowning achievement (in my mind): the Kizumonogatari prequel trilogy, which stands in my top artistic movies of all time.
The idea that you’re either “all for” or “all against” something is absolute baloney and downright childish. The good, interesting, and beautiful parts of Monogatari don’t nullify, make up for, or make the terrible parts “worth it.” The terrible parts of it don’t mean that Monogatari doesn’t bring anything to the table. A responsible approach in my mind is not to say “Yeah, such and such is great and wonderful, BUT it has these terrible parts..” or “Yeah, such and such has terrible parts, BUT there’s so much it offers!” Both mindsets tend to excuse or cancel out an aspect. Rather, one’s approach should be “Such and such has a lot to offer, AND it has some terrible parts.” It helps you be more truthful with yourself in your approach to media, letting you more fully and responsibly enjoy it, or reject it as you see fit.
If you’re looking for a final takeaway or a TLDR I guess I’d say that it’s important to be honest with yourself and the media you consume. You can absolutely love a piece of work while fully acknowledging its faults, it doesn’t make you less of a fan, less of a person, or what you enjoyed about it less enjoyable. Sometimes the problematic aspects are so great a barrier or distraction that it prevents the enjoyment of the other elements, and that’s okay. Not having a definitive opinion on something is okay. Western culture and media are so plagued with the Black and White, Good vs. Evil narrative that we think it applies to everything. It doesn’t. You don’t need to have a take on everything. You might not know enough to form an opinion on it, and sometimes with all the facts, information, and aspects considered, you might still be stuck in ambivalence. You don’t owe anybody a stance or opinion on every issue.