That’s an intimidating title, I know. In many ways, NisiOisiN’s approach to psychoanalyzing human behavior is no less complicated, owing to his strong grasp of the Japanese language and the ways by which he manipulates it in order to subsume the many “apparitions” that pepper his thematically chaotic stories. Be it a story about a young girl pushed to the brink of desperation due to a life of domestic violence, or the fantastical pursuit of an object of affection that transcends time and even death itself, NisiOisiN has always approached his stories through the thoughtful deconstruction of the language of his characters, introducing a thematic “object” that is subject to identification as the show unfolds. And this need to “identify” is central to the existentialist dilemma of “knowing thyself”, as is exemplified by the many arcs that focus around specific heroines and the “apparitions” of which they are tasked to come to terms with.
But this is where we run into the main issue of NisiOisiN works: its reliance on the deconstruction of language — and not just any language — but the Japanese language. Here, I discuss some of the paradigms of NisiOisiN that will allow us to gain a better understanding of the context behind his manipulation of language, which will hopefully serve as a useful primer for the upcoming episodic review articles I will be writing on Owarimonogatari.
On the Deconstruction of Language
Deconstruction is the result of a dissection of the structures that systematize language into what is known as “signs”. This sort of idea forms what is known as the structuralist branch of linguistics, which for the most part believes in the simultaneous (synchronous) relationship of opposing “signs” (collectively the “signifier” i.e. the word itself; and the “signified” i.e. the concept being expressed) that give meaning to the other. In simpler terms, there is a dichotomy, or more technically a binary opposition, that exists and gives meaning to these otherwise abstract ideas. So you won’t know what is “good” unless there is “evil”; or more practically, a chair is a chair so long as it serves the purpose that only a chair can perform, even if that thing is not a chair in and of itself.
NisiOisiN’s approach towards deconstructing language hinges on his ability to introduce words that have a contextual association with them as a result of the structural determinants that surround it. And these determinants may be contingent on time period or culture, such as how the word “home” conjures up the image of a 15-storey apartment building to a Tokyoite in 2017, whilst a Kyotoite in feudal Japan may describe the same word as a straw-thatched house in the mountains. But it’s thanks to these structures that NisiOisiN can manipulate both our understanding and the character’s understanding of the term to its more fundamental concept — even to the point of manipulating its physical form through the use of phonemics (i.e. similarities in sound a.k.a. the “puns”), or the deeper hermeneutics that allow for a more metaphorical representation of the same concept (i.e. “home” as a representation of the “self”).
So to a certain extent, deconstructing a language implies understanding how such structures influence the manner in which we use these words, and the sort of emotions, feelings, or concepts that are evoked by it. By extending this usage, we enjoy a new meaning of sorts that highlights the sort of epiphany and realization of characters when they identify the deeper emotional motivations that fuel their own deep-set “apparitions”. But beyond manipulation of language, this core concept of linguistic deconstruction brings us to the first core value of NisiOisiN’s works:
The Inadequacy of Language
Defining linguistic structures might seem too complex if it’s for the sake of identifying objects of daily use that are more or less obvious, but the same can’t be said for more abstract concepts pertaining to the self, which explains NisiOisiN’s obsession over the need to elaborate the emotions experienced by his characters. Although language is capable of expressing a myriad of expressions, the innate biases of human existence color language (and action) and often hide deeper-set motivations even to a subconscious level.
This is one of the reasons why NisiOisiN has a very round-about way of having his characters undergo a slew of mental acrobatics before finally reaching an epiphany — and much of this word-tumbling has to do with the inadequacy of language to express the identity of the emotion in question. It’s at this point where the classic concept of phenomenology enters the picture, wherein NisiOisiN relies on his own characters’ lived experiences to draw out the true meaning behind their own words. This is often executed using deceptive framing, which ties in well with the deconstructionist’s methodology of playing with our expectations on words and their respective meanings. The result is we trust less the words and more the meaning behind the words; or better yet, the reasoning behind the choice of words of a character, and the underlying meaning ascribed to such choices. Once you’ve watched enough episodes of the Monogatari series, you’ll start to see the importance of this interplay between dialogue and character motive, which ironically winds up becoming a self-defeating practice in that the words themselves do not do justice to the emotional plights experienced by its characters. And yet it’s through this expression that we are able connect — on a deeper level — above and beyond that which can be depicted through spoken dialogue, alone.
The Fluidity of Language
And the beauty of NisiOisiN’s approach is that he celebrates the diversity of language to serve beyond the very structures it can seemingly portray. Word puns, on a superficial level, can seem innocent enough to be harmless, but NisiOisiN often utilizes the sound-poor nature of Japanese to invoke more thought-provoking interjections that often make these word crimes seem almost “purposefully deliberate”. Of course, this is something that is very difficult to translate into the English medium, and I can confidently say that more than half of the instances where NisiOisiN masterfully redirects language to suit his comedic and thematic needs is often lost in translation. That said, my upcoming articles will try and give focus to these instances where language played more than just a momentary pause from the deeper introspections of its many characters.
The Continuity of Language
Akiyuki Shinbo’s mastery at visual language may be a boon for the series, but that doesn’t mean that NisiOisiN doesn’t have his share of hypersexualized depictions of the suggestive. Language also pertains to that which is not spoken, including the descriptive nuances of body language, directional gaze, and stance and position. If NisiOisiN isn’t having his characters speak a buh-jillion words, he’s probably spending a paragraph-and-a-half describing the way a girl’s breast presses against Araragi’s chest, and how this elicits a bunch of rambling throughs that may seem totally off-tangent to the narrative at first glace.
But like it or not, these fan service quips are part and parcel of the continuity of thought as expressed in written language — meaning, they are always framed in the context of Araragi as a high-school adolescent. And this makes for an interesting look at the deconstruction of eroticism in art from the “object” (i.e. girl) to the “concept” (i.e. visualization) and the final “effect” (i.e. punch line or “eye catch”). Eroticism as a topic of deconstruction is something beyond this article, but suffice it to know that NisiOisiN is a bit of a pervert, but at least he tries to make his fan service tasteful to a certain extent.
So here lies the framework of which I will proceed with dissecting each episode of Owarimonogatari running up to the current sequel, which will be airing later this month. As hinted, I will focus on the language component, since I feel that many people might not be as fortunate as me when it comes to understanding the sort of language that NisiOisiN exploits when examining his characters. So I hope you will all look forward to the coming posts, and until then, happy viewing!