Before I knew it
Even my nonsensical dreams
Passed me by
And my feelings were tangled.
It’s the one thing I can always do.
– From “Ambivalent World,” opening to Bakemonogatari episodes 6-8
I don’t know when running began to mean something to me.
Like Rouka Numachi, I grew up playing soccer. Had she been on my team, Rouka surely would have looked down on me, wondering to herself, “Why was I blessed with a talent that no one else has?” I would have been grouped in with the other unfortunate no-ones.
My coaches eventually settled me in at midfield. I was willing to work hard but lacked the bursts of speed and precision needed for an attacking forward. Additionally, I was told that I was too small to be a defender.
“If only everyone was equally talented, nobody would come to hate me. So why does the world have to be divided into the talented and the untalented? I strove to hide my talents after that.”
– Rouka Numachi, Hanamonogatari
Had Rouka been on my team, I wonder if I would have seen this side of her. For me, soccer wasn’t about my talent but something to do to increase my lung capacity. It was not for fun. I took it seriously. However, against someone like Rouka, or even placed on the same team as a Rouka, I did not stand out. I was just another kid on the field. That being said, I wouldn’t have been jealous of her. Soccer, for her, was easy mode. Soccer, for me, began at hard mode.
I said that I ended up as a midfielder. Midfield is a physically-demanding position. Specifically, you must have stamina to play midfield, and stamina was the very thing that I lacked when I initially took up the sport. By the time I reached junior high school, I was in the midfield. It was a significant personal accomplishment. Regardless of others’ talents on the field, I felt amazing about my position as a midfielder.
Rouka still would have looked down on me. However, had I looked back at her, I would have seen someone whom I stood no chance of challenging in the first place. She would have been that good. As her perception of me, as an outsider, would have been with the no-ones, she would have considered me a no one too, and assumed that I harbored jealousy of her talent somewhere. In a way, this would have been genuine. I harbored jealousy towards talented people on other playing fields than a soccer pitch. In this specific case, it wouldn’t have applied, but this outlook would have been true elsewhere. In this manner, her assumptions of me would have been correct.
“Long story short, she did have her share of problems and worries, but she didn’t want to be pitied for it. Troubled as she was, she didn’t want the advice of someone who’d look down on her. Why didn’t I get mad at her? That’s because she was under a grave misunderstanding. The truth is, listening to her served as great consolation to me. There is nothing sweeter than schadenfreude.”
– Rouka Numachi, Hanamonogatari
By her own admission, Rouka took up this position before her injury. Her perception of others’ misfortune caused her to mute her own talents as to not stand out, but she still saw herself as a being above others, deriving pleasure from their inability to perform at the same level. Those same people suddenly appeared at her hospital bedside, cooing that they had pushed her too hard. As both sides cried, it was Rouka’s former teammates who partook in schadenfreude. Their once-invincible teammate was now irreparably damaged. Now “equally talented,” to quote Rouka’s earlier words, no one hated her.
Rouka listened to her teammate’s problems, reveling in the idea that others aside from herself were experiencing pain. Meanwhile, Rouka’s former teammate reveled in the fact that Rouka was far less fortunate than her. Both parties’ perceptions of one another are genuine, even if the actions are lies. What matters is Rouka’s ability to take some sense of solace in her former teammate’s misery, even if that same person had come to Rouka specifically to feel superior in comparison.
It was only when Rouka wished to aid another that she took on the devil. However, it didn’t change anything. Rouka asserts that she knows nothing of what happened to the girl from whom she collected the devil’s leg. Additionally, Rouka continued to take on others’ misfortune, having previously accepted that her sports career, the one thing she had lived for, had ended. Her life had already ended.
Similarly, Suruga Kanbaru gave up basketball because her arm remained that of the devil. Previously, due to a wish to the same monkey’s paw, Suruga had given up on running, after a wish to be faster resulted in the hospitalization of four of her classmates. She still runs at the time of Hanamonogatari, but not competitively. She technically could play basketball, but must keep up the appearance of an injury, due to possessing the devil’s arm. However, Suruga’s life does not end.
I began running because it was something to do, not unlike Rouka who took up basketball because it seemed like the logical next step. If growing into my midfield position in soccer was hard mode, then running long distances was expert mode. However, where Rouka neither relied nor played with her own teammates, I took up running because I had friends who were on the cross country team. Friends significantly better than me at running.
“It was only after I lost basketball, the sport I’d started playing simply to raise the bar for myself, that I realized how much I loved it.”
– Rouka Numachi, Hanamonogatari
When I first began, as a freshman in high school, I was lazy about it. It was another thing to do. I lacked Rouka’s talent, so in addition to not improving as a runner, I did not start from a talented place to begin with. If I had to pinpoint a time when I actually realized how much I loved the feeling of running, it would be the fall of my junior year. I fell ill with pneumonia. This was nothing new, although it hadn’t happened in a few years, due to an increased lung capacity from running. Healthier lungs meant less bouts with lung infections, but did not eradicate them completely. Once again, I found myself locked in the house, unable to do much of anything.
The night I was diagnosed was the night of our cross country banquet. I was supposed to present something to the senior class, along with my fellow juniors, but could not. I ended up calling a friend to tell her that I had pneumonia and couldn’t make it. Later on that night, my phone began ringing incessantly, with people calling to make sure I was alright.
I don’t think that a single one of my teammates was reveling in my misfortune. The reason for this is two-fold: one, I wasn’t the best runner on the team, and two, I had genuinely become friends with my teammates. Running is ultimately a solitary sport. Once you take off, you’re alone with your thoughts, your will, and your athleticism, or lack thereof. The dynamic of my cross country team was a curious mix of personal goal-setting and inspiring one another. You didn’t have to rely on your teammates to pass a ball, or set a formation, or block a pass. You didn’t have to rely on your teammates at all, yet somehow, we all relied on each other for encouragement. This is the primary reason, the latter of the two that I mentioned, that I didn’t feel they were looking down on me when I fell ill.
Not only did I want to be at the banquet that night, but I simply wanted to go running. I can’t name moment where I suddenly crossed the line from not caring about running to it being a part of who I am. I don’t know when it began to mean so much to me. It was a gradual process. However in that moment, as phone calls poured in from my peers, I realized how much I loved it. Much of the process was due to encouragement from my friends.
“My teammates rarely passed me the ball. Getting a pass from my opponent caught me off-guard. It’s a nice feeling. I forgot – no, I never realized that basketball is a team game. I quit before I realized that.”
– Rouka Numachi, Hanamonogatari
One of the few passes that Rouka receives in her basketball career is from her opponent, Suruga. The primary difference between Suruga and Rouka is that the former finds others who care about her while the latter does not, until Suruga happens upon her. Much of Hanamonogatari attempts to frame them as two copies of the same person placed on opposite paths that converge again later in life, with the two having developed into distinct people. Suruga met Hitagi Senjougahara, and subsequently Koyomi Araragi. Rouka continued on her solitary path, taking misfortune from others without recognizing her own death.
Both encounter the Rainy Devil, and their respective desires of it show their character. Suruga first wishes to be fast; however, that wish additionally offers retaliation against her classmates for teasing her. Later, she wishes death on Koyomi, jealous of his relationship with Hitagi. Hitagi reaches out to Suruga, stopping the devil and cementing their friendship. From this point, Suruga is able to truly befriend not only Hitagi, but Koyomi as well.
Rouka takes on the burden of the devil when she genuinely wishes to help another, unlike Suruga who had wished ill upon her classmates and Koyomi. However, Rouka’s ultimate goal for the future is already rooted in taking misfortune from others. The injury to her leg both figuratively and literally ended her life. The future that stretches before Rouka is static. Suruga still has many choices having already realized that, mind the cheesiness here, life is a team game.
“Suruga, you’re sure to lead a more troublesome life than others – one that’s all too tedious and annoying. However, I don’t say that because you’re better than everyone else, but because you are weak. And you’ll have to spend the rest of your life shouldering that weakness. I just hope your troubles don’t become your raison d’etre.”
– Tooe Kanbaru, neé Gaen, to her daughter Suruga, Hanamonogatari
These are the words that Suruga remembers her mother by. While she claims to hold her mother in contempt, Suruga repeats these words without malice or anger, expressing confusion instead. Confusion as to how her father held her mother in such high regard, and why her mother chose to elope with her father at all. Tooe Kanbaru’s words are applicable to nearly every person alive, and Suruga recalls them as she is about to begin her school term without her seniors Hitagi and Koyomi. Later, she bristles at the moniker “Gaen’s Legacy” from the mouth of Kaiki Deishuu, but cannot help asking him if she resembles her mother. Finally, when she resolves her own feelings towards Rouka, and Rouka realizes her feelings towards Suruga, Suruga dreams of her mother after helping Rouka’s ghost ascend.
“To tell the truth, I wasn’t so confident I’d win. Maybe you admired team play, but I was always good at team play. And I admired you when you held off five opponents at once.”
– Suruga Kanbaru, Hanamonogatari
I mentioned previously that I was never jealous of my soccer teammates. If Rouka had been on my team, I would have felt lucky to have her, as opposed to being jealous of her talent. A lot of this has to do with the fact that I could never have seen myself as Rouka. I would have known that there was no physical way to match her talent. However, I had a different experience in high school. My thought process changed around the same time that I realized that I loved running. Around the same time that I contracted pneumonia, again. Upon realizing that I loved running, I wanted to improve. Upon showing improvement, I wanted to improve further. Upon desiring to improve further, I began comparing myself to others. Upon comparing myself to others, I still found myself significantly lacking. Relationships with others take on a certain fragility when your personal insecurities rear their ugly heads. Fortunately, like Suruga, by the time I reached high school I also had friends. My troubles didn’t become my raison d’etre.
“One day I will be grateful to my mother. I will understand her feelings. But today is not that day, and not anytime soon either – first I need to outdo her, or at least match her achievements. I don’t think I’ll ever feel the same as she.”
– Suruga Kanbaru, Hanamonogatari
When Suruga dreams again of her mother, Tooe tries to explain Suruga’s encounter with Rouka in grander terms of good and evil. That good stems from a desire to do harm, and doing harm stems from a desire to do good. Suruga’s response is appropriately grounded and simple: that it’s fun to meet up with people you once knew. Having found friends in Hitagi, Koyomi, and now Rouka, Suruga knows that she is not alone, regardless of the future that she chooses for herself. As self-described hot water, Suruga asserts she possesses few interesting facets, but she chooses to keep moving forward regardless. She has those whom she looks to compete with as well, namely Hitagi and her mother. Koyomi cuts her hair, to prepare it for her return to basketball, and the locks fall like the pieces of tape Suruga had once used to restrain her devil’s arm.
Hanamonogatari is not a story meant for me. It’s meant for someone younger, whose life stretches before them on a longer track than mine. However, as soon as I realized that Suruga’s first reaction was to run, I was sold. There’s no better feeling than pushing yourself to the limit in order to clear your thoughts, even if you collapse shortly after. Somewhere between Suruga Monkey and Suruga Devil, running became a healthy coping mechanism rather than a means of ignoring obstacles, or burying emotions. It resonated with me as a person who has alternated between thinking and running and still hasn’t figured out the right path. At this point, I wonder if anyone really finds “the right path.” The world will always be ambivalent, but there’s one thing that I, and Suruga can always do. Run. Not away from anything, but just run.