For high school me, Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit was a revelation. It still has a firm place in my heart — The Little Prince was the first book I learned to read in French, but No Exit marked when I really felt that I could actually read the language with any amount of competency — and every subsequent reading has been an experience. It makes me think, even if it also makes me wonder just how much of my own young pretentiousness I’ve dragged along behind me as I’ve grown older.
I’ve often thought about why I return to No Exit. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly a reflection of my own personal preferences. Then again, Mayoi Hell is specifically about hell, so perhaps this framework fits Owarimonogatari better than most series.
The moment Koyomi Araragi begun wailing to Mayoi Hachikuji about being in hell, I couldn’t help but recall Joseph Garcin’s arrival and introduction to hell in No Exit. There are no torture devices, only a room furnished in the style of the French Second Empire.
Hell is not at all what he expected.
Unlike Garcin’s new home in No Exit, Araragi appears — purposefully, as we and he discover later in the episode — in hell’s replica of the park where he first met Mayoi.
This is obfuscated by Araragi’s own perception, which seemingly shapes many of his backdrops within hell. What he imagines — especially when Mayoi reveals to him exactly where he is and why — is something like the traditional painting pictured above.
Before he learns of her fate, Araragi imagines Mayoi ascending to heaven gloriously in a soft, impressionist painting. His own plummet to the netherworld is depicted as fairly painful. He is gasping and choking as he falls headfirst. His breath leaks out of his body in droplets and clouds while he tries, unsuccessfully, to breathe.
What he receives is first a depiction of the sacred tree at the North Shirahebi Shrine, where he was killed by Izuko Gaen. Then, when Mayoi shifts his perception, the park where the two of them first met. She instructs him that his actual location is in Avīci Hell.
Mayoi has always been a ghost, Araragi’s ghost, and here she’s also his tour guide like the Ghost of Christmas Past in Araragi’s very own A Christmas Carol. The moment Mayoi consults the public map of the netherworld version of the park where she first met Araragi it immediately calls to mind her role in Mayoi Snail. Then she was the “Lost Cow,” one who caused others to lose their way unwittingly as she tried to make her way back home. Now, she is the one leading Araragi as a guest in his own personal hell.
She cheerfully leads Araragi through various tableaus that portray important moments in Araragi’s life while allowing his external dialogue and inner monologue to take over.
Their first stop is his initial encounter with Kiss-shot Acerola-orion Heart-under-blade. Then, his lusting after Tsubasa Hanekawa, then his decision to catch Hitagi Senjougahara. The scenery shifts accordingly as he once again brushes past Nadeko Sengoku en route to the relocated North Shirahebi Shrine to meet Tadatsuru Teori.
I’ve spoken previously about why Izuko Gaen is represented by the entire color spectrum, and this is never more apparent than within an Araragi-shaped hell, where every mention of her ushers in a colorful, somewhat disturbing filter, or colors of the rainbow present in other physical things, like Teori’s doll eyes.
As the series’ protagonist, Araragi shapes the visuals that SHAFT and Tomoyuki Itamura deliver throughout Owarimonogatari. In Mayoi Hell specifically, the visuals change as his perspective changes. He learns what Mayoi has been up to, why Gaen killed him, and Teori’s own backstory.
One of the many interpretations of Garcin’s famous line, “Hell is other people” is not only that he’s trapped in a hell with two others in a bizarre triangle of lust, respect, and his own perceived carrot of salvation consistently dangled just out of his reach, but that he’ll never understand these people. He cannot step outside of his own perception in order to truly understand another being, even if he cares for them.
The idea that Araragi will never be able to truly understand the actions of others, despite his attempts and their similar afflictions with oddities permeates the entire franchise. He is the protagonist of the Monogatari series, but everyone on his periphery operates within their own mind, not his. They have their own thoughts, reasons, and perspectives to which Araragi is blind and will never understand.
This, along with the fact that he doesn’t understand himself, naturally drives him crazy and his blindness to what others might desire shapes a lot of his actions within the series. One of the primary questions that Monogatari asks both Araragi and us is whether getting close to people anyway, regardless of this fact, is worth the pain. Ultimately, Araragi decides that it is.
It’s then appropriate that, before delving into his own mind in Ougi Dark, Araragi takes a trip to hell first.