Owarimonogatari, Symmetry, and Asymmetry
The Fall 2015 anime season saw another entry in the always-popular and often-strange Monogatari series: Owarimonogatari. And with it came the fun characters, the interesting plot lines, and the comedic ecchi material.
Unsurprisingly, Owarimonogatari also brought its signature visual style. Framed head-tilts, various camera orientations, and weird angles appear constantly throughout the season. Simply put, the men and women over at SHAFT (the studio behind the anime) are masters at their craft.
But it also targets other techniques. More relevant and thematic ones.
Symmetry and asymmetry.
The following essay will investigate symmetry and asymmetry. What they are, what they do, and what they create. Hopefully, by the end of this piece, you, the reader, will have a better understanding of symmetry and asymmetry as well as a greater appreciation of Owarimonogatari overall.
Without further ado, let’s get started!
Symmetry and Asymmetry: A Discussion
A good place to begin is with a definition of symmetry.
“The quality of something that has two sides or halves that are the same or very close in size, shape, and position: the quality of having symmetrical parts.” 
Think of symmetry as maintaining balance. I.e., something is symmetric when that object’s respective parts mirror and match. An easy way to imagine this scenario is with a giant canvas with a line dividing it, creating a barren plane for painting.
No matter what is added to the left or right side of the canvas, be it a moon or a tree or Hanekawa’s eye, an identical or nearly identical part would have to be added to the opposite side. Symmetry demands this direction.
While the definition and example help to summarize symmetry, why bother with symmetry at all? Why choose symmetry over other techniques?
For starters, nature loves symmetry. Whenever possible, nature tries to make the world symmetric. Take humans for example. Most people are born with two ears, two arms, and two feet. Indeed, if a person is bisected like the canvas before, he or she will (more or less) be superficially symmetric. In fact, most animals see this type of bilateral symmetry. 
People inherently love symmetry, too. While not necessarily a conscious decision, people subconsciously gravitate towards a symmetric conclusion. “…visual balance is a good thing. It’s desirable in and of itself.”  Furniture is often centered along walls or in front of objects. Tables are arranged with equal amounts of chairs on either length. Those with symmetrical features are generally preferred when seeking a partner. 
One of the more relevant reasons (given the contents of Owarimonogatari) for symmetry derives from both nature and people: mathematics. When symmetry is involved, calculations almost always become simpler to solve. The biggest indicator are shapes — squares and rectangles, due to their respective properties and symmetry, make the mathematics proportional to them easier than their misshapen relatives.
Believe it or not, literature likes its shapes as well. Stories that end in a way that mirror the beginning form, in essence, a circle. The circular narrative feels complete in its symmetry, boosting the balance and hence strength of the story itself. For example, Owarimonogatari does this with both of its major arcs: Araragi gets a letter from Sodachi as a farewell (just as he had when he was younger), and Shinobu gives the first minion his “suicide” (just as he tried to do centuries ago).
Still, symmetry is not purely a positive. “While perfect symmetry satisfies the mind that loves precision and stability, it can sometimes look static, artificial, and boring.”  Too much symmetry can induce repetition which in turn leads to a loss of intrigue. Intrigue that symmetry often aims to have.
Furthermore, the world rarely sees perfect symmetry. “No symmetries outside of exact science have total symmetry, which is of course also true for picture compositions in film.”  An animal may have a blemish on one of its wings. Those chairs may not be evenly spaced out along the table. The endings of stories are not usually exact recreations of the beginnings.
That’s perfectly fine. While the line for where symmetry breaks can be argued, what almost always remains true is that symmetry exponentially evokes a sense of wonder, power, and interest. More so than many other visual techniques.
Now, when that line is crossed, symmetry no longer remains. Instead, what exists is the opposite of symmetry. Namely, asymmetry. As always, definitions help.
“Lack or absence of symmetry.”  Simple enough.
The two ideas are closely linked. Obviously because they are direct counterparts of one another (and because asymmetry is literally defined by symmetry). But they are also able to achieve similar effects despite being opposites.
Where symmetry keeps balance, asymmetry aims to disrupt balance. That’s not to say that asymmetry subtracts balance altogether. While it’s true that a given scene may not be identical about itself, “balance is achieved by using dissimilar elements with different visual interests.” 
Asymmetry, as opposed to symmetry, also has the benefit of freedom. Where symmetry tends to look predictable — it’s the same image repeated twice or more — asymmetry can, in essence, do what it wants. This gives it a lot of motion and emotion, making asymmetry feel almost alive. 
Besides its own brand of balance and freedom, asymmetry can do a lot more. It can help to highlight something integral or catch one’s eye or define a character trait. That is, imbalance can be an effective tool in visual storytelling just as much as balance can.
Indeed, asymmetry copies its opposite. It indirectly helps symmetry since something symmetric contrasts heavily with something that is asymmetric. Especially so in film and anime or any other visual medium. Long stretches of asymmetry followed by symmetry make said symmetry pop.
And just like symmetry, asymmetry can be a negative. Too much asymmetry can come off as unfocused and cluttered. For example, if asymmetry overloads on a lot of movement or the differences are too nuanced, it becomes an obstacle rather than the free-feeling experience it tries to be.
These examples and the previous discussion highlight one of the main ideas of this essay: symmetry and asymmetry are more than aesthetically pleasing. They have the ability to relay information, elicit a reaction from the audience, and so much more.
Of course, that’s only if they are used. Which, thankfully enough, Owarimonogatari realizes.
Symmetry and Asymmetry: Twelve Examples
This next section will apply what has just been learned about symmetry and asymmetry to various examples from Owarimonogatari. More specifically, twelve examples — one from each episode in the season — have been selected. Some are short asides, some are longer inspections. Regardless, these examples should prove helpful in further understanding symmetry, asymmetry, and Owarimonogatari‘s execution.
Episode 1: Single Shifted Seat
The first episode of the season is quite long, and there are many a shot of symmetry to see. But the one above is quick and subtle. A perfect way to start the examples.
Ougi and Araragi are attempting to determine the culprit behind the mystery that so deeply affected Sodachi. Looking at the shot itself, it actually lacks symmetry along the walls and in the lighting. As a result, the focal point becomes the desks in the room because they seem to have complete symmetry. All save for one.
That lone seat, shifted slightly, belongs to Sodachi, and it speaks volumes about her character and the situation. It highlights the hivemind nature of the other students. It describes her strange behavior. It makes the audience feel that something is just quite not right.
By breaking the symmetry of a single seat, Owarimonogatari accomplishes so much with so little.
Episode 2: An Eyeful
Sodachi officially appears for the first time in this episode, and what an entrance she has.
Saying her words are dripped in malice will be an understatement. She verbally attacks Araragi, expelling her hatred in a torrent of rage. As she may say, she despises the boy — to the nth degree.
A lot of the shots during her tirade depict her mania and her anger. Running around, physical depictions of her emotions, and so on. This shot is the same, but with the added benefit of symmetry.
It’s an up-close shot of her face and, more specifically, her eyes. They’re striking. Not just in the spite they show but also in what they see; they are filled only with Araragi. An actual eyeful. The symmetry here indicates her rabid focus, her current mindset, and her unwavering devotion to despising.
Episode 3: Patterned Confusion
One cannot talk about Owarimonogatari and symmetry without talking about the opening track of Sodachi’s main arc.
No matter what shot of the opening track is chosen, symmetry can be found. Sometimes the symmetry heightens the sensuality, like when Sodachi speaks into Araragi’s ear. Sometimes the symmetry increases intrigue, like when Sodachi spins out of a couple of toroids.
The nicest bit of symmetry, however, comes at around the halfway mark of the opening track. As the shot depicts, symmetry exists across both a vertical and a horizontal plane. Combined with the stairs, the lines, and the half-figures, the shot appears confusing.
Yet a definitive pattern can be found. In fact, it’s just a single shot reoriented and copied multiple times over.
Astoundingly, the symmetry symbolizes the plot itself: The mystery Araragi seeks to solve is confusing, but a particular pattern persists. He just has to find it.
Episode 4: Spooky Ougi
Ougi, Meme Oshino’s niece, plays an important role in the season. More so than she has ever done before. And because she finds herself caught up (more accurately includes herself) in the events, the audience gets to see more than they may or may not like.
What the audience discovers is that Ougi is a bit of a creeper. Her design is unsettling, her mannerisms are unbecoming, and her ability to deduce almost anything from even the smallest amount of evidence is uncanny. Hence her fan-formed nickname, “Spooky Ougi.”
Another way in which Owarimonogatari makes Ougi spookier is through its use of asymmetry. During the confrontation between Ougi and Hanekawa in this episode, many of the scenes show Ougi off center, moving, or otherwise disrupting the established balance. The shot above depicts Ougi not in front of Araragi, which would create symmetry, but behind him, which creates asymmetry.
Such asymmetry causes unease in the audience, a subconscious sense of spookiness.
Perfect for the spooky-centric girl.
Episode 5: Misshapen
When Araragi and Hanekawa visit Sodachi in her apartment, they find her both the same and different. She’s the same because she continues to spit vitriol in Araragi’s direction. She’s different because she expresses new emotions: envy, sadness, and pain.
One of Sodachi’s traits is her relationship to math, and her apartment displays this easily enough. Her table is an equilateral triangle. Her main window is a trapezoid. Her bookshelf and pictures and sink are made up of triangles and squares and rectangles respectively.
Remember that math means symmetry. And symmetry calculates to balance. Yet Sodachi is as far from balanced as possible. Her life has been filled with nothing but misfortune, to the point that it’s almost unfair.
She is misshapen; she is asymmetric. Thus, by placing her among so many other symmetric shapes, her asymmetry is accentuated, amplifying her desire to have that symmetry, have that balance in her life that she has gone so long without.
Episode 6: Chaotic Numbers
Following Araragi and Hanekawa’s conversation with Sodachi, they are “greeted” by Ougi. After declaring she has solved the mystery of Sodachi’s mother and egging Hanekawa on, the two of them work together to provide hints for Araragi so he can find the answer on his own.
But Owarimonogatari wouldn’t just give them out all willy-nilly. Instead, the anime chooses quite the asymmetric route.
Pictured above is the recurring scene of numbers that Ougi and Hanekawa read through. It does not take a whole while to see just how asymmetric the shot is. The numbers are stylized differently. The colors vary. The ordering is all over the place.
Once again, asymmetry causes chaos. Araragi is bombarded with hint after hint, and this repetitive shot helps to maintain that chaotic feeling as the hints are delivered faster and faster.
Episode 7: Energized Monkey
This episode marks the start of the new (and last) arc of the season: Shinobu Mail. This episode also marks the return of everyone’s favorite monkey: Kanbaru.
Kneeing her way to the front, Kanbaru demonstrates that asymmetry does not always have to be used for depressing (or spooky) purposes. Much of this episode gets the audience reacquainted with Kanbaru’s hyperactive silliness through lewd poses and exaggerated actions, keeping the focus squarely on her.
It’s interesting to watch how much asymmetry she creates, especially when contrasted with Araragi. She stands high above him on the desks when talking. She somehow creates makeshift light while he looks on disapprovingly. And she goes through a couple of imaginative scenes as he tries to keep the situation grounded.
Her asymmetry still introduces a sense of movement — that’s an inherent trait — but, rather than melancholy, it exists to multiply fun and energy. Two words that more than describe this perverted monkey.
Episode 8: Iconic Determination
Shortly after Araragi and Kanbaru meet (and get beaten by) the armor-clad samurai, Araragi finds himself speaking with Ononoki, the monotone corpse with the “Unlimited Rulebook.” She shares a few words (and feet) with him, letting him know the best course of action to take while also, unbeknownst to him, providing him with magical protection.
The shot above happens shortly after Ononoki’s foot stamping. More importantly, it’s a nice example of testing one’s line where symmetry becomes asymmetry.
To the left and right of Araragi, the skeleton of the school can be seen. His left and right sides also have a bunch of rubble from the recent explosion. Down the middle, Araragi sits in seiza (the Japanese word for formal sitting) with a massive tree erected directly behind him.
Technically speaking, the skeleton, the rubble, and even Araragi himself are not entirely symmetrical. So the argument that asymmetry, rather than symmetry, dominates the shot is valid. But the location and repetition of the items create the appearance of symmetry.
On the surface, the symmetry makes it obvious just how demolished the school is as well as the importance of Araragi’s role. Looking deeper, however, the symmetry reveals more. The symmetric destruction of this iconic spot foreshadows danger, and Araragi’s symmetric pose clearly shows his focused determination.
Episode 9: Tilted
Izuko Gaen turns out to be an important figure later on in the season. She also turns out to be a staple in asymmetric design.
She professes to know everything. To people, such a statement is absurd. Nobody knows absolutely everything because that would imply omniscience which is not humanly possible. However, she has proven herself correct time and time again, almost making it impossible to doubt her.
But she does induce doubt. Well, not her specifically but her design. Looking at it more closely reveals that, like most of the designs of the characters, she maintains symmetry. Some maroon, baggy pants. A loose t-shirt (minus the decal). Additional accessories. They paint her as a carefree and nonchalant character, and it’s all symmetric.
Except for her hat. She tilts it ever-so-slightly, covering her right eye. The tilting continues her carefree attitude, but it does not continue her symmetry. In fact, it turns her design into an asymmetric one. Why is this done?
By obscuring her face, by disrupting her symmetry, she subconsciously introduces uncertainty even if someone were to believe every word she says. Despite her always being right, the audience still questions her knowledge on the matters at hand.
This uncertainty turns into distrust in what Gaen says, maintaining tension in the tale. At least, until the audience sees she’s right, reconfirming her self-said saying and repeating this cycle of uncertainty again.
Episode 10: Centered Power
Once Araragi and the gang arrive at the shrine, they get what amounts to a history lesson by Izuko Gaen. Her words, however, do not sit lightly with Shinobu.
The above shot depicts this beautifully with the use of beautiful symmetry. The left and right sides contain fields of bamboo and a smattering of broken building. In the center, a tall structure composed of multiple rectangles frames Shinobu. As for Shinobu herself, behind her shines light through the structure, veiling her front in sinister shadow.
Here the symmetry forces the audience to focus on Shinobu. The total symmetry around the outside, as well as the rectangular structure, makes Shinobu the absolute center of attention. By extension, she gains power. The shadows tell the audience what to think of this power: dangerous, fearful, and wicked.
Focal symmetry of this kind is the most common since it ends up being so impactful. And as Shinobu and this shot show, that continues to be the case.
Episode 11: Good Versus Evil
After Araragi endures society glaring and laughing at him for his pervy purchases, he encounters none other than the so-called “first minion” himself.
This scene, featuring the two sitting down to some (poisoned) drinks, plays with both symmetry and asymmetry heavily and expertly.
Symmetry first. They sit on opposite sides of the same table, facing one another. They both have the same colored drink. They are framed by a sunlit square. The shrubbery that encases them on the left, right, and top sides has patches where more sunlight creeps in. They are both Shinobu’s minions.
The most striking bit of symmetry here, however, is the perspective. Deemed one-point perspective, the field-of-view becomes narrower the further into the shot one goes. The result of using the perspective is more symmetry and, by extension, “a psychological reaction…so intense that even when nothing is happening, viewers tend to expect something to happen.” 
Now asymmetry. That patchy sunlight takes on variable shapes and intensities. Araragi’s main color is a dark pink whereas the first minion’s main color is a dark black. Araragi plays the role of the main protagonist while the first minion plays the role of the main antagonist.
Similar to Izuko Gaen, this asymmetry manifests uncertainty, doubling that expectant feeling. Thus, in short, the shot is a battle of good versus evil bolstered by a battle of symmetry versus asymmetry that surrounds them.
Episode 12: No Perfect Relationships
Before the final episode really gets underway, Araragi calls Senjougahara. It’s a lovely little scene featuring the lovely little couple, and it also uses symmetry and asymmetry once more to achieve its desired effect. Namely, their compatibility.
Araragi lays on the ground while he talks. So does Senjougahara. Araragi thinks about a certain line of reasoning which Senjougahara gets immediately. Araragi and Senjougahara both say “I love you” to one another. Their compatibility, as far as the audience can tell, is as high as can be.
To reinforce this notion, the scene makes heavy use of symmetry. They both lay down in the same direction (from the camera’s perspective). Top-down shots of both are made. One transition in particular goes from her left-blinking eye to his right-opening eye.
But as Senjougahara describes, a relationship can never be perfect. And, in a masterful stroke, the scene reinforces this, too.
Araragi sprawls himself whereas Senjougahara curls up. Those top-down shots of Araragi are clear, yet Senjougahara’s have fixtures blocking the view. Araragi remains on the ground, but Senjougahara does not — she gets up, moves to the window, and rests her head on her hands.
It’s subtle, but this asymmetry highlights that even their compatibility is not perfect.
And that’s okay. Not just because of Senjougahara’s words on becoming a “special person” but also because, like relationships, almost nothing is ever perfectly symmetric.
Symmetry and Asymmetry: Final Thoughts
What have we learned?
Symmetry and asymmetry deal with balance, and they simultaneously deal with each other. They highlight narrative points, they reveal specific character traits, and they make some awesome-looking scenes.
In other words, symmetry and asymmetry are strong. While they are not without their negatives, and if they are used wisely, they are capable of turning an anime from just a bunch of moving pictures into a visually compelling story.
So the next time you watch anime, make note of the symmetry and appreciate the asymmetry. And soon, you will find that your love for the two ideas will become, well, symmetric!
List of References