In feudal Japan, evil spirits known as mononoke plague both households and the countryside, leaving a trail of fear in their wake. One mysterious person has the power to slay the mononoke where they stand; he is known only as the Medicine Seller, and he vanquishes the spirits using the power of his Exorcism Sword. However, in order to draw his sword he must first understand the Form, Truth and Reason of the mononoke. Armed with a sharp wit and keen intellect, the Medicine Seller wanders from place to place, striking down the evil spirits in his wake.
When someone talks about the genre of horror, immediately a few things come to mind: blood, violent motion, bone and flesh torn asunder, gore essentially approaching abundant forms of shock value. These are what characterize the images that litter the horror genre today. However, one cannot discount the impact of simpler techniques. Muffled voices, the bloodcurdling scream, the manic dip toward insanity; these are all subtler methods which give rise to the imagination and thus leave a more impressionable impact. Mononoke adopts such techniques in each of its standalone stories, and it may not be surprising that these implementations are often left unappreciated. Yet, by adapting these horror tools along with an artistic presentation, rhythmic score, and strongly representative story, it is no wonder then that Mononoke is an excellently produced work.
Before we embark on Mononoke's journey one may first need to understand the very concept of Mononoke. One of the basic types of Ayakashi (tl. "unnatural spirit") is formed from the soul of a living or non-living material. Oftentimes, regret causes this, and when an Ayakashi is merged with strong human emotions such as vengeance, sadness, or fear, it develops into a Mononoke (tl. "hostile spirit"). This is the foundation for conflicts in each story and what typically stems from each Ayakashi's backstory.
The story itself follows a Kusuriuri (tl. "medicine seller") who travels from one place to another exorcising each Mononoke he comes across. The anime presents five standalone arcs. Each one consists of 2 or 3 episodes, which may sound as if there is not enough time allocated to serve each story properly. Fortunately, this uncertainty is untrue. Each arc is thoroughly interesting, bizarre, and complex; viewers will be astonished by the profound impact each short story relays.
Every arc meticulously refines its pace in order to provide characters enough time to adapt to their roles. Once the primary conflict is staged and the Mononoke is revealed, Kusuriuri puts himself to the task of unraveling its Katachi, Makoto, and Kotowari (tl. "Form", "Truth", and "Regret") — the three requirements for him to release his "Sword of Exorcism". What makes Mononoke a highly commendable work is its highly structured format, as well as its exploration of every character's motives. Kusuriuri simply can't draw his sword and exorcise the Mononoke until a predetermined set of conditions is followed. Moreover, whilst watching Kusuriuri reveal a Mononoke's Form, Truth, and Regret, we come across a saddening tale of how it came into existence. Mononoke does an excellent job in attracting viewers with its harrowing tales, and its precisely carved narrative makes it an unforgettable experience.
Aesthetically, Mononoke is one of the most finely detailed pieces in existence. From vibrant and colorful backgrounds to highly detailed characters and costume designs, Mononoke has crossed every barrier in this field in order to achieve excellence. The pasty color palette may seem an odd choice for a horror anime, but make no haste; it merges perfectly with the setting and culture of this work. The backgrounds are perforated with different textures all of which that complement each standalone narrative.
Generally, Mononoke can exist in any form and in this anime they are designed explicitly (and sometimes intentionally vaguely) in order to vary with respect to their arcs. Toei Animation has done a wonderful job in designing every character intelligently and distinctively in correspondence to their personality. Kusuriuri's design in particular manages to stand out on every frame. Moreover, his climactic transformation remains one of the most excellent aesthetic achievements in anime: it produces such a profound form and with fantastically surreal animation.
Matching the astounding art, what makes the characters so memorable is how they are portrayed. Not only are they emotionally distraught and relatable, groups of them often form a well-represented allegory. Mononoke is also an eclectic social commentary, ranging from remarks on corruption within governmental policies to more localized analyses of vengeance and despair.
One role which continues to outshine all others is the recurring character Kusuriuri. Unnamed, unrevealed, and from beginning to end an unknown, this enigmatic figure is the lone consistent tool from story to story. He breathes ambiguity, and his role always wedges into the plot should it ever begin to stale. He also does not share any form of development, and yet his indecipherable status always mystifies viewers in order to keep Mononoke's harrowing atmosphere at its greatest.
The Opening and Ending themes may seem peculiar, but they are certainly stylish, and as unhinged periodic pieces, they imperceptibly suit the series' direction. However, what marks Mononoke is not the music but the sound effects. Each opportuned implementation pervades the room with mystery and sheer awe. Mononoke also takes inspiration from kabuki plays, which is an interesting spin as much of its presentation follows panelwork very typical of this theatre current.
Perhaps above all, Mononoke is an experiment on convention. Its presentation offers a instantaneous, visceral reaction, and its story takes great efforts to rely on its atmosphere to tell the tale. However, it allow follows a highly structured narrative, which roots its foundation in order to prevent stories from becoming too insane. As a waltz through the Ayakashi mythos, Mononoke is one series never to forget.
This review is the final product of a team composed of members from the "Critics and Connoisseurs" club. The writers were:
Wow, what a series. Mononoke is the spinoff/sequel of the Bakeneko arc (eps. 9-11) in Ayakashi ~ Japanese Classic Horror. This is not to be confused with the final arc in Mononoke, which ironically, is also called Bakeneko. Although the original Bakeneko tale was brilliant, Mononoke is just as enticing, beautiful and well written as its predecessor. This series lets its art tell the tales. It is not afraid to experiment and has its own distinct style. This is a truly wonderful series especially visually and thematically.
Story: This anime is broken into five different stories lasting about 2 to 3 episodes each. Every one of these stories features a different supernatural spirit; many of them rooted from Japanese folklore. It is up to the Medicine Seller to uncover the Katachi (shape/form), Makoto (truth), and Kotowari (reason) of the spirit. Now, this sounds like your average, spirit-of-the-week sort of deal, doesn't it? But it isn’t. That's one aspect that makes this series so great. All the stories are unique and do not feel like a rehash of the same story as the previous. Even by the final arc, I was still shocked and entralled by its revelations. So yes, there are unexpected twists in every arc. Each tale also holds very thoughtful themes. You would expect a series about supernatural ghosts to be about the, well, dead spirits, but that's also not the case. Most of the stories are quite deep and to some degree disturbing. In fact, Mononoke is very thematically based on human nature, since it's the humans and their actions that transform the spirits into these vengeful mononoke.
Art: I’ll say it now. The art style may put off some people, especially based on first impressions. I thought the art was absolutely gorgeous, fitting, and unique. Mononoke uses an art style that resembles the Japanese "ukiyo-e", filled with vibrant and colorful backgrounds, textures and designs. Because of this two-dimensional, almost paper cut-out appearance, the anime uses a lot of camera movements and symbolism. This is why a few of the stories may need multiple viewings to get the full meaning of everything. In this way, I feel Mononoke uses its art to its full potential to present the story. I also loved how the style in each arc deviates just a bit so that each story distinguishes itself from the others.
Sound: Sound plays a very important role in this series. Because the art style somewhat limits what it can show on screen, sounds are used to reinforce that. It sets up the tense atmosphere, adding suspense and leaving you anticipating for more. The voice acting is very well done, especially hearing those screams of terror and shock. Other than that, I didn't really like the opening and ending songs. I actually liked the Ayakashi OP and ED better.
Character: There is only one reoccurring character in all the stories and that is the ever-so-awesome Medicine Seller! Yes, he is nameless and simply known as “Kururi-uri-san/sama/insert other honorific” or medicine seller. Although not much is known about him, I think it's very fitting since it adds to his mysterious nature. He does, though very subtly, develop. In all honesty though, I found it incredibly enjoyable watching him make deadpan comments while the other characters are freaking out over the weird happenings/hauntings. Lastly, the story-only-characters get a good deal of development despite each story being 2 to 3 episodes in length.
Enjoyment/Final notes: I finished the series in 2 days, meaning I watched about 6 episodes per day. So yeah… I enjoyed it a lot. And as mentioned earlier, some arcs may take a second or even third viewing to get everything. I know I will watch it again. It's such an excellent anime and was so worth the watch.
9.6/10 easily rounded to a 10/10 for my list. read more
My initial impression of Mononoke was literally, "...". After giving it a chance I am glad that I wasn't quick to judge and saw it through. Mononoke is a collection of short stories revolving around mysterious spirits/creatures known as, from the title, Mononoke. The writing and directing of the series are excellently done and really immerse you in the story itself. Each arc is a new story with new characters that are well fleshed out in the beginning of each segment. The Medicine Seller, Kusuriuri, is the only recurring character and is mysterious as always with each new arc.
The artistic styling of Mononoke is truly one of a kind, the colours are amazing and with HD encodes it truly shines. Each new environment is unique, colourful, and captivating. The colours and use of quick camera movements add to the suspense. The animations themselves are intentionally very stiff at times but as the action speeds up they become very fluid and top notch. The backgrounds are rarely stationary, but appear as though you are observing a painting at the same time. Often times the animations of common things such as snow or water are displayed in a very unique way that makes you simply want to get lost in it.
The sounds of Mononoke are fantastic. There is often times complete silence, but that only adds to the suspense. The OP and ED are very nice, nothing exceptional, but nice. The use of sounds, such as screams, thumps and other such frightening sounds are extremely realistic. I hate to admit it but I was genuinely frightened at certain points.
Apart from the Medicine Seller, each arc sees the introduction of new characters. Each character usually represents a different Japanese stereotype. Samurai, priests, monks, government types, children, and many others. Kusuriuri's alternate self, I won't give anything away, is almost worth watching the story for on its own. The Medicine Seller is a very sarcastic person and often times at a very serious moment he'll crack a joke that is totally absurd and you can't help but laugh.
At only twelve episodes Mononoke is well worth the time and although it is very, very Japanese in respects to content, it doesn't take away from the enjoyment in the least. As I mentioned before, Mononoke is excellent at generating fear out of the simplest of situations with very little audio. The characters are all very genuine and are often times in tears and losing their minds in a very believable manner.
I've wasted enough of your time, now go watch this show. You definitely won't regret it.read more
Deadly monsters, haunting spirits, and supernatural entities that are beyond human to even describe with words, are but a few examples of what makes horror an appealing genre to many. There are definitely great examples of works of horror that can be considered true masterpieces in its genre, however it is certainly one of the easiest genres to not succeed in garnering true terror within its framework. Especially with anime, where there are only a handful of noteworthy horror shows and the rest only come up with predictable scares and horror tropes being used way too much. Mononoke fits, unfortunately, to the latter; but only by a very slim margin.
To expand on that last point, Mononoke is not what you would you call a terrifying show to watch. It would be more accurate to describe it as “startling.” It doesn’t try to disturb you with its overly-bombastic imagery, it instead wants you to seek out the subtle artistic prowess that it has to show before it then starts to suck you in to the horror by surprise. The execution of all of it feels very right and nicely paced out so that they feel less tedious and uneventful to go through. Many horror anime, and especially horror movies today, think that if it throws in any kind of ominous or thunderous music, blood splattering gore, or your every day horror cliche left and right that they can call their show a true horror show. In reality, they make it the opposite of their intention because you’re already used to it after the twentieth time it has happened half way through.
Mononoke proves that you don’t have to use any of those aspects in a horror to define yourself as one. The one thing that almost everyone can agree with is that the true source of horror is the “unknown.” The fact that you can’t see something, yet you feel a presence within your surroundings can be one of the most truly terrifying things to experience in real life or in film. Things of this nature was put into full effect when H.P. Lovecraft first based his stories around this concept. You can see, quite clearly, that Mononoke does the same inflections of some of the stories Lovecraft put into his short stories, and does them to brilliant effect. The only obvious difference is that Mononoke actually shows the supernatural entities whereas Lovecraft never did.
How the show is set up is by the obvious inclination that this is a separate story based off of the character, “Medicine Man,” from one of the short stories from Ayakashi – Samurai Horror Tales. Before I discuss how the show structures its plot in each of the arcs, the one important notion to mention that really makes Mononoke a truly unique experience is how much creative detail it gives to the setting of historical Japan. Along with House of Five Leaves, this is definitely one of the closest that anime has gotten, in recent memory, that truly captures the pure essence and atmosphere of what Japan was like during its later modern period. Obviously, without all of the supernatural elements to it, the artwork that is put on display feels like an ancient painting done by past painters from Japan that really strengthens the atmosphere and its impact on the creativity put into the horror. Not only the artwork, but also the little tidbits they put into the show that include various Japanese folklore that they tell us at the end are very inspiring and fascinating to experience.
Onto the plot arcs themselves, they are, unfortunately, not the very highest point in terms of interesting storytelling. With about five different stories put into one show, only two of them stick in my mind as completely memorable or thought-provoking. The one that can be considered great is the first one because of how it introduces us to Mononoke’s world and its concepts of the Mononoke, and is definitely a great introduction into the show. The second arc consists of a very gripping story about each individual’s goals of getting out of the mess that they have been brought to and each of them have this really detailed back story makes them not just this throwaway character that our main protagonist steals the show from. Unfortunately, the rest suffer through, what I would call, overused tropes from the previous two episodes. Of the three last arcs, two of them both involve a group of people that Kusuriuri, our main protagonist, tries to investigate concerning the disturbance of Mononoke. It is almost as if the writer could not think of a new kind of formula he could put into his stories so he decides to reuse similar tropes to his previous stories and put in a completely different spin on that original idea. It doesn’t matter if the plot is completely different from the previous one, it still follows the same formula and it feels repetitive and almost predictable.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say they are “terrible” to go by, not at all; it just feels mediocre compared to the previous ones. With that said, what really makes the plot worthwhile to experience, for better or for worse, is Kusuriuri, or the “Medicine Man” as he’s typically called. Similar to how great Ginko is in Mushishi, Kusuriuri has this aura around him that makes him very attention grabbing. The only difference is that you don’t really know much about Kusuriuri’s personal life, but only what he does in his job. His smart, fast-moving mind makes him a competent protagonist to root for only by how calculated he lays out his plans in getting the Mononoke and helping the people that need his help the most. It is one of the rare instances where the lack of personal development of one character doesn’t hold back the quality of the character and just from how much he views the world from his own eyes and gives us his take on the mysteries involved in the plot. The unknown archetype adds to his depth and characterization so much more than almost any of the characters in Mononoke, who also have well-developed characterization.
Whether you want to call the animation, provided by the most lauded Toei Animation, “experimental” or “classic art,” it nevertheless feels very dynamic. Toei has always wanted to stick to original roots when concentrating on their animation skills in most of their productions and this is by far one of their best. The fluid motions of how the characters move, react, and illuminate feel very human-like and provide a significant degree of hard-work put into each frame of animation. What is even more fascinating is how the animators put a lot of creativity into the actual Mononoke, which is evidently influenced by Japanese folklore. Even though you don’t see them for more than, say, five seconds, those five seconds will be burnt into your memory for years to come.
Mononoke is a different breed of horror that many anime have not attempted to replicate even in the past. There hasn’t really been a horror film or show that never makes you scream out in terror, yet in your mind, you feel almost as if you had gone through a night terror that you don’t remember screaming, in sheer anguish and fear. While the show never really compiles to a significant detail of groundbreaking story, it surely is a sight to behold in grasping what can be done with an absolutely gorgeous setting with beautiful sets of animation to go with it. Let it be said; when it comes to creating great horror, there should never be boundaries that restricts what it wants to show in terms of true fear. Otherwise, it would not be horror, one way or the other.
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