The wooden curtain opens with a sinister smile revealing the first scene:
A wave of vibrant, whirling umbrellas cascade down the street; the rain continues to pour in assorted shapes, accompanied by the patter of hollow conversations latching on to the sounds of its perpetual fall. On top of the path rests a towering hotel embellished by color, wood, and ruse. Slowly, an enigmatic wanderer appears at the gate of the inn, with a wooden box strapped on his back requesting to stay there. He is identified as the medicine seller. Shortly after, a young pregnant woman, dressed in desperation, finds herself at the same inn; seeking shelter and protection.
There is, however, something amiss in the rainbow-tinted inn, and right away, its secrets provoke the senses; they seem to be everywhere – in the walls, in the unseen guests, in the corridor. After a heated argument between the innkeeper and the girl, she finds herself in an isolated room, lathered in opulence but infested by shadows of all shades. Following this unsettling vision, the show starts to bare its true face. There is something indeed amiss here and the Medicine Seller’s true purpose is brought forth: he came to hunt the horrors that plague the inn, otherwise known as “Mononoke”.
That is the basic premise of the 12-episode series titled Mononoke. The series is divided into five arcs, in which, the Medicine Seller (or Kusuriuri) attempts to seek, hunt, and exorcise these otherworldly spirits known as Mononoke. Essentially, Mononoke could be defined as a class of spirits, however, the ones Kusuriuri is concerned with are closest to humans, because they manifest from humans. These are corrupted entities that seem to bring sorrow, suffering, and destruction where they go and to who they haunt. Thus, this is a tale of the unknown, of mystery, of psychology and pathos, of ancient lore, and lastly, of horror that may disguise itself as a series of ghost stories, but only superficially.
One of Mononoke’s greatest strengths is its ability to intertwine the aforesaid elements with subliminal insight that gives it its multi-dimensional form. Most supernatural stories will focus on the imminent horror factor, or inducing temporary fear simply by virtue. Mononoke does something completely different. Rather than focusing on the external fear synonymous with the spirit(s) and their curses, it looks inward, to the living, rather than the dead. This is meticulously explicated by Kusuriuri’s methodology. In order to exorcise any Mononoke, he needs to first recognize its Form (physical), Truth (circumstance), and Reason (motivation). Much of this is revealed through digressing into the psyche of the parties involved in each arc, where Kusuriuri exploits the inner turmoil of each respective character and how that turmoil projects itself on to the Mononoke in ways that are not just terrifying, but often times, heartbreaking and utterly human.
Really, it’s the “human” element of the series that makes it so compelling which is mostly through the manner it incites and decrypts human nature and its capacity to wander in the dark. It’s carnivorous, yearning for fear and emotion; yet, it isn’t done through manipulation, shock value, or contrivance. Rather, Mononoke opts for psychological precision. The show doesn’t aim to deliver some insane amount of singular “character development” but rather uncover what lies in the dark, and thereby showing the ability for what is presented as good, innocent, virtuous to be equally bad, tainted, and sinful. Consequently, the show is heavily driven by its themes and self-contained plot rather than individual characters.
The aforesaid will lead many to flock to the notion of “bad characterization” or not enough “character” “development”, but one needs to contextualize what a work is actually trying to do/achieve before arbitrarily applying a set of self-drawn commandments. Characters can be utilized in many different ways as can a story be told in multiple ways. The characters of Mononoke are outwardly static, including Kusuriuri but that does not mean they are superfluous. They are internalized or “developed”/personified in many ways, whether it be through human analytics brought forth by yours truly ~the Medicine Man~ or the interactions, actions, and reactions that are revealed as a product of surfacing truths and unearthing secrets. Mononoke functions as a collective exploration of the temporal realm through the supernatural and both are interlocked by these ordinary characters that are deeper than they may initially look. Essentially, the characters are immensely important, for it is through them and their stagnation that the show is able to conduct its psychological experimentation.
Each character’s predicament is sealed by fate, but the stories aren’t about the end; they’re about how such an end could come about and the choices that led to it. By dissecting the unknown, Kusuriuri finds himself in the middle of intersecting realities that are as terrifying as they are tragic. What makes all the stories consistently effective is the finesse with which the show handles each character’s state, and the mononoke that transpires from them (whether they be a projection of corrupted desires, or a product of unrequited yearning, or a manifestation of unspoken crimes). Therefore, the “unknown” or “horror” isn’t really about the monsters or ghosts, but what creeps inside seemingly ordinary folk, and the will that could innately exist to ignite suffering. Through these various arcs, the characters in those arcs, and Kusuriuri himself, Mononoke presents accounts that are deeply disturbing and equally enlightening.
Furthermore, this also reinforces the unacknowledged strength of episodic structures. Mononoke shows that the quality of the plot or other elements isn’t internally compromised if the work lacks a continuous/overarching plot or a constant cast developing linearly and consistently. Its anthological nature fares well for it and its intentions for it turns out to be far more vicious in its horror, tragic in its drama and stylized in its art that every piece of it comes together effortlessly. It fully embraces the power of the medium and extends its boundaries far beyond traditional story-telling into a work of innovation, wonder, mysticism, and art.
And, elementally, nowhere else does this concentrated sublimity appear more than in Mononoke’s visual presentation. The best way to describe the art and animation of Mononoke is: idiosyncratic. It is so particular and unique that I’d be willing to wager it exists only to tell the stories that Mononoke did.
Right off the bat, the art style may come off as incredibly gaudy, over-the-top, and immensely theatrical (Curtains open and close at whim supported by decisive gongs dictating the flow of various scenes; highly sensitized color palettes are constantly at the forefront, clashing in folly, but never jarring; costumes and getups are so lurid that they seem to have fallen right out of a stage set; faces are painted with perfect expression that each frame seems like a change of masks, rather than emotion). Yet all of this works beautifully. Mononoke reminds me of something running in an aged-Kabuki theater, at least aesthetically, which is actualized through the bizarre sets of color, costume, and personalities, the artistically-tuned performances, and the emphasis on extravagance.
Mononoke’s visuals are a feat in and of themselves, but the real laudable aspect is how that art is integrated into the narrative. The reason I stress to call this work, a work of “art” (besides its literal merits) is because of its ability to use its elements to create something whole that transcends its own platform and deliver – with individuality, acuity, and sincerity – its subject and themes with clear prowess and understanding (of itself and its ambitions). Take its approach to horror for example. Even though the art-style is the last thing from traditional horror, given how theatrical it is, the way it infuses horror is with complete subtlety.
To elaborate, each arc is extremely claustrophobic, as in, the framing or setting of the arcs always occur in a juxtaposed manner. Whether it be stuck in a room of a humongous hotel, or a ship on the open seas, or a prison cell, or a train car speeding through a tunnel, the unsettling feeling of being “boxed-in” never leaves. It produces this inescapable void from the get-go and maintains that in the background, but it’s by far one of the most prominent things it does to invoke and sustain fear and discomfort. Not only are we forced into the corners of depraved minds, but we are confined there, with an evil that has the capability to exist everywhere, and within everyone. Furthermore, its usage of color is one of the best I’ve seen. Works of horror will generally opt for a gloomy, desolate mood which favors subdued grays, blacks, with the exception of red for obvious reasons. Mononoke on the other hand probably utilizes every color on the spectrum but does so effectively. I would never have imagined that such a palette could ever tell stories so terrifying and do so with the power that they do. Combined with its psychological propensity, the visual direction of the series is one of the best I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing; both as a work of Horror, and as a work of Art (and for once, we don’t have to separate the two).
Mononoke is a superb show, but it isn’t for everyone. It is unconventional in every sense of the word. It relies heavily on its own art, such as the barrage of interconnected, but flashing painting like images, or color-doused symbolism to tell its story. Not everything is spelled out here, and a lot of the stories feel like stories within stories since they do stem from various Japanese lore (such as about the concept of Mononoke itself, or what certain acts/paintings/symbols signify). Yet, it is accessible enough, universal enough, that it still communicates the stories of these people, spirits, and time wonderfully. Additionally, as much as I have praised the art, this style can be off-putting to many since often times it might prove to be distracting enough to deviate from the actual narrative. The cut-out style of many backgrounds is a good example of this. Lastly, people under the impression that this is a run-of-the-mill horror featuring gore porn or cool fights/deaths, let me be the first to convey that is not the case. The horror is more personalized through the tragedies of each situation, not through spirits killing randomly (as one would find in a Hollywood tale of biblical possession).
Truly, there is no better way to watch Mononoke, than as if watching a play. Yet, good art has the ability to transfer fiction into reality, and acquaint its consumer with its own feelings and dilemmas. In effect then, the shadows that lurk on the stage also lurk off-stage. And as the wooden curtain closes with the last gong and a similar smile, and the once busy street full of spinning umbrellas is left barren, Mononoke will also leave you with shadows of your own; standing on what you thought was a stage.