Kemonozume, Mind Game, Gankutsuou... you've seen it all before. Or so you think. Part horror story, part surrealist art, Mononoke is another oddity that defines itself by looking spectacularly unlike the norm. Ugly in design yet beautiful in execution, and always laced with acute irony, the show could make me scream, laugh, and goggle almost all at once.
My last hunt through the horror genre ended with the stunningly crap Jigoku Shoujo, also one of my fastest dropped anime to date. If this mingle-mangle of vengeance stories is anything to go by, hellish torture just means nerve-racking boredom. Nonetheless, Jigoku Shoujo is a symptom rather than an accident of the horror genre, which often struggles with slogging narratives and generic monsters that just aren't scary.
Mononoke, in being both original and genuinely frightening, thus sticks out from its siblings like a shiny knife from a virgin's breast. In fact, a more appropriate comparison than Jigoku Shoujo, and one that's fairer to Mononoke's excellence, is the outstanding Mushishi. Mononoke takes a similar humanising approach to its paranormal subject matter, putting the tragedy of its characters first before adding some supernatural razzmatazz. On the other hand, unlike Mushishi, Mononoke engages the senses more than the intellect, providing emotive plots via strong hooks and dazzling climaxes. It's classically designed mysteries come with fresh Japanese eccentricities and plenty of spectacle, making the whole product highly addictive despite its steady pace.
Mononoke is not just animation, it's a moving art exhibit. Everything is washed in faint scratches as though drawn on ancient parchment, and the characters look vibrant but distinctly two-dimensional. While the Medicine Seller retains a biseinen design, the secondary characters appear more like caricatures, with many having bulging eyes, fat lips and noses, and distorted forms that look both grotesque and funny.
On the whole, the design brings to mind Dali as much as it does ancient Japanese art, with a bottomless well of creativity to make established horror themes appear bold and new. From an entire background cast of mannequins to guitar-playing fish demons, each story provides a fresh way to enjoy horror.
While the musical score's only highlight is the samba-esque opening theme, the soundtrack as a whole is outstanding in its use of sounds. Unusual spooky noises abound to enhance the atmosphere, build tension, and develop the show's sensual appeal.
Mononoke's characters will amuse, move, or disgust depending upon their performance. Mostly, they are vivacious, charming viewers with their bubbling madness whilst having only enough substance to matter to the plot. What remains with the audience, however, is not the individuals but the creative milieu they inhabit; thus their one-dimensionality matters little.
Only the Medicine Seller remains a calm constant in an otherwise restless crowd, always with a wry, deadpan approach that's as witty as it is unnerving. His garish face paint and subdued personality make him a fascinating bag of contrasts without fully explaining him. Initially, he seemed a straightforward comparison to Ginko, the lead in Mushishi who also travels around solving paranormal mysteries. However, while Ginko plays the role of a dispassionate bystander, the Medicine Seller seems to get a kick out his profession and takes an active part in the resolutions. Moreover, the Medicine Seller has a mysterious appeal and screen presence that Ginko doesn't - once he lands in a secondary character's life, he becomes as much an attractive feature of the plot as the ghosts who inhabit it.
Anyone thinking this show is merely for the arty types because of its experimental animation, think again. Mononoke is blood-curdlingly scary in a way anyone can enjoy; where other shows fail to even prick a fan's imagination, Mononoke sends shivers streaming down their backs. Who can resist shaking like a leaf during the disturbing sea voyage with the hollowed-out tree? Who will walk away from the final 'Ghost Cat' episodes mentally unscathed? Indeed, Mononoke comes shockingly close to reinventing the horror wheel thanks to its invigorating style and powerful narratives.
Episodes three through five, the Umibozu arc, may be one of the greatest things I have ever seen in anime.
Alright, allow me to back up here: Mononoke is divided into a series of standalone arcs; each of these arcs involve the Medicine Seller solving the psychological problems and unearthing the dark, unpleasant secrets of the characters he comes across - which is to say he fights monsters with a magic sword.
Nominally a horror title, Mononoke really is more a phantasmagorical mindfuck - it's mystical, supernatural, and just downright weird. Expect to be perplexed but never scared.
Surprisingly it can be astonishingly touching - the conclusion to Umibozu is as movingly pathetic and bitter and human as anything I've seen in anime, and the better arcs are characterised by this personal approach. Even when Mononoke isn't delivering that it weaves intricate and rather diverting stories with frequently grim undertones. In either case the anime is lathered in surreal symbolism.
Well, what does all that symbolism mean? Some of it's pretty easy to figure out (apparently, wearing masks is related to putting on another face to conform to society - YOU THINK?), and even when it isn't immediately understandable it never gets in the way of following the story. Flourishes aside, each of the plots are completely comprehensible, though some will require you to pay close attention.
Oddly, though - and I can't stress this quite enough - Mononoke is a FUN series. While not the most purely entertaining pretentious series, it's far more engrossing then it has any right to be. I marathoned the whole thing in a breathless instant, and for that it deserves my utmost praise.
Easily some of the best art direction I have seen in an anime series. Mononoke is classic Japanese art infused with a psychedelia of bright colours, gorgeously vivid texturing, and sprinkled with ever-so-slight old school animation style for some of the character designs (the goofier ones). The imagination used across the board - from the apparently more 'mundane' particulars of the period details to the bizarre imagery and staggeringly strange creatures - is nothing short of breathtaking.
If I were to have any criticism at all, one would be that the movement isn't the most fluid I've ever seen; though it's still significantly well beyond average, would put most anime titles to shame and its use is merely exceptional. There's also a comparative lack of shading, but shading would arguably detract rather than enhance the intensely detailed and layered visual style.
Okay, those criticisms died the death of a thousand qualifications, but Mononoke simply looks THAT GOOD.
The opening is merely catchy enough but the ending is completely forgettable. However, the incidental music is highly evocative, whether presenting powerfully delicate emotional states or mystery-laden tension. While the voice acting is largely commendable, the cold, politely confident timbre of Takasura Sakurai as the Medicine Seller (also known as Code Geass' Suzaku, of all things) is particularly effective.
Who is the Medicine Seller? He's dark, detached but entirely professional, he may lack sympathy for those he encounters but his understanding serves well as an alternative. While apparently not human his true nature and inner feelings are forever shrouded in mystery. Ultimately though, while he's an interesting creature to see at work he's not one I'd have enormous empathy for. I found him most interesting when he displays his brutally dry sense of humour, which isn't as often as I'd like.
What empathy is to be found here, then, is in the characters that vary from arc to arc. They can be funny, pathetic, repressed, enraged, duplicitous, treacherous, but if anything unites the key members it's that they are strikingly human. More than once I felt the pain of characters I barely knew over a handful of episodes, and that too is another achievement for which Mononoke deserves praise. However, the series is as often as distant towards them as the Medicine Seller himself - either way, though, they're consistently interesting.
Unlike other episodic series that manage to feel effortlessly whole even without any underlying narrative or conclusion (such as Mushishi), Mononoke never feels like more than a series of unconnected events. That and the variable quality of the arcs - while some are mind-boggingly amazing, others are content to merely be very good - would make me think twice before declaring Mononoke a masterpiece. I'm afraid it will have to settle with being one of the very best abstract anime ever made, a personal favourite, and an absolute joy to watch.
Second place's no fun, eh?
Well, I've said enough at this point - if you're looking for something that's completely different from the norm, here's a title you definitely should check out. You may want to also check out the last three episodes of Ayakashi Japanese Classic Horror, which Mononoke is based on (the rest of Ayakashi is completely unrelated and unmemorable) but this is by no means essential.
The animation is interesting and, at first, difficult to get used to. It is certainly not your traditional animu style. It grew on me as the plot progressed; I even came to like it, after a point. Plot is engaging, characters are mysterious without being shallow. Music and sound is minimal, though fits with the tone of the series. Can be confusing if you aren't paying attention. Certainly a series meant to make you sit and ponder after each episode. Great for those who love to thrill their mind.
While I am a lover of supernatural and mystical things, mononoke was a an attire to me. I must confess I wasn't really sure with the animation... at first, cuz it seemed so simple or at least very realistic. Sorry, my bad but as a bishounen lover I had just an interest on the main character. Usually all the other man are disgusting and the women are very peculiar.
Even then I took my chance since the first story captivated me and I kept going with the series.
The stories are all amazingly well done, there's a point where you are not sure, what's reality, a flashback or just a vision produced by the fear of the demons.
The only bad part in this, is that you never know more from our delicate and powerful medicine seller. So his past is as hidden as after the first story ends. Still there's drama, love, murders and an excelent mix of characters.
As I said it once, the animation is a bit simple and confusing. The style tries to make things more exotic and pretty or hideous and demented, more with the help of the scenario than the characters. Several scenes have static characters lips moving, and a lot going with the noises, the sweat, the background...
All the infamous Mononoke scenes, where the fear is mixed with madness and rage, is amazing. All becomes like after eating really powerful, hallucinating mushrooms, and simply you loose reality with the characters.
The sound is quite interesting and it divides in three beautiful parts with good comments each time. The background music is ideal always with the scene, you can feel the chills or the silence in the creepy scenes or a delicate and playful melody when all things are solved. Even lusty tunes make you understand clearly what is happening in the scene without the animation.
The sound effects are other things that can blow your head out. Giggles, roars, meows and hard noises were wisely chosen for each and every scene. This sounds, the background and the beautiful but simple animation make it a really clear scene without too much dialogues.
Finally the voice part ... may I say I love the medicine seller's voice, a monotone but sexy low tune, which brings peace, even in the worst moments. A comment for the other characters is that commonly they have terrible voices, but seems to me, ideal for each one of their parts. You must fall in love with the character and not its voice.
I must take a point for two simple reasons... 1.- There's not a background of our mysterious medicine seller. Its just like "I'm here and that's it" and 2.- because sometimes characters REALLY look the same in some different scenarios. Everytime there is a girl, it looks like the train girl or the fishes girl: brides have that essence too and I'm not sure if they wanted to prove "same girl, different background, makes something interesting but it did not... It was like the "Poke-making episode roullette"
Out of that the stories make the characters itself. Almost all of them creates any kind of emotion in you. Hopefully your favorites won't dissapoint you or die at the end.
This show is ultimately designed for either animation ( not just japanese anime) true appreciators or artists. If you,re not either of this two categories, I recommend you just pass your way because you'll probably won't understand the taste of the unique aroma of this series.
The story is rather simple: Medicine seller encounters people and situations where he faces demonic entities. That's easy? Yeah it is but simply astonishing.
The biggest highlight of the premise is the UNIQUE style of animation. It's just beautifully artistic and creative. The animation is seemingly rustic and it is quite original. The way the characters are portrayed and the setting represented is imaginative. The animators actually used some texture to look exactly like papier maché and it does fit in the series's atmosphere! It just doesn't look messy, one of the big pitfalls the art could have fallen into easily.The characters designs is also gorgeous: incredibly japanese fashion, simple but it sets exactly what to do. Talk about work. And I said gorgeous not beautiful: some characters are hideous in fact. But they fit extremely well in the series structure. A perfect mash. Briefly, Mononoke' art is unique and masterful without being a technical cg prodigy.It look exactly like pencil work with watercolors. Talk about originality! Art can be so surprising.
The sound is nice here. A delight fully mastered soundtrack with a nice vibe of mystery around it perfect for a suspense atmosphere. The cast is ....atypic. Only the main character, Medicine seller has a notable voice actor, Sakurai Takahiro-sama. The others mesh pretty well in a great voicework.
Opening section: beautiful.It truly matches the series aura. Still, the vocals could have been MUCH better. Ending section: nice song and visuals.
Ahhhh, it's really hard to talk about characters. The series actually exploit only one character beginning to end. All the others are merely just acquaintances. And talk about one amazing character. Medicine seller is this type of creepy guy who doesn't talk and act much but you'll inevitably like his creepiness. His gaze and deep, subtle and calm voice is just incredible. He is here to explain....and confuse you during the lenght of the show. Always knowing what to do, this Medicine Seller is the series highlight. Mononoke can't be Mononoke without him and his panoply of stange gizmos(talk about a wird sword).
Overall, this show is not meant for everyone. It achieves a great level of entertainement and is definitely a must see....if you fill in these categories.
A high 4/5 for it.
Next! Birdy the Mighty Decode Season 1, my actual review of Black Butler and Trust and Betrayal.