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.
Mononoke might be good, if you get over the art. I couldn't.
The art is far too much about form, very little about function. It is bordering a series of still shots rather than actual animation. The voice acting is prentious and annoying. A slow pace in both story and art can work at times, but this is one such case where it does not.
If you want to enjoy something like this, it better be in manga form, because this animation is not far from that. The character designs are obviously meant to look like old-time drawings rather than something that belongs in an anime series, and they end up looking both simplistic and silly. The sheer amount of "trying to be art" is no excuse for the fact that it is lazy art.
The attempt at being two-dimensional works so well here that I am annoyed at how flat everything feels. The story and concept are interesting, but that's about all the positive things I can say about Mononoke. None of that can get over the fact that the art is painful to watch.
Do yourself a favor and watch something like Mushishi or xxxHolic instead.
Posting this review as part of my 2013 Anime Planet Secret Santa participation.
I watched Mononoke as a recommendation to me as part of the Secret Santa event. I had previously seen the Ayakashi - Japanese Horror Stories anime which was the original source of the Medicine Seller main character and subsequent series based on this character. (Mononoke is based on the last story arc of three in the Ayakashi series.) Since I have not really seen much in the way of horror anime, and no actually true horror, I was wondering if Mononoke would live up to its hype as a fantastically different and visually stunning horror story.
Alas, much like its predecessor, Mononoke fails to deliver any scares or chills or horror. But it -does- present some thought-provoking examples of the supernatural in a vividly unique and artistic presentation.
Unique distinctive and experimentally surreal visuals, with a washed out, subdued grey and pastel watercolor palette with occasional splashes of vivid color are actually given texture as well, as though of images were painted on rough paper. Character designs are hideous and transformed caricatures, except for the Medicine Man and a few female characters. Others are super deformed ugly, with exaggerated features, such as red bulbous noses and blubber mouths. Perhaps this is meant to be evocative that these are ordinary people, with regular people characteristics and flaws rather than idealized anime beauties but instead these character designs emphasize the uniqueness of the Medicine Seller and his otherworldly powers, giving more of an impression of the Medicine Seller's superiority over everyone else around him.
His story is never revealed, but we get to know him through his actions in each story arc. This series is episodic, with each story continued only for a few episodes until next story arc is introduced. Still, each story is interesting, although often not fleshed out enough and we are often left with questions about characters and situations at the end which remain unanswered/unsolved. However, unlike another episodic story anime I've seen recently that base their plot on the story of the day (Bartender) these are some pretty engrossing storylines (unlike Bartender) and the story doesn't get lost behind the other features of the anime.
Video quality is uneven due to its insistent emphasis on its arty style, sometimes flowing smoothly, but other times jarring and broken and interrupted and discontinuous, with odd and unusual camera angles and unusual visial perspectives presented.
Opening and ending songs are forgettable tunes that do nothing to enhance the series, but the same is not true of the incidental soundtrack. The background music and special effects eerily evoke the world of the supernatural and heighten the thrill of the story, much as the unique visuals are setting the story apart.
If you are looking for spine-tingly thrills and scare-you-out-of-your pants horror, this is not the series for that. But if you are looking for something different, something out of the norm, this is an unusually different anime with distinctive art visuals and flavor, presenting up some stimulating and intriguing tales of the supernatural.
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.
Mononoke is a spin-off based around the Medicine Seller from the last arc of Ayakashi: Japanese Classic Horror. This anime follows the Medicine Seller as he deals with various Mononoke in feudal Japan. He combats the spirits with a series of tools and his vast knowledge of the supernatural, but he can only slay the Mononoke when he meets certain conditions: he must find the Form, Truth, and Regret of each Mononoke to slay them...
Not having seen Ayakashi: Japanese Classic Horror I wasn't quite certain if Mononoke would be okay to watch without having seen where it all began, but turns out it was alright to start here. The anime is split up into a series of different arcs featuring the Medicine Seller and a number of his cases. Five to be exact. The plot of each arc is different and yet each was fascinatingly well written. My favorite was the Nue story arc which was the fourth story. Damn, but that one threw me for a loop ... I loved it! xD
The animation is different than anything I've seen to date and took a while for me to get used to as it's a bit abstract but really it's definately one of the major pluses to the series ... once you get over the initial shock of it not being the typical sort of animation you're used to you begin to appriciate the true artistry. Mononoke is a true artistic feast for your eyes with the exceptional animation and bright colors that is alternately beautiful with just the slightest touch of weird tossed in for flavor. The soundtrack may not seem to be all that spectacular but when you really examine it up close you realize that the backround music and noises they add in really built up the tension in each arc and as such it was very well done. As for the characters ... well, each arc has a different cast of characters with only the Medicine Seller as the only re-occuring one. But honestly it worked as the other charcters typically fall apart when it's shown that the supernatural is involved with generally only the Medicine Seller remaining calm, composed, and seemingly unaffected. I truly loved how mysterious he was and how he seemed to relish what he did.
All in all a very unique series that I very much enjoyed!
(I also own the DVD for this series as well ... )