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.
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 mononoke 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 mononoke in his wake.