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.
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.
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