Mononoke is truly a gem within the horror genre and certainly deserves to be seen at least once (this review is based on a rewatch). It mixes a unique animation and art direction style with a story telling more akin to that of Mushishi. Indeed, one could say that if Mushishi was ever made into horror, the result would be Mononoke. Similar to Mushishi, Mononoke has therefore no overarching plot to speak of; instead we have four smaller acts inserted over the course of 12 episodes. The only thing all acts got in common is the presence of the mysterious Medicine Seller who exorcises the world from mononoke, Japanese demons. The Medicine Seller has no known name and we never really get to know anything about him, yet the way he is presented is highly entertaining with his somewhat arrogant and smug attitude. Of course, while the Medicine Seller is entertaining as a figure, this is not where the strength of the series’ lies, rather, what makes Mononoke so brilliant are its supporting characters who reveal the dark side of humanity.
Judging a series that consists of stand-alone arcs is of course hard since the arcs naturally will differ in quality. Yet Mononoke never really falters. While some arcs definitely are weaker, for instance Nue, all of the arcs are still highly entertaining while not necessarily always emotionally engaging. However, when Mononoke really works, it is truly a work of art. Even though the only recurring character in Mononoke is the Medicine Seller, it is very easy to understand the motives of most of the characters because their faults are ultimately very human. While many acted in ways that in retrospect may seem as despicable, these faults allows Mononoke to explore the relationships and impacts these relationships have between individuals.
Of course, here animation is one of the driving points and certainly a huge contributor as to why Mononoke works as well as it does. Aside the Medicine Seller, many of Mononoke’s characters are consciously drawn in such a way that while they are not necessarily down-right ugly, they are not pretty either, often making it easier to relate to these characters as “normal” just like you and I, despite the artwork’s odd aesthetic setting. The main driving point here is of course that the characters presented in Mononoke are actually not special in any way characters in other shows are special being the chosen ones and so forth, and this is meant to make them more believable because we as viewers may very well have met these characters before without being aware that we did. The bright and vivid colors used also helps to emphasize the show’s atmosphere, and that Mononoke is ultimately a tale within a tale. The art direction is absolutely brilliant in its direction to present Mononoke as a theater play, and as such, each set is for instance separated by beautifully moving screens that close and open the various acts. The only problems with Mononoke’s art are that it certainly isn’t for everyone. Either you thoroughly enjoy the art for being so bold and ballsy, or you despise it for not following a traditional animation style seen in other anime. Further, the frame rate is sometimes very poor and fast movement may appear as sloppy. It is hard to tell whether this is an intended effect or not.
While the OP and ED are beautifully animated, the songs are easily forgettable and unmemorable. While the OP is catchy, it somehow doesn’t compare to the opening theme used in Ayakashi: Japanese Classic Horror, nor the serenity created in its ED. The rest of the sound used is mostly ambient with a streak of typical horror sounds, of course. I particularly like how Mononoke so powerfully builds up its atmosphere into a maddening cacophony whenever the arc’s climax is about to occur. The rest of the ambience helps to enhance the atmosphere but it is not something one generally notices. Aside that, the voice acting of Takahiro Sakurai is of course notable, as his presentation of the Medicine Seller is powerful and admittedly, Takahiro’s voice acting is half of the character alone. The rest of the voice actors are standard and do their jobs without being obtrusive in the storytelling.
Oddly enough, the characters in Mononoke are surprisingly flat most of the time. Because the side cast is often quite large, it is obviously hard to develop all of them in a way that would feel satisfying within each arc and this is not Mononoke’s intention. Rather, it focuses on one main characteristic of one or the several characters and how that particular characteristic has a real impact on the world around them, often in a very tragic manner. Just like in theater plays, to some extent, the characters must therefore be flat in order to play out their roles in a way that is satisfying to the plot. In the center of it all is of course the enigmatic Medicine Seller, who too, does not get much of a sensible character development. This is in fact not really necessary, as what makes the Medicine Seller and his actions so captivating lies in that we do not know who he is. Much of the attraction therefore lies in the mysterious aura he often consciously projects. Why then, is Mononoke given such a high character score despite these obvious flaws in storytelling? The answer is rather simple – Mononoke doesn’t need complex characters in order to work well. Whereas in other horror series such as Jigoku Shoujo where flat characters rather drag than enhance the show, the flatness of the characters in Mononoke are not apparent because there is an obvious reason for their flatness. That all the characters in Mononoke are in fact drawn in such a way that would make them look like 2D in accordance to traditional Japanese drawing seems to emphasize this point further, and it goes to show that while complex characters may certainly enhance a story, they can also become equally obtrusive if the characters get in the way of the story itself.
Despite its obvious flaws, there is something highly entertaining about Mononoke that is hard to define. Maybe you just need to be that kind of twisted person that ultimately revels in general human misery that Mononoke delivers in plentiful, but Mononoke is truly a gem among horror anime that delivers horror in a way that is highly original and yet emotionally engaging, which is rare. While it does not shy to show blood and gore (and often done in very artsy ways too! Would Mononoke used any other art style it would easily be comparable to shows like Elfen Lied in terms of blood and gore), the strength of Mononoke lies in that each individual story it has to tell reveals something genuinely profound about the very nature of humanity itself.