Bold, innovative, visually pleasing, and philosophically robust – Mononoke is Japanese anime horror done right and possible at its best.
Title: Mononoke (Literal Translation: Unnatural Spirit)
Producer: Toei Animation
Genre: Horror, Mystery, Fantasy, Supernatural
Recommended/Similar Titles: Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales, Mushishi, Jigoku Shoujo, Review Source Medium: Digital Blu-ray (RIP)
Mononoke is a spin-off of the Bakeneko story arc of Ayakashi – Japanese Classic Horror. It follows the Medicine Seller as he deals with various spirits or “Mononoke” in feudal Japan. Just like in the Bakeneko story, he combats with a series of tools and his vast knowledge of the supernatural on his side, but can only slay the Mononoke when he uncovers its form (Katachi), the truth behind its appearance (Makoto) and the reason for its unusual behavior (Kotowari).
Spin-off series can be tricky to pull off, let alone spark enough intrest to be turned into a full length one. Although, if they turn out anything like Mononoke, then the effort to make it happen would be well worth it. Based off the Bakeneko arc; episodes 9-11 of Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales (its not required to watch, but suggested), it chronicles an enigmatic man known as the “Medicine Seller” with the power to slay wayward spirits called “Mononoke” with his mystical blade, but to do it; he needs know the truth, reason, and form of the spirits actions. The 12 episode series is broken down into smaller arcs, 5 in total that range from 1-3 episodes long depending on the arc. While the episodes feel fairly short and the process of the Medicine Seller seeming rather tedious through five standalone arcs, each arc and oddly, the overall series is quite refreshing due in part to the excellent mixture of both mystery and supernatural elements in the writing as well as execution that aids the in storytelling as the Medicine Seller resolves the various problems that plague the apparitions and people he encounters. Granted, while the series is tough to digest in one complete sitting, the engaging screenplay makes it hard to resist setting aside until each arc is done.
Speaking solely of the story arcs themselves, each as aforementioned is a standalone piece; containing its own specific characters and the episode title representing the Mononoke in question. While some arcs seem simple enough, I can not stress enough how well Mononoke makes use of all its elements in tandem and does it without breaking a sweat. Taking a more methodological approach to deal with the restless Mononoke, the Medicine Seller does not just resolve the problem at hand, but actively plays along, in which, shows off the execution, animation, art, and deeper themes of the series at work. Thanks to this unique and oddly vicarious directing style and storytelling, most the arcs and concepts presented are very relevant to the viewer and thoroughly make the series much more enjoyable. The opening Zashiki-warashi arc due to its open ended conclusion and the Noppera-bō for its uplifting end make for perfect examples as well as personal favorites of mine.
However, as much as Mononoke shines brilliantly through Kenji Nakamura’s directing (also responsible for “C” for Control and Tsuritama) and his scriptwriters Michiko Yokote and Ikukoe Takahashi, Toei Animation’s unique stylistic touches are the most notable aspects, but also blend in well with the series. Reminiscent to the traditional Japanese woodblock cravings, “Ukiyo-e” (and like their name suggest), Mononoke creates a floating world of its own that helps get across its philosophical waxing, but shows off its aesthetic charms. In addition to the visuals, Mononoke also has a powerful, yet subtle musical score as well; with most pieces returning back to traditional instruments such as the: Koto, strings, and woodwinds that make up the bulk of the tracks. Silence also plays a large role in strengthen the tracks and functions as music. Yasuharu Takanashi is the arranger/perfomer for most pieces with REMI serving as vocals for most the background pieces.
From my own personal experience, I enjoyed the series and actually remains a solid favorite in my viewing list. Sadly, as much as I enjoy this title, it is shame – or should I say downright disheartening that very few series work along the same template. It might have been that Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales was the wrong vehicle for this to get noticed or not really relevant in what studios were seeking at the time, but it is hard to believe that Mononoke does not have more critical reception from both animators and fans alike. Despite its very slow and tedious edges, Mononoke makes up for it remarkable well with its strong and compelling storytelling, execution, and cutting edge, yet bizarre animation style. Among the handful of arcane titles I would recommend that “have to be seen“, then Mononoke would be include without a doubt. Bold, innovative, visually pleasing, and philosophically robust – Mononoke is Japanese anime horror done right and possible at its best.
Pros: Unique storytelling, Unique artwork and animation, execution, sublime and innovative approach to the horror genre, engaging, nice soundtrack. (Highly recommend)
Cons: Minor repetitive and tedious storytelling process