Tuesday, September 8, 2020

REVIEW: Mononoke (anime TV series)

Mononoke is a supernatural mystery/horror series. I bought my copy brand new. For some reason Amazon (US) only sells the streaming version, although DVD copies are available in the Amazon Marketplace. Either this is out-of-print or there's some kind of agreement that's keeping it off Amazon. At any rate, Right Stuf has it for cheap, so I recommend getting it there (and unfortunately you'll need to resign yourself to waiting, due to the current presidential administration's efforts to kill the USPS).


Mononoke is composed of five self-contained stories. In "Zashiki Warashi," a pregnant woman is trying to escape an assassin and convinces an innkeeper to allow her to stay for the night. "Sea Bishop (Sea Bonze)" follows a group of people traveling on a merchant ship, which somehow ends up in the Dragon's Triangle, a part of the sea that's full of ayakashi (supernatural monsters). "The Faceless Monster" focuses on a woman scheduled to be put to death for killing her husband and his entire family. In "Nue - The Japanese Chimera," several suitors vie for the hand of Princess Ruri by participating in an incense identification game. And finally, in "The Goblin Cat" several seemingly unrelated people find themselves trapped in a subway car together, sometime after the supposed suicide of a particular female journalist. The one thing tying all of these stories together is the mysterious Medicine Seller, who finds and vanquishes (or purifies?) mononoke, vengeful spirits, using a special sword he can only draw once he has discovered the mononoke's Form, Truth, and Reason.

It turns out that this series is actually a spinoff of one of the stories in Ayakashi Samurai Horror Tales, which I haven't seen. I could tell I was missing out on a bit by not having seen it - the second story, "Sea Bishop (Sea Bonze)," references that original story, and it's possible "The Goblin Cat" did as well - but I don't think it was too big of a deal, and I ended up enjoying Mononoke anyway. 

I found out about this series via clips in anime AMVs - its stunning visuals instantly caught my eye. The artwork was technically somewhat spare and occasionally purposely ugly, but enhanced with textures and unusual use of color. It was a very stylized and experimental-looking series - background characters were often deliberately depicted as faceless, and the effect of snowy weather was created by individual snowflakes that slide across the sky. It created a very odd sort of atmosphere, where the line between fantasy and reality was often blurred. It reminded me, in some ways, of series like Gankutsuou, Puella Magic Madoka Magica, and Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei.

As I said, the stories themselves were self-contained. Each was two or three episodes long, enough time for the Medicine Seller to examine the situation, explore the mystery, and bring things to a close. My favorite of the five stories was "Nue - The Japanese Chimera," followed by "The Faceless Monster." My least favorite was probably "Sea Bishop (Sea Bonze)," although "The Goblin Cat" probably had the weakest conclusion of the bunch, as a result of trying to also give the whole series some sense of closure.

I've seen plenty of other series set up like this one, with a series of self-contained (or relatively self-contained) supernatural stories. Natsume's Book of Friends and XxxHOLiC both instantly come to mind. Mononoke was a bit more adult than those, dealing with subjects like murder, emotional abuse, abortion, and incest. At the same time, it didn't seem to feel the need to wallow in its darkness. The stylized nature of the visuals provided some emotional distance - for example, the goriest of the stories tended to depict blood in every color but red. All of the stories ended in positive or at least bittersweet ways, with justice served as much as the situations allowed (personally, I'm still annoyed by "Sea Bishop," though).

The Medicine Seller remained a mystery throughout. Was he human? His ears and slightly pointed teeth seemed to indicate that the answer was "no," but the series made no effort to explore his origins or motive, so there was really no definitive answer unless Ayakashi already covered that (some online searching tells me that probably isn't the case, however). He seemed to have no attachment to and feel no concern for any of the people around him, but at the same time he didn't strike me as being unkind. There were multiple times when he tried to stop people from doing things that might lead to mononoke harming them.

All in all, this was an excellent series, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for something different from the usual "high school student joins a sports team/finds romance/ends up in another world" story. It's a treat for the eyes, it's easy to watch an entire story in one sitting, and the stories have an edge of darkness to them but don't wallow in misery and despair. Definitely make sure to watch past the closing credits on the last episode of every story - annoyingly, the DVD "skip" points don't just skip the closing credits, but also the extra scenes after the credits.


An approximately 7-minute featurette showing aspects of the animation process for the final story, "The Goblin Cat," and several TV spots for the show (in Japanese, without English subtitles). This is one of the few boxed sets I've seen that doesn't include a textless opening and closing as extras - thankfully this doesn't bug me too much, since I didn't actually like the opening and closing credits.

I really wish that this had included "translator's notes" style extras with information about relevant Japanese supernatural beings and folklore. I can't possibly be the only person who'd be interested in that sort of thing.

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