Molly Hates-Technology-a-lot – Mononoke

Posted on Apr 10 2011

Despite the technology gods stirring up trouble again, two and a half weeks without internet and a further two week delay won’t stop me from giving you what you want: Animu Reviews! Without further delay, I present to you another personal favorite from Molly’s treasure chest: Ayakashi: Bakeneko and Mononoke!

Before I get a slew of Ghibli fans going head long into an excited rampage, I AM NOT TALKING ABOUT PRINCESS MONONOKE! I couldn’t be treading farther from it, in fact. Instead, we are going to take a look at the supernatural mystery series Mononoke and its predecessor, Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales.

In the familiar set up of a classic mystery story, Mononoke explores the depths of human error brought forth by strange and/or murderous events. Bringing personal histories and past faults into light is the name of the game, however the real mystery here is the man who simply addresses himself as “just a medicine seller”. Just who is this nameless apothecary? Unfortunately, we will never know. Like a true detective story, nothing is revealed about the man who simply finds his way into these people’s lives. He, himself, is a mystery.

What drew me to this series initially was the flat, 2-dimesional animation style. Remember the trope of the “unmoving plaid”? Similar in the style to that of Gankustuou: Count of Monte Cristo or the American cartoon, Chowder, the animation staff utilized rich, colorful textures to give the flatness of the characters depth and movement. Even the 2-D feel, itself, I found charming. But look at me getting ahead of myself again. Let us take a look at what makes this series tick, shall we?

Despite the word “Mononoke” being synonymous with the Ghibli film, Princess Mononoke, this series stands far apart from Miyazaki’s concept. Mononoke utilizes the weakness of human nature to paint a very different picture. This concept can be found in any mystery or thriller type story, but it is all about application in the end.

What started as a three arc project culminating into what is known as Ayakishi: Samurai Horror Tales, the only arc to have been any sort of success was the third and final arc know as “Bakeneko”. Each arc of the series depicted three very different classic Japanese stories, each produced, directed and animated by three different teams.

Unfortunately, and I don’t think I’m alone here, the first two arcs, “Yotsuya Kaiden” and “Tenshu Monogatari”, were lack luster and average at best. Both of these arcs got four episodes within the eleven episode series, leaving “Bakeneko” with the short straw of three. “Bakeneko” was the only arc to spawn a series (Mononoke) and gain a small yet loyal following. The other two arcs weren’t so lucky. Getting myself to sit through eight episodes of “meh” was a chore but it was all worth it, because episodes nine through eleven were a breath of fresh air. Enter the Goblin Cat.

The Ayakashi prequel and Mononoke follow the same format: In two to three episodes per story, the medicine seller finds his way into various problems caused by wandering spirits called “Mononoke”. Utilizing his knowledge of the supernatural, he must ascertain the truth, shape and reasoning of the malevolent spirit to combat and rid the world of its presence. Wielding a bladeless katana which can only be unsheathed when the truth, shape and reasoning of the mononoke has been revealed, the medicine seller destroys the spirit and simply moves onto the next case.

It seems as though anyone and their grandmother can carry a sword in anime with little to no reasoning behind it. What makes this instance different is merely the time setting of the stories (except for one, but I’ll return to that). Placed in the Edo Period of Japan, when Samurai were of the highest class and merchants, such as our wondering medicine seller, were of the lowest, it was highly unusual for a merchant to carry a sword. This detail was often brought up throughout the series when his blade was introduced. Again, though, this katana is a strange one as it is often shown in his large medicine case, wrapped in spiritual seals. With its demonic-like voice, the sword gave me a bit of a start when I first watched through the series.

The final arc (also “Bakeneko”), takes a little time skip to what seems to be the 1920’s. Forget about the social distinctions of the 1600’s, anyone walking around with a katana with face-paint and a chest full of drugs will get a sideways glance. This arc has less focus on the cat spirit, itself, but still retains the creep factor of its predecessor. Complete with the original cast of characters and a similar theme of cat themed revenge, “Bakeneko” only seemed fitting as the proper end of the series. With that, we have come full circle.

I fear going into much detail concerning the actual stories as it may deter you from watching. The subject matters (especially that of the first arc in the main series), may air on the side as grotesque at first glance, but after settling into the series, that’ll hardly be a problem. The stories are meant to make you a little uncomfortable, but in a good, “WTF” way.

As far as the horror aspect goes, it remains present throughout but the emphasis on horror stays mainly in the original “Bakeneko”, while more thought-provoking ideas and “mind thoroughly blown” imagery becomes the focal point in the Mononoke series. This anime doesn’t just rely only on its art. It actually has guts. It will leave you pondering over your own weaknesses after the fact, but in the mean time, enjoy the artistic ride. Leave the thinking for later.

By now, I would usually go on and on about the cast, but like any good mystery, the cast is here and gone in an instant. Mononoke plays with the fact that it is a sequel to the original and recycles certain characters as reincarnates of each other. If you’ve ever watched the A&E series, Nero Wolf, you realize that you have been watching the same recycled cast play Russian murderers one story and Brooklyn victims the next in completely unrelated stories. Being able to make those connections in this series will require a second watch-through, but I hardly find that to be problematic.

Alright, alright. I’m probably boring you to tears by now, so let’s sum this bugger up.

Pros: Though ranging from subtle to in-your-face, the artistry that went into the series is something that can’t go ignored. Also, the opening song…. My favorite in years. None of that pop stuff they plaster as bookends to every new series. Lastly, the series doesn’t rely solely on its art. What comprises the meat of the stories is grotesque, a tad disturbing, yet outright thought provoking.

Cons: Admittedly, the stories can be difficult to follow. They mess around with subtlety and nuance more than blunt facts and imagery. Just hang on tight and keep that wikipedia page open.

This, possibly, could be one of my favorite series to date and I wish I could have spent more time on each and every nuance, but frankly, when the work count exceeds 1000 words by a country mile, I know it’s time to call it.
It is my sincere hope that you will take the time to try this anime on for size. It is something to be experienced first hand.

Thank you, again, for being so patient with the nearly a two week delay. Remember, kids: Enjoy technology or it will enjoy you. Bibbles out.

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