Did you see that 2007 horror anime Mononoke is now on Crunchyroll? In spite of (or perhaps because of) work being crazy, I re-watched it all in a week.
Aesthetically gorgeous and deliciously creepy, Mononoke stars the unnamed Medicine Seller, a mysterious traveler who hunts mononoke, ghost-demon hybrids that come about because of powerful human emotions. To exorcise a spirit, the Medicine Seller must first find its shape, truth (what it wants), and reason (why it appeared).
The show purports to be about vengeful spirits and their exorcisms, but in the process reveals the the most frightening monsters are people themselves.
Mononoke is twelve episodes long, but it’s better to think of it as four arcs—two two-episode tales and two three-episode ones. The tangle of human relationships that the Medicine Seller must unravel to discover the mononoke’s shape, truth, and reason are always far too complex for one episode. Each terrifying tale is set against a dizzying kaleidoscope backdrop of wild colors, elaborate Edo-period composition, and parchment paper texture.
In each arc, the Medicine Seller must become acquainted with several strangers who are all brought together by chance and all of whom have something to hide. Dialogue is sparing, since everyone has a secret. Traditional Japanese music accompanies frequent jump cuts, and artfully arranged settings give the backdrop the artful theatricality of a Kabuki play. Extreme closeups on people’s faces, hands, and objects around the set keep the viewer on their guard, aware that everything shown could be a significant clue to solving the mystery. There is always an element of tension, that something dangerous is lurking just out of focus.
Of course, it’s never the spirit that we should be afraid of. It’s one or more of the people who are being terrorized by it. The mononoke gets its power from a human emotion, and it’s always one of the humans in the arc who incited its vengeful grudge. Side by side against humans who lie and betray and murder in cold blood, the mononoke are simply bizarre nightmares, not unlike the witches in Madoka Magica. They are more manifestations of ill will than they are cognizant deliverers.
The lesson of Mononoke is that if you have a clean conscience, then you have nothing to fear from a vengeful spirit. The Medicine Seller’s search for the shape, truth, and reason of the mononoke has the double purpose of a trial, a coming clean for everyone involved in inciting the emotional trauma that birthed a ghostly monster. Like in another show about otherworldly presences, Mushi-shi, the discoveries characters make in Mononoke are always about themselves, and more often than not they reveal something buried under the psyche that even the character has long been unaware of.
It’s rare for an anime to merge visual artistry with storytelling strength so well as Mononoke does. If you like Japanese mythology, supernatural plotlines and darker themes, there’s no reason this shouldn’t make your top 10 shows of all time.
See also: ‘Mononoke’: To Extreme Sickness, Extreme Remedies. As usual, Serdar is right on target with his review over at Ganriki.