Mononoke is a 12 episode supernatural horror anime anthology, composed of five separate stories, all of which involve the mysterious Medicine Seller. This ghastly and pale man is something of an expert in the occult, wandering from place to place and exorcising the demons — or mononoke — tormenting the populace. In his travels the Medicine Seller is confronted with the best and often worst of humanity: murder, suicide, corruption, the plight of innocent victims and the reign of ruthless villains.
But the stories themselves are not what I’d like to talk about today. Not because I disliked them — rather, I found the stories generally compelling and well-written, touching on themes of society, morality and all that good stuff — but because they ultimately were not what I found truly gripping about Mononoke.
What immediately stuck out to me (and indeed probably did for most viewers) was of course its aesthetics. The initial gut reaction is a perfectly valid “wow this looks different” because Mononoke certainly does. The show is clearly intended to mimic traditional Japanese art, with its bright clash of distinct colors and the appearance of being entirely drawn on a rough level surface, perhaps a scroll, giving the whole show a decidedly two-dimensional feel, as if you’re watching a sequence of paintings rather than a modern animation. This atmosphere of a production, rather than a reality, is cemented even further by its routine use of sliding door transitions, cutting the viewer off from the experience entirely to signal the title of the story or the start of a new act. (This is not directly related, but a side effect of the intentionally flat, gaudy aesthetic is that it’s also ironically really great at obfuscating the use of 3D CGI. You can still tell if you’re looking for it, but in an environment where everything pops, CGI does not especially pop more.)
But obviously I wouldn’t make a video just saying “hey guys, this looks neat”, because while Mononoke does look neat, that’s only the starting point for what it does visually and aurally. The last paragraph was general, stuff you mostly could’ve gleaned from watching a trailer, but what’s less obvious is how deeply Mononoke goes to unsettle the viewer. It already has its foot in the door — a show looking so different from the norm is by nature somewhat unsettling — but that’s also something you can maybe get used to. It’s harder to get used to with several layers of additional cinematic techniques built on top of it.
Well first, there’s the sound design. Right off the bat, we have the Medicine Seller’s voice. He speaks in measured, raspy and halting (not haunting, halting) speech that leaves you both unnerved yet hanging on his every word. The show’s dialogue in general is rife with unnatural pauses, just long enough for something to feel amiss without being clearly wrong. Sometimes dialogue will overlap as well, forcing your attention to one line or the other, with the worry that you might miss something. Of course, for non-Japanese speakers this is compounded even further, by having to read subtitles (and no dub exists, not that I’d want one.)
All that combines to create a constant sense of vague uncertainty, but these gaps in conversation are made even more severe by a pronounced lack of music. Mononoke is not without music, especially when it comes to the climax or epilogue of a story, but often enough the sole sounds you’ll hear are ambient noises and the occasional sound effect. Even when music does exist, it’s frequently heavy tension-building pieces, instrumented by piercing bells, low strings and drawn-out choral notes.
And then we come to the show’s framing. Mononoke’s camera has an odd and playful eccentricity that only enhances the bizarrity of the situation, spinning around characters in time with their dialogue, placing itself unnaturally close or far from the scene, at times refusing to directly focus on the subject of a conversation at all, and perhaps even seeming to forget it entirely to roam the room instead. A surely intentional effect of this is that you’ll often hear things, or witness characters react to them, before you as a viewer can see it for yourself. Fear of the unknown, after all, can be more potent than even the most grisly of imagery.
But why not both, because here the imagery is also just plain creepy. In a show essentially about demons, you can get away with pretty much anything, and many times was I unnerved by the creatures themselves, rather than any tricks or details to how they were presented. I mean, look at this thing. Speaking of details, it shouldn’t surprise you that Mononoke leaves not even the smallest elements untouched. An obvious example would be that no extras truly exist in this show, as (depending on the story) nameless crowds can be either without faces or replaced by mannequins, ensuring that our focus characters feel like the only actual people in the world (which also ties back to the atmosphere of a production). A less obvious example be something like the snow from episode 8, which at first falls from the sky as normal, before taking an inexplicable hard turn over — well, the scale is hard to judge, but a sizeable distance, and then resuming its descent.
And really, the list never ends! Everything about this show is designed to unsettle, and I’m sure someone much more knowledgeable on film than me would be able to go much deeper, but the main takeaway is that Mononoke never wants you to feel in control. It presents enough of a semblance of reality that you can follow what’s happening and (mostly) why, but it all feels distinctly abnormal and unreal, which is fantastic for a horror anime.
In the end, Mononoke is definitely one of a kind, and it had me transfixed from start to finish, so if this article on its aesthetic sensibilities has encouraged you to check it out, you may do so on Crunchyroll, Viewster, or TubiTV. In particular, Viewster and Tubi are legal, free and in HD, so really there’s no excuse.