In the final arc of Mononoke, the Medicine Seller involves himself in the murder of a young girl whose body is run over by a train in a metropolitan city. As the seven suspects involved in the murder find themselves in the train, in the same car, whisked away to a ghost world, the Medicine Seller pieces together the murder while the Mononoke picks off the travelers one by one.
Another fascinating story and a decidedly good one to end the series with. The period setting threw me for a bit of a loop at first. Unlike previous stories which felt firmly planted in pre-industrialized Japan, this arc featured a metropolitan city, trains, telephones, and fashionable Western clothing. While it made sense to me that this arc could have taken place in a recently industrialized Tokyo, and other stories in the more antiquated countryside, I’ve seen it suggested elsewhere that this arc implies the Medicine seller existed over several decades, if not centuries.
While I think the mannequin imagery was interesting, I couldn’t quite understand its purpose. Initially I thought it was simply an interesting way to highlight the main characters in crowd scenes. However, in the final episode there were several scenes where a main character would phase in and out of being a mannequin. Perhaps that was a way to show they were not entirely important to that flashback?
This was the final episode of Mononoke, and while the Medicine Seller’s pronouncement at the end left the series vaguely open to a continuation, the fact that Mononoke is a spin-off from the Ayakashi series leaves me hopeful that more will be coming.
The Medicine Seller finds himself in a countryside estate, along with three other suitors whom are vying for the hand of a woman renowned as a master incense creator. Things soon go awry of course as ghostly figures are seen, a hidden treasure is revealed, and a murder comes to light.
I can honestly say this was the creepiest Mononoke story yet. From the stark black and white setting, to the manner of the deaths, and more. Until the last fourth of episode nine, it also portrayed the Medicine Seller as something of a psychopath, devising clever schemes to uncover murderers and then kill them in turn, all with his usual calm, quiet demeanor.
On a side note, the “battle” between the Medicine Seller and the Mononoke was quite more “battle-like” than usual, and I felt the transformation sequence hinted at more depth to his “battle form”. While I’m thoroughly enjoying the exploration of this series’ bizarre setting and the quiet plays that take place, I wouldn’t mind seeing them delve further into the Medicine Seller’s powers and where they came from.
Mononoke gets creepier and personal with this two episode, two character arc. A woman commits murder and kills her husband and his family. When the Medicine Seller visits her in prison and comes to uncover the Ayakashi that possessed her to perform such a deed, he learns the Ayakashi may not be entirely at fault…
This was a very intense, focused story, with essentially two characters, the Medicine Seller and the woman. Gone is the large ensemble of the previous arc, with massive character exploration and strange goings-on outside of the main Ayakashi struggle. However this change is certainly not to the arc’s detriment. In this arc I first noticed how the Medicine Seller subtly changes his personality to fit the situation. In the previous arc he was quiet and terse, while the other characters rambled and panicked around him. This time he is stuck in a cell with a quiet, withdrawn woman, and begins to talk at length about himself, being quite self-involved. It disguises his true intentions, and makes him seem just an average street peddler; almost a serial-killer type ability. I imagine Hannibal Lecter would take on such different disguises, acting whichever way will quickest get him to his victim’s liver.
This episode swung back into the series’ original, manic mood. I realised however that this mood is part of what makes these stories work as horror stories. When I think of the pantheon of Japanese ghosts and goblins, I often find them little more than humorous. For instance, I saw a live-action film about Abe no Seimei, the famous historical magician from the Heian era who battled ghosts for the Imperial court. Even though the film’s special effects were quite good, and quite a few people died, I was never close to being creeped out. The mood of Mononoke really nails that creepiness. It’s a slightly insane world, a bit off kilter, and once you realise this it really is frightening. For instance, at the very beginning of episode 6 the Medicine Seller is apparently incapacitated by the Ayakashi, who replaces his face with a mask and leaves him with no face. The No-Face ghost archetype is a common one in Japanese horror stories and one I again never found scary. That is until the slightly left of center world Mononoke takes place in featured it. I realised how terrifying that would be, if you really had no face suddenly, just a smooth, blank surface of skin. The demonic, otherworldly setting made me believe it. Creepy.
Definitely another great arc, and it features my favorite quote from the series so far, “If you wish to leave, this place is a prison. If you wish to stay, it becomes a fortress.” Mononoke keeps on chugging along.
The fifth Mononoke marks the end of the Ghost Ship arc. We’ve seen some quick-thinking ghost fighting tricks in Medicine Seller’s bag (or box rather), a whodunit detective mystery, and the trademark Ayakashi’s confession, which I suspect is one of the main draws to this series for me.
That moment of breakdown and confession is what I really like in this series. One of my favorite television shows is Law and Order: Criminal Intent, expressly because of this device. There is a scene at the end of each episode where Detective Goren, after spending time getting into the criminal’s mind as well as piecing together the crime, where he breaks down their facade, and they can’t help but confess to the crime, their emotional core bare. I kind of see now that’s the “Form, Truth, and Regret” element in Mononoke. While the Medicine Seller is learning all the details of the Ayakashi’s creation, he’s laying bare the horrible secret this person, living or dead, has lived with for so long. I suppose it’s rather therapeutic in that way.
The imagery wasn’t quite as frightening in this episode, though as a conclusion that’s to be expected. After the last episode I was fully expecting to see the ghost revealed Ring-like: draped, hanging hair with a single wild eye visible beneath or the glimpse of a bare skeleton. You know, something terribly creepy. However we see the ghost in her human form, as she was before this terrible ordeal, and the effect serves to deepen the viewer’s compassion as the last of this story unfolds.
I very much liked this episode, and if all conclusion episodes in the series are done this well, I will definitely be watching more. The odd, frenetic feeling I had from the beginning of the series? It didn’t end up in this arc. Three episodes and five characters allowed the tone of the series to breathe, and it did not feel like a “crazy scariness” was crammed into a short period for a quick result. All the strange characters and psychotic babbling had a point, and it was a great gimmick to use the fish-headed Ayakashi lute player to expose the core of each of the characters and lead into this episode.
I think Mononoke is less about the Medicine Seller’s adventures, and more about the cathartic release of horrible secrets, bound up inside the secondary characters throughout the series. That’s perfectly fine by me.
Mononoke is a slightly more bizarre version of Mushishi based on traditional Japanese stories and with Gankutsuou-like visuals. We follow a mysterious character known only as the Medicine Seller around as he travels around feudal Japan uncovering tortured ghosts and putting them to rest. Each story plays out very much as a detective mystery, with the Medicine Seller searching for a ghost’s (Ayakashi) “Form, Truth, and Regret” in order to defeat it. Most of each episode is given over to how the ghost died, why it continues to kill, and how to appease it. While the â€œtwistâ€ is slightly obvious from the initial setup of each story, it’s still interesting watching the Medicine Seller work through the riddle and draw out the sad tale within.
The visual style is superbly executed, with bright, garish, varied colors everywhere. Seeing as these are traditional Japanese ghost stories, there are some very freaky visuals: faceless geisha, deformed ghost children, or gruesome dead skeleton animals. The character design is a bit odd, eccentric in appearance, and at times I was reminded of Aeon Flux. Scenes look like illustrations from a children’s book or a colorful ukiyo-e print. They may have been going for the latter effect, as all the images have a rough paper texture to them. As much as it’s the same illustration technique from Gankutsuo, it’s thoroughly unique.
There are four episodes out to the series so far, two stories altogether. Each story is framed as a Kabuki play. The traditional Okawa drum is heard occasionally, scenes are often opened or ended with a wooden screen displaying the name of the story, and the Medicine Seller’s recaps sound convincingly like something one might hear coming back to their seat at the end of intermission.
Mononoke combines aspects of two series I love, Mushishi and Gankutsuo, and traditional Japanese folk stories, however it doesn’t quite sit right with me. The horror facet of it is not frightening (certainly nowhere near something like Higurashi no Naku Koro ni or Shigurui) but combined with the riotous colors and the bizarre character designs, the tone of the show is a bit frenetic. With its story I cannot help but compare Mononoke to Mushishi and the seductive quality of its subtle, languorous storytelling that felt like stepping into a heady dream. On the whole Mononoke is a well-made series, one of the better ones out this season, but I’ll follow it casually and see if I warm up to its odd tone.