“Specter; spirit; ghost. Mononoke is a very old word, now rarely used, that describes spirits who actively haunt or pursue a person or place. Though the spirit need not be evil, it does have somewhat of a dangerous connotation.”
Though it borders on pretentious, I’ve always wanted to kick-off an article with a word definition. Aside from its traditional Japanese meaning, "Mononoke” is a word synomonous with a certain Hayao Miyazaki blockbuster from 1997; immediately it recalls images of feudal Japan – an era when a fading mother nature was still capable of retaining her sense of mystery and magic. And so begins the 2007 series “Mononoke” with its distinctively Japanese take on supernatural folk-law.
For those who don’t read Wikipedia, “Mononoke” is a spin-off from the self-contained “Bake Neko” segment of 2006’s 11-episode 3-story anthology “Ayakashi”. Though I started watching fansubs of Ayakashi, the prolonged melodramatics and thick cultural references of the first segment (“Yotsuya Kaidan”) wrought such a soul-destroying apathy on my enthusiasm for the series that by the time I was aware of the striking visual style of “Bake Neko”; my fleeting interest in “Ayakashi” had all but expired. Jump forward to July 2007 and “Mononoke” started its run on Japanese TV. Having been seduced by its eccentric visual style and the positive word-of-mouth, this past weekend was spent haplessly indulging in seven episodes of Mononoke’s surreal feast. To you, I present these humble findings.
Mononoke is good.
At the risk of disappointing though, I shall elaborate, and one must start with the ground breaking art. Its textured colours, flat dimensions and elegant movements radiate a period extravagance that can be compared only to the most colourful moments of Gonzo’s own tribute to affluent traditions in Gankutsuou. As if an art-book had suddenly sprung to life, Mononoke’s busy presentation is poetic and undeniably distracting, favouring surreal and dream-like sequences of animation with little regard of tired anime cliches.
As is befitting of a series with such wealth of imagination, each story arc (usually compromising two or three episodes) fully embraces the visual potential of the horror genre by illustrating the underlying human pathos that attracts the mysterious Mononoke to their pray. Incest, murder and abortion aren’t especially appealing subjects, yet the narrative gleefully borders on incoherence and exploits the natural unease felt by the viewer in broaching these decidedly organic, human horrors, gradually building up to a notably psychological nightmare concerning the so-called “taboos” of modern society; a despairing sister embraces suicide when romantically attracted to her older brother; a beautiful young lady turns to murder when the ambitions of her protective mother clash with an ill-fated arranged marriage.
Given there is nothing subtle about Mononoke, its eccentric characterisation is often at risk of becoming too colourful, too zany and too melodramatic. Indeed, its theatrical style of emotional dialogue, especially during the first story arc, feels corny and just incredibly over-the-top. However, it gets better and the voice acting is notably top notch, regularly unsettling with its horrific screams and gradual descent into raving lunacy.
Despite Mononoke’s profusion of quality, it’s unlikely to ever find mainstream approval; when the majority are content to eat McDonald’s, Mononoke’s offering is refreshing yet extravagant, an acquired taste of textured art and theatrical story-telling that, due to its own daring creativity, is forever destined to be a cult favourite shunned by anime purists. She deserves more.