Deadly monsters, haunting spirits, and supernatural entities that are beyond human to even describe with words, are but a few examples of what makes horror an appealing genre to many. There are definitely great examples of works of horror that can be considered true masterpieces in its genre, however it is certainly one of the easiest genres to not succeed in garnering true terror within its framework. Especially with anime, where there are only a handful of noteworthy horror shows and the rest only come up with predictable scares and horror tropes being used way too much. Mononoke fits, unfortunately, to the latter; but only by a very slim margin.
To expand on that last point, Mononoke is not what you would you call a terrifying show to watch. It would be more accurate to describe it as “startling.” It doesn’t try to disturb you with its overly-bombastic imagery, it instead wants you to seek out the subtle artistic prowess that it has to show before it then starts to suck you in to the horror by surprise. The execution of all of it feels very right and nicely paced out so that they feel less tedious and uneventful to go through. Many horror anime, and especially horror movies today, think that if it throws in any kind of ominous or thunderous music, blood splattering gore, or your every day horror cliche left and right that they can call their show a true horror show. In reality, they make it the opposite of their intention because you’re already used to it after the twentieth time it has happened half way through.
Mononoke proves that you don’t have to use any of those aspects in a horror to define yourself as one. The one thing that almost everyone can agree with is that the true source of horror is the “unknown.” The fact that you can’t see something, yet you feel a presence within your surroundings can be one of the most truly terrifying things to experience in real life or in film. Things of this nature was put into full effect when H.P. Lovecraft first based his stories around this concept. You can see, quite clearly, that Mononoke does the same inflections of some of the stories Lovecraft put into his short stories, and does them to brilliant effect. The only obvious difference is that Mononoke actually shows the supernatural entities whereas Lovecraft never did.
How the show is set up is by the obvious inclination that this is a separate story based off of the character, “Medicine Man,” from one of the short stories from Ayakashi – Samurai Horror Tales. Before I discuss how the show structures its plot in each of the arcs, the one important notion to mention that really makes Mononoke a truly unique experience is how much creative detail it gives to the setting of historical Japan. Along with House of Five Leaves, this is definitely one of the closest that anime has gotten, in recent memory, that truly captures the pure essence and atmosphere of what Japan was like during its later modern period. Obviously, without all of the supernatural elements to it, the artwork that is put on display feels like an ancient painting done by past painters from Japan that really strengthens the atmosphere and its impact on the creativity put into the horror. Not only the artwork, but also the little tidbits they put into the show that include various Japanese folklore that they tell us at the end are very inspiring and fascinating to experience.
Onto the plot arcs themselves, they are, unfortunately, not the very highest point in terms of interesting storytelling. With about five different stories put into one show, only two of them stick in my mind as completely memorable or thought-provoking. The one that can be considered great is the first one because of how it introduces us to Mononoke’s world and its concepts of the Mononoke, and is definitely a great introduction into the show. The second arc consists of a very gripping story about each individual’s goals of getting out of the mess that they have been brought to and each of them have this really detailed back story makes them not just this throwaway character that our main protagonist steals the show from. Unfortunately, the rest suffer through, what I would call, overused tropes from the previous two episodes. Of the three last arcs, two of them both involve a group of people that Kusuriuri, our main protagonist, tries to investigate concerning the disturbance of Mononoke. It is almost as if the writer could not think of a new kind of formula he could put into his stories so he decides to reuse similar tropes to his previous stories and put in a completely different spin on that original idea. It doesn’t matter if the plot is completely different from the previous one, it still follows the same formula and it feels repetitive and almost predictable.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say they are “terrible” to go by, not at all; it just feels mediocre compared to the previous ones. With that said, what really makes the plot worthwhile to experience, for better or for worse, is Kusuriuri, or the “Medicine Man” as he’s typically called. Similar to how great Ginko is in Mushishi, Kusuriuri has this aura around him that makes him very attention grabbing. The only difference is that you don’t really know much about Kusuriuri’s personal life, but only what he does in his job. His smart, fast-moving mind makes him a competent protagonist to root for only by how calculated he lays out his plans in getting the Mononoke and helping the people that need his help the most. It is one of the rare instances where the lack of personal development of one character doesn’t hold back the quality of the character and just from how much he views the world from his own eyes and gives us his take on the mysteries involved in the plot. The unknown archetype adds to his depth and characterization so much more than almost any of the characters in Mononoke, who also have well-developed characterization.
Whether you want to call the animation, provided by the most lauded Toei Animation, “experimental” or “classic art,” it nevertheless feels very dynamic. Toei has always wanted to stick to original roots when concentrating on their animation skills in most of their productions and this is by far one of their best. The fluid motions of how the characters move, react, and illuminate feel very human-like and provide a significant degree of hard-work put into each frame of animation. What is even more fascinating is how the animators put a lot of creativity into the actual Mononoke, which is evidently influenced by Japanese folklore. Even though you don’t see them for more than, say, five seconds, those five seconds will be burnt into your memory for years to come.
Mononoke is a different breed of horror that many anime have not attempted to replicate even in the past. There hasn’t really been a horror film or show that never makes you scream out in terror, yet in your mind, you feel almost as if you had gone through a night terror that you don’t remember screaming, in sheer anguish and fear. While the show never really compiles to a significant detail of groundbreaking story, it surely is a sight to behold in grasping what can be done with an absolutely gorgeous setting with beautiful sets of animation to go with it. Let it be said; when it comes to creating great horror, there should never be boundaries that restricts what it wants to show in terms of true fear. Otherwise, it would not be horror, one way or the other.