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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Mononoke: Arrive. Raze Hell. Leave.

Ayakashi ~Japanese Classic Horror~ was definitely an interesting series, an anthology of three horror stories produced by three fairly different staffs, with help from Toei Animation. While it was definitely different from the previous two shows that started off Fuji TV's noitaminA, which were both josei manga adaptations, Ayakashi still fulfilled the block's theme of being different from your usual anime. It was also a fruitful change of pace, with the Goblin Cat episodes apparently being the highest-rated production Fuji TV had on that time block at the time. Obviously, Fuji TV & Toei weren't going to let a successful production like that be forgotten, so in mid-2007, after Jyu-Oh-Sei, Honey & Clover II, Hataraki Man, & Nodame Cantabile had their noitaminA runs, the Medicine Seller came back to Japanese television with a series all his own, Mononoke (not to be confused with Studio Ghibli's Princess Mononoke). Was the glory of Goblin Cat simply a once-in-a-lifetime case of the stars aligning, or did lightning strike a second time here?

Mononoke tells five stories about the Medicine Seller's travels, each one utilizing a different monster from Japanee myth. Zashiki Warashi (episode 1 & 2) is about a pregnant woman named Shino who is on the run & begs a full inn the Seller is at to let her stay the night. The innkeeper allows her in & has her stay in the storeroom located in the attic, which is haunted by baby-like beings that come from daruma dolls. Sea Bishop (eps 3-5) has the Medicine Seller traveling to Edo on a boat along with Kayo (the servant from Goblin Cat), Genyosai Yanagi (an ascetic exorcist), Hyoue Sasaki (an unrepentant swordsman), & some others. The boat, however, winds up in the Dragon's Triangle, a literal "Sea of Ayakashi", where all of those on the boat will be tested against their greatest fears. In The Faceless Monster (eps 6 & 7), the Seller winds up in jail with Ocho, a woman who is accused of killing her husband & his family while they were home. The truth behind Ocho's actions, however, is clouded in mystery, made all the tougher for the Seller to crack when a fox masked mononoke tries to save Ocho.

For Nue - The Japanese Chimera (eps 8 & 9), the Medicine Seller visits the home of Princess Ruri, who had invited four potential suitors for a game of Kumiko, a.k.a. incense smelling. The reason why the suitors are actually there, though, are more selfish than altruistic. Finally, the Seller's journey bookends itself by ending with what it started with back in Ayakashi in The Goblin Cat (episodes 10-12). Taking place on a train in what seems like the 1920s, a sharp contrast from Edo-era Japan, the Seller is in a car with people that look similar to the cast of the original Goblin Cat, having to take on another bakenenko, this time brought about by the apparent suicide of a young woman.

Mononoke follows the formula established by the original Goblin Cat by having each story be about a person's dark past, and it's up to the Medicine Seller to solve the mystery & be able to unsheathe the Sword of Salvation/Taima Sword to slay the mononoke. In order to do so he must find out the form, truth, & reason behind the mononoke's existence, and much like in Goblin Cat the secret behind each creature is a dark, twisted tale. Quite honestly, the execution established in the original story works really well as a general shell, so it's nice to see this series not change it up too much. Each personal tale is very well told & all of them have some sort of taboo territory that's headed towards, and it's best to watch this show without having any idea what to expect beforehand, at least from a storytelling perspective.

Each story in the show is also somewhat different from each other in terms of how the formula works out. Zashiki Warashi feels slightly like a thriller, Sea Bishop goes for more of a visual feast, The Faceless Monster is more of a mind-twisting tale of "who-REALLY-dunit", Nue is probably the downright darkest of them all, & The Goblin Cat is easily the most disconcerting & demonic of them all. Each story really goes straight for the gut in each of those methodologies, too. For example, Sea Bishop's second episode (ep 4) has the ship's captain & passengers all get questioned by a biwa-playing ghost fish about what their greatest fears are, and just about every one of them has some sort of freaky vision to survive through; Genyosai's is so apparently so horrific that you only see his reaction. Each story feels like a slightly different world from each other, yet they all still have a familiarity between them that let's you feel reassured that this is all the same, bizarre Japan.

That being said, I must admit that I would have liked a little more of that sense of a connected world, or at least a true sense of travel. To go back to Sea Bishop again, I was surprised, and extremely pleased, to see Kayo again & have a quick couple of lines establishing that this story takes place after Goblin Cat. Not only that, but characters like Genyosai & Sasaki were very cool to see in action & I would have loved to see them become recurring characters; Genyosai in particular could have been an interesting friend/rival to the Seller. Unfortunately, these characters never appear again after Sea Bishop, even though there's a scene where Sasaki says he'll "never forgive" the Seller. Also, you get no real sense of travelling from said Seller. Aside from the intro to Zashiki Warashi, which shows him walking to the inn, the Seller literally just appears at every location each story takes place in. When asked why he's there, his usual answer is that he senses a mononoke, but that can only go so far.

In Eat-Man, to being up a comparison, you see Bolt Crank walking somewhere at the beginning of almost every story; this applies to both the manga as well as either anime series. It helps establish a real sense that Bolt has been going places, and it helps give the environment he's presently in a little more of a place in the world. Admittedly, this is a minor complaint in the grand scheme of things, but it would have been cool to see the Medicine Seller arriving at a place for each story. This would have worked best with The Faceless Monster, where he explains that he was jailed due to an asshole of a client, but we never see such a scene happen; the Seller simply says that's what happened. While I may not be someone who always espouses "Show, Don't Tell", I do think it's odd that such an excellent show doesn't bother with it when it comes to something minor like explaining how the Seller got somewhere. This is especially jarring with The Goblin Cat, since it's a completely different era of Japan yet the Seller looks exactly the same; he even jokes that he has to dress up the way he does just to get good business at that point. It works excellently at maintaining the enigmatic nature of the Medicine Seller, but some showcasing some sort of relation he has to the world would have been nice.

On the flip side, however, the gorgeous visual style of the original Goblin Cat returns in full force, and having more stories allows the staff to play around, resulting in lots of variation. Probably the coolest of all is in Nue, which gives everything a stark lack of vibrancy, with the only moments of the series' usual vibrancy coming forward when the suitors smell the various incenses, the use of blood, & the very end, but to explain any more would ruin the surprise. The rice paper filter over everything just becomes second nature & very natural quickly, and it even comes off as purposefully ill-fitting when it comes to the last story, simply adding to the tense & chilling nature of the finale. What Takashi Kurahashi, Takashi Hashimoto, & Yumi Hosaka (now promoted to co-art director) debuted with the end of Ayakashi is not just even more realized in Mononoke, but probably one of the greatest visual achievements I have ever seen in animation. There's simply no putting it gently: This series is a visual masterpiece, showcasing that even with highly limited animation (just to point it bluntly out) a final work can be a true treat for the eyes.

Kenji Nakamura once again was in the director's chair, this being his first series-length directorial work, and not a beat was lost in the year-ish between the two works. Everything that worked in Goblin Cat worked here in Mononoke, sometimes even better. For scripting the series he  had four writers on hand: Ikuko Takahashi (Zashiki Warashi & 2/3 of The Goblin Cat; Asura), Manabu Ishikawa (The Faceless Monster; Yozakura Quartet ~Hana no Uta~), and two Ayakashi veterans in the forms of Chiaki J. Konaka (Sea Bishop & Nue) & Michiko Yokote (the final episode). This variety in writers definitely helped give each story it's own feel & execution, and it just makes the show such a joy to watch. Hashimoto once again wears a lot of hats here (character design, animation director, & key animation for 3/4 of the show), and it's his vision for how the show looks that showcases the these tales may be just as much his as they were Nakamura's. Technically, Yasuharu Takanashi returns from Ayakashi for the music, but I honestly couldn't notice anything new here; every song I heard sounded like it was simply taken from Ayakashi. Granted, the music was awesome in that show, and this series also utilizes the "less is more" ideology, but I just felt that Takanashi was here more in spirit than actual production. The opening theme, "Kagen no Tsuki" by Ryouta Komatsu & Charlie Kosei, sounds like a mix between jazz & Japanese folk music, and it's simply astounding. While "Heat Island" fit the encroaching & harsh nature of the bakeneko, "Kagen no Tsuki" sounds more like a natural anthem for all mononoke, mysterious & yet calming until you realize their true natures. The ending theme, "Natsu no Hana" by JUJU, is a very calming yet strong ballad that does it's job well for the end of each episode, but can't quite match the excellence of the opening.

Takahiro Sakurai reprises his role as the Medicine Seller, once again delivering a simply superb performance that mixes mystery, trustworthiness, & even the occasional bit of sarcasm. Also returning from Goblin Cat is Yukana, who reprises Kayo in Sea Bishop & then voices Chiyo (Kayo's lookalike) in The Goblin Cat; the Seller's balance scales even bow to Chiyo, almost hinting that she might be a literal reincarnation of Kayo. To help push the concept of The Goblin Cat possibly featuring reincarnations of the original Goblin Cat cast, there are even the returns of Eiji Takemoto (Sasaoka), Seiji Sasaki (Yoshiaki Sakai), & Yoko Soumi (Mizue Sakai) as characters that look slightly similar to their prior characters in the newer story. The stories themselves are completely different in concept & even motives, but it's cool to see that kind of continuity maintained. Other notable performances would include Tomokazu Seki as Genyosai, who's take on the character is one of the biggest reasons why I wanted him to come back, & Norio Wakamoto as the biwa-playing ghost fish from Sea Bishop, completely hamming it up in the way only Wakamoto can do. Rounding out some of the other cast are other notable seiyuu, including Rie Tanaka, Daisuke Namikawa, Daisuke Sakaguchi, Hikaru Midorikawa, Ryusei Nakao, Fumiko Orikasa, & Kozo Shioya.

Mononoke is, without a doubt, one of the finest anime series out there, both from a visual perspective & also from a storytelling perspective. Visually, its an expertly executed mix of high experimentation & sticking to what worked wonders for the original Goblin Cat story. In terms of storytelling every single story is superbly told & well worth money as individual productions. Since this is meant to be a horror-themed month I should also mention how horrifying this series is, and it definitely delivers on that Japanese sensibility of freaking you out & messing with your mind in creepy ways. Unfortunately, a series like this was simply too "out there" for the companies that bring anime over here to North America, and for a good while Mononoke remained fansub-exclusive. Last year, Siren Visual licensed it for Australian release, which was a great start, but it still seemed unlikely to see release over here. Well that changed this year, but even then the company that brought it over was not one of the usual suspects (i.e. Sentai, FUNimation, etc.) nor even one of the less traditional people (NIS America, Discotek, or even Anime Midstream). Instead, it was Cinedigm (by way of their Flatiron label), the company that gave the Sanctuary Chapter of Saint Seiya its first complete release over here. Luckily, Cinedigm's release looks to be based on Siren's, as the subtitles were perfectly translated & timed from the start, and being Cinedigm this show was released at the insanely low MSRP of $19.95! You could even find this release in your local Best Buy!

Truly, if you want an amazingly excellent anime series that not only looks one-of-a-kind but also delivers the goods when it comes to creepiness, then by all means buy Cinedigm's release of Mononoke; you can get it for as cheap as ~$10 brand new! Still, it's not quite Halloween yet... For All Hallows' Eve I'll be going to a show based on a work by the master of Japanese monsters himself, Shigeru Mizuki. How appropriate that it's a derivative show of Kenji Nakamura's too, right?

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