Series Review – Mononoke

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Spookier than Princess Mononoke, for sure.

Halloween is one of my top 3 holidays…not that it was actually a holiday for me. I had to go to work anyways. But despite having to toil throughout the day, I still love that Halloween is there to provide an endless variety of entertainment at night. Too old to go out trick-or-treating? You may want to cozy up with a horror manga or anime instead. Just don’t blame me if you can’t fall asleep after.

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Horror is a tricky genre. Straight-up “horror” is often just full of endless sequences of cheap jump scares and throwing buckets of blood at the camera. The attempt to cause fear is mostly through the most basic instincts, such as how we just naturally enter fight or flight mode when we hear a loud sound or see a sudden movement. Likewise, it’s pretty natural to feel disgusted when you see severed limbs and guts. It’s only after enough exposure that you get used to that sort of thing (and some of us never do). These are easy way to scare people, so they’re go-to horror tactics. It’s just taking advantage of instincts we have in place to stay alive. So most normal horror anime which rely on these things really don’t bring the scare factor for me. It’s the horror anime that do things a little differently that come the closest to scaring me. One of those shows just happens to be Mononoke.


Mononoke is directed by my favourite director – Kenji Nakamura. He has a passion for vivid colours, memorable character designs, lots of visual imagery, and adding a general sense of “weirdness” to his works. He’s the guy who did Gatchaman Crowds, Tsuritama, and Trapeze. Most importantly, he’s not afraid to go way out in left field to get his message across. Sometimes his experimentation works wonders and sometimes it’s just…weird. But Mononoke is one of those times where he just gets everything right – making it one of my favourite anime to date. It’s also one of the scariest shows I’ve seen in a way very unlike something such as Shiki. It doesn’t parade around vampires and shower us in torrents of blood. Not that those things are bad (I love Shiki), but I didn’t find Shiki to be scary at all. Mononoke takes an approach to horror more similar to the creeping uneasiness you get from the darker episodes of Mushishi. In fact, it takes quite a few cues from Mushishi to the point where I’d describe it as “Mushishi if Ginko were a sadistic demon with special powers.”

Mononoke follows Kusuri-uri (literally “medicine seller”) as he travels around to get rid of ayakashi (basically demons). However, he himself is far from normal with his vampiric fangs, elven ears, and ability to transform in order to slay wayward ayakashi. He’s almost as scary as the ayakashi he’s chasing after. Cool, collected, and always amused by the follies of mankind – he’s a wonderful protagonist to follow. Endearing because he’s doing things to help people, but also mysterious because we know so little about him and he’s oddly calm even when faced with the most horrific of vengeful spirits. It’s the way he always smirks that makes you never quite feel connected to him…but you always feel like you want to be. He’s like the cool guy who sits in the back of the class that you want desperately to befriend, but at the same time you don’t because you’re afraid they might stab you with a pocket knife.

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So what makes it scary? Mononoke goes for the creepy-factor instead of jump scares and blood. Mononoke presents you with incredibly disconcerting and bizarre situations where you know something is off…but sometimes you don’t know exactly what it is.  Then all of a sudden it will hit you all at once and you’ll realize just how messed up things are getting.

The first arc in particular sets the tone that this show will not hold back. The Medicine Seller visits an inn where he unravels the mystery behind why it’s being haunted. Long story short, they’re the ghosts of aborted babies from prostitutes that used to work there – as it was previously a brothel. Combine this creepy thought with all the visual imagery Kenji Nakamura loves using and you end up with some incredible nightmare fuel. It’s hard to describe in words, but the man just knows how to tell a story without having anyone utter a single word. Even if I forget the dialogue, I can still remember the imagery. I haven’t seen this show for a while, but the images are still burned into my mind. And maybe they won’t make you jump or scream…but they will make you sit and think about it as a shiver crawls up your spine. Mononoke isn’t scary but oh man is it ever creepy. Prepare to go outside your comfort zone.

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Finally, you probably wonder why you should watch this. Well, for starters, it’s pretty short. It’s 1 cour long and the episodes just fly by. It’s also great for people who don’t necessarily like horror. Anyone who is squeamish can handle this easily. It also balances the horror elements with some really complex mysteries. The Medicine Seller is not given bounties or anything to locate ayakashi. He simply finds them himself. So he needs to find out their identity, powers, and what their motives are. All of which are often deeply intertwined with the people in the area. It’s a slow burn kind of show, but the pay-off is well worth the wait. Horror newbies and horror lovers alike should be pleased with Mononoke. Unless you somehow dislike good anime…Mononoke is for you.

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A neuroscience graduate, black belt, and all-around nerd. You'll either find me in my lab or curled up in my rilakkuma kigurumi watching anime.
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6 Responses to “Series Review – Mononoke”

  1. skylion says:

    Great review! And now I have no excuse not to hunt this down, as I love GC and Tsuritama.

  2. BlackBriar says:

    You may want to cozy up with a horror manga or anime instead. Just don’t blame me if you can’t fall asleep after.

    Eh, I can deal with a little insomnia.

    Nice job on the review and thankfully, this cleared some things up. Whenever I see the name “Mononoke”, my thoughts immediately jump to “Princess Mononoke”. If isn’t that, I end up wondering what people are talking about. Sounds like its strong points are a slow churning, uneasy atmosphere with a charismatic, intimidating lead (I remember once seeing your avatar sporting a picture of him). Like Mushishi but absent of any possible niceties in the face of depressing situations.

    The director did the helming for Gatchaman Crowds? Then you should be happy. The second season “Gatchaman Growds Insight” is slated for 2015.

    • Overcooled says:

      I used to always think of Princess Mononoke as well since that’s the more well-known of the two. But Mononoke is completely different and really incredible in its own right. Good eye though, I used the Medicine Seller as an avatar for a while because he was just such a cool guy.

      Gatchaman isn’t his best work, but I still enjoyed it for what it tried to do. I’ll probably try to blog it again when it comes out 😀

  3. HannoX says:

    True horror isn’t about splattering the screen with buckets of blood and strewing severed body parts around or cheap scares. It’s psychological, building up the sense of unease and creepiness and danger until the payoff towards the end. If a story is filled with gore throughout the audience just becomes numb to it and the climatic moment is just an example of more gore.

    • Overcooled says:

      Agreed. You can’t scare an audience just with gore alone. That only lasts an instant, if it does work. But psychological horror? That stuff can scar you for a long time if done correctly!

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