DVD Review: MONONOKE Delivers Ghostly Thrills With Both Flash And Feeling
Back in 2007, Nakamura Kenji's horror anime series Mononoke -- not to be confused with Miyazaki Hayao's film Princess Mononoke -- was aired in Fuji TV's famous noitaminA slot. As such, it will come as no surprise that Australian distributor Siren Visual released it on DVD last month, as that company is adding noitaminA titles to its catalogue as if they are Pokemon. "Gotta catch 'm all!", they seem to think in Australia, and those of us who need English-friendly versions of these series are once again the lucky ones.
As is often the case with noitaminA series, Mononoke is quite unusual for an anime, as was the series it is a spin-off of. Time for a review of that DVD release then! Read on...
A traveling seller of herbs carries a strange weapon with him. It is a sword specifically created to vanquish mononoke, a kind of monster-slash-ghost-creatures, which are created from a strong grudge or curse.
The salesman travels around Japan (and through history sometimes) in search of these mononoke, to banish them. But whenever he finds one, he can only unsheathe his sword once he has determined the ghost's shape, truth and reason. Basically this comes down to "What does the ghost look like?", "Why did the ghost appear?" and "What does the ghost want?"
When the salesman arrives somewhere, he seems to be a savior. But unfortunately, for those haunted by a mononoke, the answers to his questions often turn out to be even worse than a ghost...
Horror anime exist aplenty. This is partly because many are aimed at the adolescent males who find horror interesting, and partly because animation more easily allows the insertion of outlandish monsters than live-action does. But another reason is even simpler: anime is akin to manga, and the very first manga, especially those from the early 19th century, showed folk tales featuring monsters and gods.
One anime which referred to these roots was Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales, a thirteen-episode series from 2006 which told three distinct supernatural tales, each by a different team of creators. The third of these stories was Bakeneko, by director Nakamura Kenji, in which a traveling herb seller had to do battle with a cat-demon. This story stood out through its distinct artwork and stylish action scenes, and became popular enough to warrant its own spin-off series in 2007, simply called Mononoke.
Nakamura Kenji's Mononoke is an interesting series, because it merges a traditional style with modern technologies. The same technical team that would go on to make the 2008 noitaminA series of Hakaba Kitaro is responsible for Mononoke, but instead of fifties' comics the designs are now almost fully based on centuries-old drawings. No crumpled brown paper this time, but carefully aged parchment, and Mononoke's artwork less depends on realism and perspective than it does on composition and color.
This results in a surprisingly gaudy look. While most horror is associated with darkness and surprise scares, Mononoke mostly takes place in brightly lit, colorful surroundings. In sharp contrast with the designs, the animation is heavily computerized, with objects moving in multiple layers of 3D. Visual overkill is used deliberately to distract and confuse, and the series is often stunning because of it.
What helps is that the sting is in the stories, rather than in the monsters. The mononoke are dangerous but seldom terrifying. Their reasons for existing, however, are chilling. Humans are the worst monsters of all, and in each story a mononoke will, at least temporarily, gain our understanding. It's a very bleak look on humanity that is shown here, one which gets under your skin after a while. And the salesman himself is, while charismatic, hardly a comforting factor. He may be smug and invincible, the people surrounding him are not, and some of them will have your sympathy.
In Mononoke you get five stories, told in thirteen episodes. And each will make you feel tainted, except the odd-one-out which will lift you up instead. You'll never feel safe though...
With all its focus on flash and artwork, Mononoke could easily have become a case of "style-over-content", but the strong writing prevents this. The stories carry emotional weight, while the look of the series is fantastic.
On to the Discs:
Siren Visual has released Mononoke on two DVDs, region-locked to Australia, and PAL encoded. Strangely enough, the packaging makes no mention that it is a noitaminA series, something which is normally proudly proclaimed on the cover. Then again, Siren Visual also released Samurai Horror Tales without a noitaminA logo, and Mononoke is very much a companion piece to that series.
While Mononoke is very much relying on its visual splendor, screenshots do not quite do it justice, because each individual image is soft and pastel-tinted. It looks decent enough though (it is by design, after all) and when seen in movement, the transfer is quite striking, if not quite up to the level of Hakaba Kitaro.
The only soundtrack is a Japanese stereo one: no English dub is present, but the subtitles are excellent.
As for extras, this release has a few decent ones: you get textless versions of the different opening and closing credits, two minutes of Japanese television adverts for the series, and a seven minute animation breakdown of the effects in the final story, in which the medicine seller meets a cat-demon in more modern times.
All in all this release of Mononoke is a pretty good one, and much recommended. Adding a note: if you want to see more of the mysterious herb salesman, Samurai Horror Tales has been released by Siren Visual as well, and is recommended too!