What draws me most to anime is the way it mines attitudes and outlooks that aren't found anywhere but Japan — not just plot elements or story artifacts, but whole ways of looking at things and assessing their meanings. Mononoke constitutes an Exhibit A for such a defense: it draws on the rich pool of Japanese mythology and history — both ancient and near-modern — to create something that both evokes the kinds of stories told in that past and comments on them. What it lacks in the form of a protagonist, it more than makes up for with its seething imagery and sinister storytelling.
Mononoke might be best thought of as a cousin to another series I hold in the highest regard, Mushi-shi. Each show's episodes play out along the lines of a supernatural detective story, where an apparition of some kind has entered into the lives of ordinary (or at least recognizably human) people, and a character invested with special power is tasked with the job of both finding out why this has happened and ridding the afflicted of their demons, sometimes both metaphorical and physical. One main difference between the two is in tone: Mushi-shi is a dreamspace, but Mononoke is a Pop Art waking nightmare. The other major difference is narrative: Mushi-shi is a story, but Mononoke is more of a tale, one where the the flavor and essence of mythology is evoked as much as the trappings, and where the real subject is not so much any one character but human character itself.
Slaying monsters of the human heart
Mononoke is not set in any one specific time or place in Japan's past, but rather skips and switches freely across its history to land here and there. Each of the show's stories, which span two or three episodes, revolve around the Medicine Seller — a colorfully-dressed, forbidding-looking figure toting a back-box filled with his wares. He also carries a sword, one he cannot draw casually, since it is not used for anything so mundane as self-defense. It's instead used to dispel the mononoke, the supernatural creatures that come into existence because of human folly and frailty, and he can only draw the weapon and use it once all the facts have been established about what the mononoke is, where it came from, and what it exists to do.
Consider the opening segment, "Zashiki-warashi", so named for the impish ghostlike spirits that are said to inhabit some houses and bring good luck. Here, they inhabit a special room in an inn where the Medicine Seller has stopped for the night. A pregnant woman, Shino, also tries to get a room: she's desperate, fearful, convinced that an assassin is after her. That unfortunately turns out to be the case, as she bears the illegitimate child of a young nobleman, and bringing that baby to term would create trouble for the family. But when she's lodged in the infamous room housing the zashiki-warashi, all manner of psychic hell begins to break loose, and the Medicine Seller has to determine why the zashiki-warashi are attracted to Shino in the first place. Turns out the place was used to abort the babies of prostitutes, and the ghosts of the unborn children in question are determined to come into this world through Shino — and, as it turns out, she might well be amenable to such a deal.
Each succeeding episode works in roughly the same way: it picks a location (preferably an isolated one), introduces a cast of characters apart from the Medicine Seller, afflicts them with a mononoke, and then turns everyone's motives and histories inside out to get to the truth. When the Medicine Seller rides on a gaudily-appointed boat with a number of other passengers, a mononoke attacks them from the ocean itself, and — in what feels like a nod to Agatha Christie-style whodunits — the Medicine Seller has to sift through each passenger's grudges and guilts to see which one might be the culprit. An incense-smelling competition, one conducted to determine who would be the suitable suitor for a noblewoman, yields up another mononoke — one that turns out to have been borne from the last place one would expect, with the direst of consequences for all concerned.
It's the last episode, though, that for me snaps the show's intentions and underlying conceits into focus. (Some mild spoilers are inevitable here, but I will try to tread lightly.) Up until then, all of the Medicine Seller's travels have been in Japan's distant past; for the last adventure, though, he turns up — outfit, accouterments, and attitude intact — in modish 1920s Tokyo. A new subway line is being inaugurated, but the goings-on are ruined when the train runs over what appears to be a woman lying on the tracks. The Medicine Seller digs into her story, and lays bare the way the "modern gal" of the period — the flapper-esque, liberated woman — can only enjoy so much freedom before running headfirst into the prejudices and the predatory sexism of her age, one modern only in name. And if modernity can't dispel or keep at bay certain kinds of demons familiar throughout Japan's past, then it seems the only exorcism for those demons will come from that past as well, whether we like it or not.
Eyes wide open
The very things that set something apart also run the risk of isolating it, and Mononoke is no different. The mere fact that it makes use of things above and beyond the generic elements of the Western popular culture pool gives it high marks. But the way it does all that also limits it slightly, with the biggest drawback being the character of the Medicine Seller himself: he's not really a character. He's a little like Vampire Hunter D, actually: he's not so much a person in his own right as he is an aspect of the setting. With Mushi-shi, the main character Ginko had, well, a character of his own. He had a history, a set of connections — however tenuous — to others, some discernible likes and dislikes, and an attitude about things. That made Mushi-shi more compelling over time, because it was easier to identify with Ginko as a person instead of just regard him as a symbolic figure in a morality play. Mononoke evokes our admiration and fascination; Mushi-shi inspires our empathy.
But even if the show falls short on that one level, it succeeds on so many others that to slight it for not having a robust main character seems like nitpicking. On a design level, certainly, it's a masterwork: it doesn't even bring to mind other anime, but rather the psychedelic visuals of Western artists and designers like Peter Max, Seymour Chwast, and Milton Glaser. Sometimes this road-to-excess approach is off-putting — remember how hard Gankutsuou was to watch at times? — but it's also a strong reminder of how the best arts enrich themselves not simply by bearing in mind their predecessors and building on them, but by drawing on things that are as unlike them as possible.
Director Kenji Nakamura was not only responsible for The Big O, C: Control, and the underappreciated Trapeze, but also directed another series, Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales, which Mononoke is generally considered a successor to. With Ayakashi, the storytelling was far better than the stilted animation — and a shame, too, since the great Yoshitaka Amano had a hand in the design work. Unfortunately, his style either didn't translate well into animation or wasn't put in the hands of a crew that could do justice to it. Mononoke feels like a refinement of that series, both in terms of how it's dramatized and how it's presented.
Mononoke spent years in an undeserved fansubber's limbo. Not long after its original release (2007), it gained legendary status amongst fans in something of the same vein as Dennō Coil: it was a genuinely great show that for whatever inexplicable reason never got picked up in the United States. That changed earlier this year when Cinedigm, a video distributor mostly known for its catalog of indie and documentary titles, stepped in and gave the show a domestic release on DVD. A Blu-ray Disc would show Mononoke off to even better effect, but the mere fact we have the show in English, legitimately, is something of a miracle, and anyone who cares about anime as more than just a time-filler owes it to themselves to find out why it's earned such a following.