After I wrote my article on the series, Mononoke, I had a short discourse with another Anime Inspector, Addmanrcace. As we reminisced about the series and went through the article, he remarked about how he didn't view Mononoke as a horror series. That thought stuck with me afterwards. Is Mononoke a true horror anime?
As you may have gotten by reading my review on the series, Mononoke is a rather difficult show to try and describe due to how obscure it is. It's an artistic and surreal piece that doesn't exactly follow any rules or formats that other anime do.
This brand of uniqueness extends all the way out into how Mononoke does - or arguably doesn't - tackle the concept of horror.
In terms of fiction, horror is simply described as being a genre created for the purpose of generating senses of anxiety, fear, dread, repulsion, and/or terror in it's audience. If Mononoke is analyzed from that basic and rather vague point of view, it succeeds at being a horror. However, after mulling it over somewhat, it's obvious to me as to why some viewers wouldn't describe Mononoke as one.
So, lets take a peek into both arguments.
Mononoke as a Horror Anime
Personally speaking, I believe Mononoke functions well as both a piece of horror as well as not. For now though, I'll state why I believe it works.
Firstly, Mononoke has horror entrenched in its roots.
Mononoke is technically a spinoff of the third and final arc of the series, Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales. Ayakashi is a series comprised of three classical, horror folktales, one of which The Medicine Seller, or "Kusuriuri," is the main protagonist. This leads me to believe - though this may not be factual - that Mononoke was designed with the intent of being a horror anime. It makes logical sense that the sequel to an arc of a series composed of horror stories would emulate horror itself.
However, I would like to note that while this is true, Ayakashi is presented totally differently, both in tone and in style. Nevertheless, I still believe Mononoke to be in the horror genre like it's less successful predecessor.
...Just because I believe it's still horror doesn't mean it plays by the books.
Mononoke's take on horror is drastically different than most other entries in the genre - anime or live action. As I have already written, Mononoke plays the horror game by accentuating the distinct surrealism that can be captured only within an animated visual medium.
In my prior article, I compared Mononoke to the 1977 stylized-horror film, Suspiria, and I stand firmly by that comparison. Both pieces don't rely on the impending doom, suspense, or gross-out factor that other entries do. Instead, they create a bizarre and creepily surreal ambiance that is innately unnerving to viewers. Mononoke's barrage of colors, pattern schemes, and lack of any real visual cohesiveness keeps viewers stimulated while simultaneously uneasy; the environment generates an aura of everything being slightly off.
In addition to this, Mononoke takes things a step further.
The whimsically nightmarish visual style is then contrasted starkly with how dark the actual stories are. The story arcs don't always begin with the sense of staunch negativity or bleakness. Sometimes they just come off as mildly haunting, unordinary, or simply intriguing. However, as each story begins to unravel, the truth that is revealed is always much darker and malicious than what the initial facade was. Furthermore, I think the darker subject matter is only highlighted by the juxtaposing visual style.
Lastly, Mononoke succeeds at being a horror with its storytelling.
H.P. Lovecraft once wrote that the oldest and strongest type of fear is that of the unknown. Mononoke is masterful in its method of divulging what it wants, when it wants to. Even then, the fashion in which certain details are conveyed make them difficult to pick up on. Not to mention, Mononoke enjoys gifting the viewer with details solely with the purpose of throwing them off track.
For most of the stories, the audience isn't given enough information to piece together what is actually happening. While the camera becomes increasingly frantic and the characters - minus the Medicine Seller - continue down the road to hysteria, the viewers are left stranded with only fragments of possible answers in mind. Though this means the delivery can easily come across as just plain confusing, I believe that it allows for the viewers' minds to run rampant with unanswered possibilities until the tail end of any given arc.
What do all of these techniques end up creating? Anxiety, disorientation, unease, and possible fear which are all byproducts of horror.
Although, now is the time where I must acknowledge that most of these emotions can be drawn out by another genre.
Mononoke as a Psychological Thriller
After pondering Mononoke and it's subject matter for a number of days, I can say for certain that viewers may find it just as easy to brand this series as a psychological thriller - or a "mindfuck," if you will - rather than an actual horror.
Weirdly, this argument is easy to make a solid case for.
After all, as I previously explained, Mononoke is as good at playing mind games as any other anime that is primarily labeled as psychological - arguably better in some cases. The stories in the series are designed to confound and perplex viewers and the odd delivery makes Mononoke a mystery of sorts; there are untold answers that are to be revealed by the end.
Not only this, but I realized something after some thought.
I'm not sure if Mononoke was truly attempting to scare me. When I think about popular and successful thrillers in media such as Se7en, Angels & Demons, Zodiac, or The Sixth Sense, I find that all of them touch on some relatively grisly or ugly subject matter. Yet, none of them are necessarily trying to scare their viewers. Obviously, what is covered in those films is presented with the mindset of keeping the audience on edge, but that's because they're thrillers. They are created to thrill people and means of doing so often include delving into some unsavory thematic material.
Most of the time, I find it more or less easy to figure out whether or not a piece of visual media is trying to scare me; the media usually makes it obvious. I was never really able to extract that from Mononoke. At times, it felt like it was attempting to frighten me, but at others I just didn't get that vibe.
The thing to keep in mind here is that all pieces of horror are thrillers, but not all thrillers are pieces of horror. Sometimes that makes deciphering what genre something lies in painfully difficult.
So, what have we decided here?
Well, nothing much, honestly.
I believe it's quite easy to make a respectable case for either side of the argument. In my eyes, Mononoke functions well as both a stylized horror series or as just a psychological acid trip-of-a-thriller. Unfortunately, this brings me to saying that it's a stalemate.
For one, this is an article on something that is blatantly subjective in nature and the only answer that I or anybody can arrive at is a subjective one. Moreover, because of the presentation of the series - and because I'm not the creator or director - it's almost impossible to gather whether or not the series is intentionally trying to scare its audience. The series is just too abstract to do so.
So I believe the real answer to whether Mononoke is a horror anime or not is this:
Do you think it's a horror anime?
Thanks for reading this analysis, peeps! As usual, keep watching anime and stay tuned for more content!!