What makes a good horror story? Is it the jump scares and the low frequency rumbling? Is it having twisted and mentally corrupt characters? Or can it be something entirely different? Let's take a gander in this review of the anime series, Mononoke.
It has been stated time and time again by countless parties that proper horror is almost impossible to come by in anime. I mean, there's the fan favorite, Higurashi No Naku Koro Ni. Though, while having a good deal of horror elements baked into it, the psychological thriller element of the series along with the enclosed mystery are the primary selling points.
I mean...besides the psychotic anime girls.
On the flip side of the coin, shows such as Corpse Party, Another, and Blood-C all revel in massacre, Elizabeth Bathory-style. However, aside from their overuse of the color red, all of these shows lack a significant amount of substance - at least to me.
So this begs the question: Can anime do horror well?
The short answer is yes and no.
The "no" comes from the fact that anime fundamentally gets the salty end of the stick in one crucial area for horror - an area that is just a feature of the medium itself and is beyond anybody's control.
Not surprisingly, the area where anime lacks is realism.
What makes so many of the blockbuster horror films in recent years frightening is the realism behind them. Even deeper than the low frequency undulations and the crucially-timed jump scares of Insidious, Annabel, It Follows, and The Babadook is the fact that they are occurring in real life and are portrayed by real people; it's that simple. The audience gets frightened and pees their pants because they believe that the nightmarish situations they're witnessing could actually happen to them, even though the content they're watching is blatantly fictitious. Anime simply can't replicate that form of realism; it's a natural restriction that comes with the territory of an animated medium.
But if the lack of realism is really such a hindrance on the ability to create a successful horror anime, then why did I also put "yes" in my prior paragraph?
Well, because if you harness surrealism and utilize its unique qualities and features in an effective way, one can still make an exceptional piece of horror. Higurashi manages to be successful through its usage of facial contortion, unsettling atmosphere, and having its main cast exclusively composed of children.
Mononoke on the other hand does it via different means.
If you haven't already gathered this by reading the entire last section or by clicking on the link I so politely put in the initial paragraph, then I will state it here, bluntly.
No. This is not a goddamn review of Princess Mononoke. Mononoke, the series, is what I am reviewing and is something entirely different.
Mononoke is an obscure and amazingly artistic series that Crunchyroll took a freakishly long time on finally integrating into their library.
In all seriousness, Mononoke is an incredibly rare kind of series. It's florescent coloring, rough texturing, unique story-telling, and intense delivery make it a series that people usually don't stumble upon. It's a series of 3-4 episode vignettes composed of haunting and unsettling situations, delightfully odd characters, and a uniquely surreal atmosphere and world that is hard to describe in words.
Funnily enough, the premise is surprisingly easy the comprehend. Our main character, who simply goes by "The Medicine Seller" or "Kusuriuri," travels around his colorful world in search of mononoke with the intent of destroying them. Mononoke are seemingly malevolent spirits that infringe upon society in a multitude of ways. The catch is that The Medicine Seller must know three things before he can destroy them:
He must know the mononoke's true form, its truth as to how it exists, and the reason it still lingers and is harming humanity.
The premise is simple. However, like with most other episodic or arc driven shows, the premise merely acts as a vehicle in which to carry the true meat of the series.
The first thing that newcomers will most likely notice are the distinct visuals that Mononoke hosts. Describing Mononoke as "colorful" or "bright" would not only be a grave disservice to the animation team, but would also be heavily sugar-coating things. This series is a vibrant melting pot of beaming primary colors, softer pastels, and intricate patterns making it a technicolor fever dream of sorts. It's not quite as much of an eyesore as say...Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Christo, especially in terms of clashing patterns, but it comes freakishly close. Not only this, but the entire series has a muted, almost-wooden filter panned over the entire screen which makes everything appear aged and gives the whole series a more feudal vibe to it.
Along the same lines as the color and texture palate, the animation and character art also have oddities surrounding them. Every character has their own art style. Some characters are drawn in a more classic fashion, some are purposely drawn with hyper-exaggerated features, some have a more iconic moe look, and some are drawn realistically.
In other words, there's no sense of consistency in terms of character art. Every character has been created with the intent of accentuating who they are as people which is a concept I hadn't really seen done. Sure, anime have characters with certain body types or features to represent who they are, but I had never seen that concept accomplished purely by varying the art style itself.
On the other hand, the animation itself is actually an interesting feature. The animation is pretty damn fluid in my opinion; everything is well strung together. However, the actual motions of people and objects can be very unorthodox. It is a very hard thing to describe. All I can say is sometimes objects do not move like objects and people do not move like people. And no, I don't mean that in a stereotypical, anime, quintuple backflip that nobody can actually do-type of way.
What I mean is that all characters and objects, inanimate or not, have their own bizarre movement patterns that are eerily brought to life by the fluidity and quality of the animation.
Another fascinating element of Mononoke is in how each story plays out.
Each story is set up in a fashion so that you're constantly questioning your own judgment. The scene will set itself up with The Medicine Seller entering a new, foreign situation with a new cast to surround himself with. The viewer then learns of the general issue through the eyes of all the supporting cast members. However, the situation - which is always brought on by the mischief of a mononoke - begins to degrade. Things get worse and for no known reason and it is up for The Medicine Seller to procure answers.
What I enjoyed so much is how the series presented this concept. Though The Medicine Seller is the focal point of the series, the viewers do not see things from his perspective. Instead, the viewers get a perspective all their own - one of a hapless outsider who knows only as much as what is presented to them. It is almost as if the audience is an extra person witnessing the situation at hand. When the situation begins to take a dark descent, the supporting cast begins to question themselves and start to freak out. As such, the viewer is given a similar perspective. At points, the viewer has to decipher what is a metaphor, what is a figment of their own or somebody else's imagination, and what is truthfully happening on screen.
Better yet, at the initial stages of any given arc, Mononoke likes to hand out teasers and Easter eggs like nobody's business. The fun part is that they are so indistinguishable and so cleverly hidden that it's almost impossible to know it was a hint until the arc's finale.
Mononoke also has a knack for using camera angles and jump cuts for full effect. Camera angles used in this series are extremely purposeful. If there is an elongated moment of dialogue or scenery, the series is probably conveying something to you, whether you know it or not. The angles grow more bizarre and jump cuts occur faster and faster as things head south which amplifies how panicky everything is becoming.
This is how Mononoke does its style of horror perfectly.
Due to its inherent lack of realism, Mononoke instead relies on attacking every other receptor of stimulus the audience has while simultaniously keeping the viewers in the dark. This results in a prolonged sense of panic and innate danger that keeps the audience on their toes for reasons they may not be able to fully grasp.
The clashing colors are panicky, the lack of a singular character art style is panicky, the uncanny movements are panicky, the stress of the characters are panicky, the lightning-quick jump cuts are panicky, the awkward camera angles are panicky, and you are witnessing a panicky situation.
Every single one of these attributes contribute to a bizarre and uneasy ambiance that is pretty much unmatched in anime. This series is the anime equivalent of Dario Argento's horror classic, Suspiria. They use the exact same scare tactics:
Instead of relying on jump scares or gruesome realism, they generate an environment that is innately offputting, only it's not always clear as to why it is. Moreover, they have the ability to sustain that feeling of unease and anxiety through prolonged sequences; even during casual conversation, everything feels awry. Throw in a mystery plot with an answer that dangles itself just out of sight and suddenly, the audience is on the edge of their seat the whole time...only nothing has necessarily happened yet.
Possibly the only thing more frightening and deterring than knowing there is imminent danger is not being presented with any information at all. There is not a fear more primal than the unknown, especially when one is surrounded by chaos.
The only thing that keeps the series from losing its own mind is the Medicine Seller. He is the anchor for the entire show. His calm, almost creepily vacant demeanor allows for the viewer to grasp onto something while the situation at hand continues to on its downward trend. He's like a weird combination of Legolas from LoTR and God Mask Link from The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask.
He's a paragon of pragmatism. He's a foil to literally whatever is occurring on screen. His composed and procedural means of solving issues are almost instructing the viewer what to do in order to find an answer to the issue occurring at that moment:
Don't get swallowed by the chaos on screen. Stay focused and the answer will reveal itself.
Mononoke isn't quite like any other anime. It has similarities to more atmospheric shows or shows with horror elements, but no anime has really accomplished what Mononoke has. It's an overstimulating miasma of color, texture, patterns, camera angles, and people losing their minds, but in the best way possible. The constant stimuli along with the quirky characters and unorthodox, yet incredibly effective story-telling method leave viewers stranded in an amazingly bizarre and enthralling universe that can't be experienced anywhere else.
Because of its unique delivery, I was always in a state of limbo between thinking I had almost everything figured out, and also as if I was fooling myself and the series was just pulling the wool over my eyes. I didn't exactly know what was going on for a solid portion of the series, but that's not a criticism. The series has a magical way of leaving you utterly lost and then revealing that you knew where to go all along. I love that feeling.
Now, because of how unconventional this series is, I could see people being turned away. Actually, I could easily see how the overwhelming color palate and odd story delivery could send a decent amount of viewers packing their bags. However, I think everyone should at least give it a shot.
Because even though I know it may have been hard to extract from my verbiage, I think this series is a fuckin' masterpiece.
This series is a special butterfly that resembles what would happen if Mushishi was directed by Wes Anderson. It's so comfortable in it's own distinct weirdness which grants it the ability to tell stories through an abstract keleidescope unlike anything else. The stories, while chaotic and relatively dark, are woven and resolved in such a cunning and artistic fashion. Plus, this series is a quick 11 episodes, so commitment shouldn't be a major issue for most viewers.
Watch or Don't Watch?: Watch. Please.
You'd be doing yourself a disservice not to.
Anyway, that's it from me! Keep watching anime and stay tuned!