Mononoke (Japan 2007)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 8/19/21

Contains 12 episodes

This series is a spin-off of "Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales" (2006) and features five tales of monsters, murder, mayhem, and mystery. A wandering medicine seller investigates strange phenomena involving spirits that have melded with peoples' dark emotions and crossed into the human realm. He must determine their Form, Truth, and Reason before his sacred sword will allow him to vanquish the monsters. Sadly, it's the lust, greed, and cruelty of men that causes the monsters to appear, and those wayward spirits usually end up being innocent victims caught in a supernatural crossfire. All but the last story take place during the Edo and Meiji eras, while the final tale jumps forward in time to the 1920s.

The animation is unconventional and fascinating to watch, although the annoyingly low frame rate can be frustrating. The character designs are highly stylized and look like cartoonish caricatures, which adds a sense of goofy humor to the otherwise grim and scary material. Kayo from the original "Bake Neko" episode shows up in one episode, which is a nice callout. The color palette is both bold and subdued (if that makes any sense) and the environments are a constant swirl of bright textures and patterns. The aesthetic also embraces the surreal and strives to keep the viewer uncomfortable and off-balance. Simple things like snowflakes that randomly travel horizontally create unease, while creepy imagery of dolls, mannequins, and faceless people with spinning umbrellas for eyes serve as nightmare fuel.

The voice acting is superb and the medicine seller's velvety smooth and listless delivery is intoxicating to listen to. The music is spooky and does an excellent job of setting the atmosphere and tone. However, the writing is overly convoluted and doesn't make a damn bit of sense. I'll give the series some slack due to cultural barriers and the rich Japanese folklore that it embraces, but it's still really hard to follow what's going on, and the stories end with little explanation or closure. I often found myself giving up on the subtitles altogether and just following the audio and visual cues to cobble together some form of linear narrative. It's definitely an intellectually challenging series, but even if you can't figure it out, it's still a lot of fun to watch and experience.