We’re celebrating Japan’s ghost season by putting together as many articles as we can about ghosts, urban legends, and Japanese horror. This time, let’s take a look at arguably the best horror anime of all time: Mononoke.
With its locked-room scenario storytelling, enigmatic main character, and stylistic art direction, Mononoke is a sight to behold. First introduced in the short story arc, “Bakeneko,” from the anthology series Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales, this world was ripe for continuation. And that’s just what happened in 2007 when Mononoke appeared on Japanese airwaves.
For those who are unfamiliar, check out our review of “Bakeneko.” If you’re looking for a quick primer, a nameless medicine seller wanders feudal Japan in search of mononoke, or evil spirits. He has a special weapon that can destroy them, but he must uncover their form, truth, and reason for being before he can draw the sword.
Everything that made the “Bakeneko” storyline so engaging is amped up in this series: the bold color patterns, symmetrical scene framing, and lack of shadows enhance the mystery and horror atmosphere. Nothing in anime even comes close to its terrifying style and atmosphere. It’s not without its missteps, but it’s still essential viewing for any anime horror fan.
One unique thing about this show is the only connection between its self-contained stories is the main character of the medicine seller. So let’s break down the 5 story arcs that make up Mononoke.
In Japanese folklore, Zashiki-Warashi are spirits who look like children and who love to play pranks and tricks. However, there are also tales where they are benevolent spirits that bring luck to families who allow them to reside in their home.
In the Zashiki-Warashi arc of Mononoke, a pregnant woman named Shino seeks refuge at an inn, but she is told there is no vacancy. After begging, she is offered the only room available, which turns out to be haunted by a group of Zashiki-Warashi. It just so happens that the medicine seller is also staying at the inn, and when an intruder is killed by the spirits as he enters the room where Shino is staying, the medicine seller springs into action to attempt to uncover the reason for the haunting.
This arc has a lot of great moments and unsettling imagery. It sets up the premise of the series quite well for viewers who may have missed the “Bakeneko” storyline where the medicine seller was introduced. It also has an excellent twist ending that proves that this series is not going to always be as straightforward as it appears. A promising start.
Moving the setting from an actual locked room to a ship lost at sea allows the series to use its storytelling formula in interesting new ways. An umibōzu is an evil spirit that lives at sea and attempts to capsize boats and drown sailors.
A group of people that includes the medicine seller (surprise, surprise) and also a servant girl named Kayo who appeared in the “bakeneko” storyline from Ayakashi (yay for continuity!) are on a ship that heads into the Devil’s Triangle. Needless to say strange things begin to happen. The story centers around a Buddhist monk who is also a part of the group. His past comes back to haunt the small group of passengers, and the medicine seller works to uncover the truth behind the evil spirit and seal it away once and for all.
Umibōzu is another excellent offering with a spirit antagonist who is much more threatening than the Zashiki-Warashi from the first story arc. The sea setting also allows for some beautiful backgrounds as well as some grotesque imagery involving fish and barnacles that are sure to stay stuck in your head.
Noppera-bō are shapeshifting spirits that can take the form of human beings. They usually like to play tricks on unsuspecting targets by appearing without facial features. We have a bit of an obsession with them here at Breaker Japan.
For the Noppera-bō story arc, the medicine seller hears about an imprisoned woman who claims to have killed her husband’s entire family. When he comes to question her about the validity of her story, a man in a Noh style mask appears and allows her to escape. In typical fashion, this tale is also full of twists that would spoil the ending if they were revealed.
The Noppera-bō story arc ultimately lacks some of the visual panache that makes the first two stories so memorable. Having said that, the man in the mask is a haunting character, and this arc still makes a strong impact with its excellent storytelling.
Nue are chimera-like evil spirits with body parts gathered from many different animals. There are a variety myths and legends concerning the creature and warriors who have fought it.
In this story, four men arrive at the house of Lady Ruri to ask for her hand in marriage and inherit her school of incense. Their fourth companion has disappeared, but the medicine seller takes his place. They must take part in a competition, but halfway through, Lady Ruri is murdered. The other three men still wish to continue competing. It turns out they’re not interested in the marriage or the incense school, instead they are seeking a treasure called Toudaiji, which is kept in the house.
The series hits a bit of a lull here with the Nue story arc. Though there are some interesting moments, this is basically just another variation on the Noppera-bō storyline. It even includes a similar twist. The snowy backgrounds and genuinely creepy imagery in the second half help it along, and the central conceit regarding the toudaiji is intriguing, but it’s not enough to lift up this storyline’s weaknesses.
Mononoke includes its own variation on the bakeneko storyline. Luckily, this plays out incredibly differently than the previous “Bakeneko” story that first introduced us to the medicine seller in Ayakashi.
While on a train, the medicine seller is trapped in a car with 6 other passengers. They have a dark secret that connects them and calls forth the bakeneko spirit. It’s up to the medicine seller to determine what that secret is, defeat the evil spirit, and get off of the train alive.
This story takes place in a different time period than the other stories. Supposedly, it occurs during the early 20th century whereas the others occur during the Edo period of Japanese history. The change in time period is a breath of fresh air for the series and helps create some memorable imagery for this closing chapter. As should be expected by this point, the twists and turns the plot takes are what really drives things forward.
Overall, Mononoke is a strong series with interesting plots and characters. The enigmatic medicine seller is one of those central characters that have just enough characterization to be likeable, but an ample amount of mystery to keep you guessing. Unfortunately, this is where his adventures end, but we’re offered an excellent set of stories that make it one of the best horror anime of all time.