(Original post date: 7/7/17)
Have you ever come across one of those pieces of art that seems so strange on the surface that it unnerves you in a way that you can’t even name? Not nightmare-inducing scary, but just daunting somehow? I was once wandering through the anime section at Best Buy when my eye fell upon a single DVD. For the first two milliseconds all my brain could perceive was a splotchy mess of color. Two steps and a proper view later: “Oh. That’s a person I’m looking at. Okay then.” Still, I felt intimidated enough to move on and all but forget the title, until last year when I saw it appear as an Honorable Mention on WatchMojo.com’s List of the Top 10 Beautiful Anime. Being more experienced in strange art and stories by this time, I decided to revisit it. Let’s just say that the phrase “Better late than never” would be a massive understatement.
In Edo Period Japan, a quiet, unassuming man makes a living wandering the land and selling the wares he keeps within the large trunk he carries upon his back. He identifies himself only by his occupation: Medicine Seller. Nothing more, nothing less. However, every so often he comes across cases in which people are attacked or murdered by brutal, even unnatural means—and that is when his real work begins. The Medicine Seller is also a slayer of Mononoke, evil demon-like entities that feed off the negative emotions of humans before killing them. The only thing capable of neutralizing these beings is the Medicine Seller’s mystical Sword of Exorcism. Armed with nerves of iron, a sharp mind, and various magical abilities of his own, the Medicine Seller must root out the Mononoke and learn their weaknesses so that he can destroy them and restore peace to the human world.
Looking this show up by name is somewhat tricky as its title is annoyingly similar to, and therefore often confused with, the film, Princess Mononoke, by Hayao Miyazaki. (Emphasis on the “ANNOYING”!) And therein, sadly, lays one of the reasons why even hardcore anime fans tend to not know it exists. This 12-episode series is actually a spin-off of an anthology series from 2006 called Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales, with episodes 9-11, collectively entitled Goblin Cat in English, serving as both its basis and its prequel. This show follows a similar format in that the Medicine Seller is literally the only reoccurring character in the various 2-3 episode stories that otherwise have nothing to do with each other, featuring different characters, settings, and of course, mononoke to kill.
While mononoke are most certainly monstrosities in every sense of the word, that doesn’t mean they attack without some kind of catalyst. Mononoke are formed when unnatural spirits called ayakashi merge with the deepest darkness of the human heart, born from malevolent thoughts and actions. However, even if the Medicine Seller is aware of a mononoke’s presence, he can’t simply unsheathe his sword and vanquish the demon right then and there. Not yet. Even ignoring the disturbingly realistic imp-like face upon his otherwise exquisite-looking sword, it is heavily implied that said sword is actually alive. In fact, there are specific conditions that must be met in order for the sword to be drawn, almost as if the Medicine Seller is following its orders, rather than vice versa. He must first know 3 vital things about the mononoke in question:
1) Katachi (form) – what sort of creature it is and what it looks like
2) Makoto (truth) – the factual circumstances of how and why it came to be
3) Kotowari (reasoning/regret) – its state of mind/the motive for its attacks
MEDICINE SELLER: (Addressing the entire Sakai household.) The katachi, or shape of the demon is determined by the human’s fate and karma. Now your truth and reasoning—or makoto and kotowari. I must hear everything about them.
Plot-wise, I find this a very unique spin on the concept of a murder mystery, which is essentially what this series is. The Medicine Seller is a detective, questioning any involved about their past and learning the heinous secrets lurking underneath the guise of a traumatized victim, secrets that mononoke latch onto and thrive upon like parasites. Now this could easily have turned into nothing more than filler before the glorious epic finale in which the Medicine Seller finally unsheathes his sword to combat the ononoke, but no. This idea, already supplemented by superb storytelling and character interaction, provides an excellent backdrop for exploring questions regarding the human condition, not to mention helping to make each mystery all the more deliciously tense, the monsters all the more creative, and the final battles all the more riveting.
MEDICINE SELLER: Demonic spirits have their own way of reasoning. Their grudges may never be explained or understood by humans . . . But, unless their hatred is absolved, they will continue to cause harm to the ones who created them.
[ . . . ]
KATSUYAMA: What is this makoto and kotowari you keep mentioning? And why should we care about them?
MEDICINE SELLER: Makoto refers to the facts. Kotowari is the reason for the demon’s grudge.
KATSUYAMA: (Brusquely.) So what?
MEDICINE SELLER: Something happened in the past and for whatever reason the spirit became resentful. Now, unless everything becomes clear, the sword won’t be able to hold the power and cut down the demonic spirit.
SASAOKA: (In confirmation.) So we need to know the reason.
MEDICINE SELLER: First off: Why are there no cats in this house? Someone must have done something to a cat. (Whispering thoughtfully.) Now what could it have been?
Few of the horror aspects may be obvious at first glance, though. Based in large part on Ukiyo-e, a form of art prevalent in Japan from the 17th to the 19th centuries, the visual style of this show has a flat, papery look to it, colorful to the point of being psychedelic, and presented structurally like a Japanese play, with sliding doors acting as curtains at the beginning and end of each episode. Not only that, but aside from the Medicine Seller, the main characters of a given narrative—no matter how many or few—are given full artistic attention while any extras are prop-like rather than realistic, with their faces hidden or distorted while other distinguishing features are almost nonexistent. (Depending on the respective story, this in itself can also be highly symbolic.)
Even with such a vibrant background, however, the protagonist himself still manages to steal the show flawlessly. With his multi-colored robe, purple headscarf, matted, straw-like hair, intricate pieces of jewelry, and blood-red face paint upon his deathly pale skin, the Medicine Seller’s appearance somehow manages to tread a fine, albeit somewhat bizarre, line between “clown” and “warrior”. But his personality is nowhere near as loud as his attire: he is calm, reserved, and distant; ever observant, rarely fazed, and speaking only when necessary, and even then in a voice of such serenity and composure that can easily catch anyone, from pompous high-ranked officials to disgruntled servants, completely off guard:
TOKUJI: (Gruffly.) Mr. Medicine Seller, we don’t want none. You’ll scare off the customers standing there like that. I’ll have to ask you to leave.
MEDICINE SELLER: (Completely unruffled.) No, No. I’d like a room . . . for the night . . . Yes . . . please.
He can even show a rather snarky sense of humor when he feels so inclined, giving him a bit of humanity to balance out his otherwise somber demeanor. Sometimes this can be harmless, like calling a loud-mouthed vassal out for insulting him behind his back:
(The Medicine Seller hands Odajima a huge pot of salt; Odajima takes it and nearly drops it due to its weight.)
ODAJIMA: (Struggling to hold the pot.) What’s the deal?! You expect me to carry this?
MEDICINE SELLER: (Smiling pleasantly.) Yeah, to make sure I don’t have a chance to poison it.
ODAJIMA: (Grumbling in embarrassment.) You overheard me?
MEDICINE SELLER: Well, you talk so loud, it’d be impossible not to hear you, even if I tried.
ODAJIMA: (Angrily.) You’re makin’ fun of me!
MEDICINE SELLER: (Pretending to be afraid.) Uh-oh. You noticed.
But at other times it can seem downright sadistic. At one point in the “Nue” story, the Medicine Seller presides as a judge over an incense game; just as the court official, the samurai, and the fish-monger are about to begin, however, the Medicine Seller suddenly claims to have made a rather horrible mistake with the preparation of the incense, only to “scold” himself by ever so gently tapping his head in a mock beating.
MEDICINE SELLER: Oh my. I seem to have made rather a blunder.
COURT OFFICIAL: Hm? And what is the nature of this blunder?
MEDICINE SELLER: I have a store of oleander, which I tried to avoid, as it shouldn’t be used in such concoctions. I’m afraid some got mixed in.
SAMURAI: Why couldn’t you use this oleander? Isn’t it a medicine?
MEDICINE SELLER: Its leaves are indeed, but a single breath of the vapor from its branches can kill. It is a poison.
COURT OFFICIAL: (Choking with shock.) Wha . . .
FISH-MONGER: (Demanding angrily.) What do you mean?
MEDICINE SELLER: I’m afraid I’ve forgotten which of these five scents contains the oleander. (Lightly taps himself on the head in mock reproach, still smiling.) Silly me. Silly me.
What’s more, this is a character who carries himself with the air of one who has long since made complete peace with the life he lives and couldn’t care less about what others think, speaking of the present danger of the mononoke with no hesitation and absolute bluntness, regardless of any disbelieving jeers or crazed hysteria on the part of those ordinary humans unfamiliar with such things. Interestingly, in spite of his dedication to his work and how seriously he takes it, the Medicine Seller in fact holds no ties to anything in this world, even the people he tries to save. Granted, almost no one in this show is innocent of some wrongdoing, but the Medicine Seller will never mourn anyone’s death, accepting such occurrences as just another part of the job—almost to the point of seeming heartless at times—and preferring to focus on exorcising the mononoke that can sometimes be more deserving of sympathy than the humans who brought them into existence.
MEDICINE SELLER: Goblin Cat, I understand your truth and reasoning. Now . . . I’ve taken it to heart. [. . .] I understand what you’re capable of, I’ve seen your actions. And I know what must be done. You aren’t fated to belong in the dimension. I will exorcise you. Forgive me.
The most fascinating aspect about the Medicine Seller, however, is the mystery that surrounds him, borderline antithetical to how a fictional character typically is—or should be—presented. While not revealing everything about a character can make them interesting, sometimes revealing too little can make them confusing, boring, or both. And yet here it is done in a way that is beautifully haunting to the imagination. By the end of the final episode, we don’t know any more about this character or his history than we did at episode 1. What’s more, it is unclear whether he is really even human. Is he a sorcerer? A god? A spirit himself? Or perhaps some other being for which there are no mortal words?
Just as it initially did with me, this show might put some people off, due to its rather extreme visuals as well as its genuinely disturbing and violent content. But with a variety of intense and provocative stories to go with an animation style that’s mind-blowingly gorgeous even by anime standards, Mononoke definitely deserves for more attention than it gets. It can often be well worth the experience if a story and its presentation challenges an opinion or perception one has—some personal “truth” that one has come to believe—should one wish to explore more deeply.
Credits: All images, audio, and links belong to their respective owners; no copyright infringement is intended.
“The Call” — Briand Morrison and Roxann Berglund
“Get a Move On!” – Paul Gutmann
“Haunting Memory” – Paul Gutmann
All other music and sound clips are Mononoke (licensed by Toei Animation Inc.) and Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales (licensed by Geneon Universal Entertainment).
Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales – “Bake Neko (Part 2)” (English Dub)
Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales – “Bake Neko (Part 3)” (English Dub)
Mononoke, Ep. 1 – “Zashiki-warashi (Part 1)” (Japanese Dub)
Mononoke, Ep. 9 – “Nue [Japanese Chimera] (Part 2)” (Japanese Dub)
Watch the original preview and episode videos here!
Listen to the episode here!
Mononoke on Wikipedia
Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales on Wikipedia
Mononoke on IMDb
Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales on IMDb
Mononoke on Anime News Network
Mononoke on Crunchyroll
Mononoke on tvtropes
Buy the Mononoke DVD on Amazon
Download and Watch Mononoke on Amazon
Buy Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales on Amazon
Buy Mononoke on eBay
Buy Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales on eBay
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