12 Days of Anime Day 12: Ayakashi (Japanese Classic Horror) and Mononoke

This post is part of the Secret Santa project over at Reverse Thieves that also doubles as the last 12 Days of Anime post.

First off, I hope everyone had a Merry Christmas, and that the holidays have been good to you so far :).

kill la kill xmas

In typical procrastinating fashion, I waited too long to watch my Secret Santa picks, and instead spent the last couple days trying to finish up a bunch of other shows like Meganebu! (why did I ever stop watching that?!) rather than watching my stellar recommendations. But, after a late-ish couple of nights of anime marathoning, I finally finished! And so, after some frantic writing, a wonderful Christmas (complete with fuzzy socks), and some more editing, I am proud to say that my first Secret Santa review is done (if a little late)! It was a great experience, and I can’t wait to do it again next year :D.

Note: I hope this post is readable. This is what I get after marathoning anime all night lol.

For my Secret Santa picks, I was given a choice between Haibane RenmeiOmae Umasou Da Na, and Mononoke. The first consists of a bunch of angel people and deep philosophical, slow-moving, contemplative stuff. The second is pretty much the anime version of The Land Before Time. The third was the adaptation/exploration of some interesting Japanese folk legends, and is the one I ended up going with.

I’ve been meaning to watch the first of the trio for forever, but for some reason inexplicably decided to skip over it again in favor of the other two options. The second, which I knocked out yesterday, is very cute but nothing absolutely revolutionary. It’s definitely worth a watch if you’re into those kinds of cute, life-lesson, “leaves you with warm fuzzy feelings” kids movies though. The third, which I’ve just finished, is a little bit more complicated than that. First, in order to better appreciate Mononoke, I followed the additional recommendation from my Secret Santa to watch the last three episodes of Ayakashi: Japanese Classic Horror first, as the plot of the former actually is a sort of spin-off from one of the stories in the latter. Of course, since I couldn’t just leave it at that, I also watched the entirety of Ayakashi. I review them both here.

Ayakashi

Quick overview: The show is divided into three main stories, each of which comprises 3-4 episodes. The first is “Yotsuya Kaidan,” the story of a wife betrayed  by her husband and the vengeful curse she lays on him after death. The second is “Tenshu Monogatari,” the tragic story of forbidden love between a Forgotten Goddess and a human, and “Bakeneko,” the story of a mysterious cat monster with a vendetta against a certain family and the peddler that comes to exorcise it.

Oiwa, from

Oiwa, from “Yotsuya Kaidan.”

Tomi Hime, from

Tomi Hime, from “Tenshu Monogatari.”

The Peddler from "Bakeneko."

The peddler, from “Bakeneko.”

Ayakashi, besides being an adaptation of some traditional Japanese tales/legends, likewise sets a very traditional-esque atmosphere. The animation style and color palette tends to resemble wall scrolls and older Japanese artwork more than many of the shows being animated around the same time (2006-7, around the same time Haruhi was airing for the first time), while the soundtrack and dialogue too tend to be in an older/more formal style. While the animation can be a little bit rough at times, on the whole the style of the show very well suits the source material its drawing upon. The only part that–ironically enough–is not traditional turns out to be the OP, which has a pretty slick mix of traditional sounds mixed with a hip-hop beat.

Trying to discuss the storytelling pros and cons of the base stories as well as each adaptation would be a bit tedious, especially since these are drawing from “folklore” (which I will use quite broadly here), as several Nakamura Kenji directed shows seem to do. So I won’t be doing that here, except to say that the last arc (eps. 9-11) is by far the best of the three (indeed, it proved popular enough to warrant the Mononoke spin-off adaptation, and I can see why!). Instead, what I’ll do is talk about some of the things the show tries to do on top of that (i.e. the themes it plays with), and compare it with a few others to put it in context.

Speaking of context, that’s one of the things Ayakashi tries to do with these folktales, especially in the first arc. Much in the same way Samurai Champloo places itself as meta-commentary over the changing ways we perceive and ultimately use history, Ayakashi tries to talk about the ways some of these legends have developed and are used today. The biggest ones I caught on to were:

  1. Folktales and legends are essentially simulacra at heart: largely fictional, although usually with some small element of truth.
  2. The 1st- and 2nd-order impacts of these folktales (such as their cultural impacts, prominence in theatre, pop culture, and even its expression in the Ayakashi anime itself) are even more tenuous–being simulacra of simulacra–leading to an environment where “falsehoods”/”fictional elements” become more “true” than the “real” truth itself.
  3. The difference between the what is classified as “truth” for tales of these nature is very blurry and, most importantly, doesn’t really matter.

The second two points are best covered by an example. Let’s say that you’re a director asked to do an adaptation of a Japanese folktale. You have many places to choose from, because the canon of tales is extensive. However, there are so many variations and renditions in theatre, stories, etc., that you could choose to adapt from. What determines which version you should eventually choose to show on screen? Is it some quest for the “true” or “original” folktale, before cultural variations and retelling started taking over? That might be the academic’s response. But just showing a true story isn’t useful, because then you’ve lost what made that story a folktale (obviously figuring out how it has evolved it very useful too, but not to just figure out the original). In other words, the falsehoods/fictional elements are an essential component of what makes a folktale or legend or fabled historical story or anything similar what it is. Furthermore, part of what makes that folktale what it is is the culture that it has spawned. Regardless of whether or not a character/image was actually the way it was represented in the story, the way it is perceived after the story is a crucial element that should not be overlooked. Not including the culture surrounding the folktale might be “unfaithful” to the folktale itself. In addition, your (upcoming) version of this folktale will further add to this culture. Given all these circumstances, questing after something like “the truth” is difficult, and might in fact be meaningless. This point is also further enforced by the hybrid, modern style of the OP vs. the traditional style of the ED.

In terms of useful anime comparisons, Ayakashi is probably most similar to something like the Aoi Bungaku series, and feel like it was animated in much of the same vein. Both are animated adaptations of classics, after all, and have very similar serious/dramatic atmospheres. You can also see some similarities thematically with elements in Tsuitama and Samurai Champloo, although both shows are about as far away in style from Ayakashi as you can imagine. Unlike shows such as The Ambition of Oda Nobuna or other historical adaptations, Ayakashi is a much more faithful adaptation in terms of both style and tone, and feels a lot more like animated ukiyo-e or byoubu and the like (especially in Bakeneko), although quite a bit more fluid than the moving-picture episode 18 of Monogatari: Second Season.* The elements of horror it contains (it does have Japanese Classic Horror in the subtitles, after all), are a very traditional, theatrical style of horror, and so not anywhere near as ridiculous as Another or as raw as Shiki. In general, it’s not really all that scary, and the horror is  meant to stem from disbelief and disgust over some of the actions the characters rather than what we tend to classify as horror today. In addition to all of this, there’s obviously also a lot of really cool Japanese history and folklore here as well, if (like me!) you’re interested in getting to know some more of that type of thing.

*On that note, the last Bakeneko arc actually feels a little bit stylistically like Monogatari, with interesting usage of repetition, sound, and camera angles. Nakamura Kenji directed that arc. The other two arcs do not do anything of the sort, and use much more conventional animation techniques. 

In sum (∑): If you liked Aoi Bungaku, are a fan of folktales, legends, or Japanese history, enjoy Japanese-style theater, or enjoy more traditional/serious/dramatic/tragic stories, then you’ll probably enjoy Ayakashi: Japanese Classic Horror.

Mononoke

Quick overview: The show is a spin-off from Ayakashi Bakeneko story arc that follows the Medicine Seller as he deals with various spirits (Mononoke) in feudal Japan. As in Bakeneko, he can only slay the Mononoke when he uncovers its form (Katachi), the truth behind its appearance (Makoto), and the reason for its unusual behavior (Kotowari).

mononoke 1

Mononoke is an all around fantastic show that takes all the great things about the original Bakeneko arc of Ayakashi and executes them beautifully. At heart, it’s a story about demons (well, mononoke to be exact), people, and the relationship between them. It’s a fascinating and disturbing trip surrounding how mononoke are born and the people who spawn them that takes you on a through the lands of the mystic and supernatural to the darker parts of the human condition. And one that leaves you wondering who the “real” mononoke are.

First off, Mononoke is not necessarily a preachy, philosophical show that aims to “educate” us about the human condition, or something of that nature. There are a fair number of those types of shows in anime and elsewhere, and I can confidently say Mononoke‘s place is not among them.* Many of the stories in the show are strange, bizarre, and seemingly amoral. The situations that take place are gruesome, disturbing, and–of course–horrifying (all in a more theatrical sense; by today’s standards, they’re not really any of these), similar to classic fairy tales, folklore, and mythology (which are often relatively devoid of any real “moral” or “message”). The peddler is never portrayed to be a good–or a bad–guy in the slightest, and remains a mysterious character throughout the entire series who always just kills the mononoke regardless of the circumstances. While there are central themes to each of the stories, there never is any real “THIS IS A BIG REALIZATION AND MESSAGE FOR HOW TO LIVE YOUR LIFE” type of thing outside the main Katachi/Makoto/Kotowari thing.

*This isn’t to necessarily ping other shows for being preachy, since I personally don’t mind preachy shows very much as long as it’s well done (which I why I love something like, say, Cloud Atlas). It’s just something to point out, since many other people I know dislike media that seems to “talk down” to them in some way, or that is too “high brow”.

Screenshot 2013-12-27 05.28.28 Screenshot 2013-12-27 05.28.32 Screenshot 2013-12-27 05.28.35 Screenshot 2013-12-27 05.28.38 Screenshot 2013-12-27 05.28.43

That doesn’t make it any less entertaining though. Mononoke does a lot of really interesting things aesthetically that seem eerily Shaft-esque,* even though it was produced by Toei. Here’s some more quick screenshots from the first episode, to show what I mean:

*The irony (or whatever you call it) that I’m using something more recent to compare/anchor my impressions for something older (i.e. looking backwards rather than forwards) doesn’t escape me.

The off-center face, plus the strange coloring for the walls of the room, are off-putting.

Besides the face being slightly off-center, the coloring and design of the walls are quite bizarre.

This type of scene where the head is off center and the eyes off camera is something you see a lot in Shaft works.

The woman’s head is not only off-center, but far enough towards the edge of the frame that the eyes are completely off camera.

The lack of real faces in the background, instead supplemented by spinning flowers on black, again seems similar to other Shaft works.

The faces in the background are more like flowered patterns rather than real human faces.

The overhead shot of a bunch of differently colored spinning umbrellas is disconcerting.

Instead of focusing on the people talking, the camera instead pans to a bunch of differently colored spinning umbrellas.

I’ve left out many other examples, which include text on screen, “page-flipping”, abrupt scene transitions, and shots/scenes that seem right out of some avant-garde film. It also displays a lot of Satoshi Kon-esque blending of “dream” vs. “reality” sequences, which abrupt transitions between the two so that the viewer (and probably actors as well) can barely tell the difference between them. And the most ridiculously facial expressions I’ve ever seen in an anime in a long time.

Above all else though, Mononoke is an absolutely beautiful show, and probably would have warranted a watch from me from aesthetics alone if I’d known about it sooner.

Screenshot 2013-12-27 07.22.23

The dialogue in the show also tends to be similar to Monogatari in some sense. As the peddler is trying to uncover the truth behind the mononoke’s traits, much of the talking in the show naturally dances around the hidden truth that makes all the pieces come into place. From the stilted dialogue that makes it seem that something’s just a little bit off, to the slightly-too-long pauses that indicates that something’s being hidden, the dialogue in Mononoke is riddled with the feeling of being just slightly “off” in that uncomfortable way you sometimes can’t place. The peddler’s slow, deliberate questions and responses (frequently with long pauses) further helps reinforce the mood. I’ve included a sample dialogue below (not that any screenshot with no words is one where there was a significantly long pause, not just unfortunate timing).

Screenshot 2013-12-27 06.40.10 Screenshot 2013-12-27 06.40.14 Screenshot 2013-12-27 06.40.17 Screenshot 2013-12-27 06.40.19 Screenshot 2013-12-27 06.40.21 Screenshot 2013-12-27 06.40.24 Screenshot 2013-12-27 06.40.27 Screenshot 2013-12-27 06.40.29 Screenshot 2013-12-27 06.40.32 Screenshot 2013-12-27 06.40.33 Screenshot 2013-12-27 06.40.36 Screenshot 2013-12-27 06.40.37

Besides just quirky dialogue, frequent screaming and panicking by everyone else who’s not the peddler also adds that extra bit of ridiculousness.

Unlike Monogatari and many other Shaft shows, however, Mononoke doesn’t lack for action when it counts. Besides much more active scenes and dialogue in general, the encounters with the mononoke (in their most crazed forms) and their exorcisms are whirlwinds of movement and color between the spirit form of the peddler (who is somehow even more badass than the already badass peddler) and the mononoke.

Screenshot 2013-12-27 06.28.32 Screenshot 2013-12-27 06.28.37 Screenshot 2013-12-27 06.28.40 Screenshot 2013-12-27 06.28.46 Screenshot 2013-12-27 06.28.49 Screenshot 2013-12-27 06.28.56

Besides lending itself to a really surreal, dream-like atmosphere, Mononoke‘s heavy usage of Japanese folklore, mysticism, and superstition is an integral and fascinating part of the show. While many modern fairy tales and other forms of folklore tend to be more reactions to culture and our current values (or at least, the Disney versions and their cousins), more traditional fairy tales/folklore are really embodiments of society and culture, a sociocultural microcosm that emerged over time. As folklore–and how it has evolved over time–can then provide really interesting insights into the culture–both past and present–of a region/people that you don’t often get from history,* Mononoke‘s strong connection to Japanese folklore tickles my fancy quite a bit.

*Stories about vampires, for instance, turn out to be quite interesting and insightful.

Screenshot 2013-12-27 08.33.40

In sum (∑): From it’s unsettling dialogue, surreal atmosphere, and its heavy usage of Japanese folklore, mysticism, and superstition to the unique aesthetics and intense exorcisms, Mononoke is a fantastic show all around and is definitely worth a watch.

The OP is also…quite interesting.

Thanks for the recommendations, BokuSatchii! All the other Secret Santa posts (and all the people who participated) can be seen here.

5 responses to “12 Days of Anime Day 12: Ayakashi (Japanese Classic Horror) and Mononoke

  1. Pingback: Secret Santa 2013 Project Reveal | Reverse Thieves·

  2. Ha, I thought you’d love Mononoke, what with all the classical Japanese folklore/horror elements to it. I was really interested in the perspective you’d take on it, and I enjoyed your discussion of folktales in the Ayakashi section. Nakamura really has yet to outdo himself here in both art and sound direction; what a gorgeous show. Glad you enjoyed it so much! (Also glad you picked Meganebu back up)

    Did you have a favorite of the stories?

    • I think in the arc with the wife in prison for “murdering” her family was my favorite. It bent conventions, played with your expectations, and on the whole was really well done! You?

      • It’s really tough to decide, but I think I’ve got to go with the incense-smelling one. It was an especially strong example of the series’s exquisite use of color, the story has the same type of mindgame-based draw of a show like Akagi with the medicine seller playing a role in the proceedings that may well be my favorite of his. And of course, it had a great showdown against the Nue itself. All of the stories are fantastic for their own reasons, but I think this is the one that I’d be most likely to show people and say, “This is what Mononoke is all about.”

  3. Really impressive. I don’t know about Japanese folk stories or old saying at all. There’s, however, no obstacle to interrupt to understand.
    I like colors used in. It’s really ethnic and bright. That makes the story-telling darker. on the other hand.

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