As noted back in my Library War review, despite the fact that I'm a big fan of the noitaminA timeslot there are quite a few shows from it that I've never seen and I really hope to change that this year by giving those shows a bit of priority on my to-watch list. So I went for a title that is both well-known and not; well-known amongst some circles of fans for being one of Kanji Nakamura's shows (Gatchaman Crowds was actually his first show to not air in the timeslot) and a pretty interesting one just to look at, and yet not that well-known at all since the series has never been licensed or even streamed legally in the US, bother!
In this world there are creatures called mononoke and they cause great trouble for people. They don't appear out of nowhere, to cause trouble they must have a form, a truth, and a regret and it seems like only a simple, mysterious medicine seller can drive them back out of this world.
The series Mononoke spun off from was again called Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales (also noitaminA) and damn is that an accurate title. I don't dabble in horror that much, I'm far too easily scared off, but I can still tell what's a good horror series and this is a very good one. It's a remarkably cohesive piece, every detail in it, the stories, the character types, the setting, the sounds, the pacing, the twists and turns, all of it comes together to create something that won't startle you into jumping out of your seat but one where you know the reveal is coming and you still flinch anyway. The stories in and of themselves are genuinely horrifying (because, like the scariest horror out there, all of it originates from human action) and all of the other elements come together to masterfully create a tone which just amplifies it.
So if the stories aren't the kind that try to "get you" with a sudden scare, what are they then? Mysteries, not always in the "we found a dead body in a locked room and don't think it was suicide, how?" sort of way but the kind where you start to notice that something has gone wrong and, do to the limits on the medicine seller's exorcism powers, need to find the answer to the mystery before it can be resolved. I rather liked that it didn't try to portray it's perpetuators in an ambiguous light, as if their actions might have had some justification, but clearly leads the audience to the conclusion that they are awful people. Heck, I was even left wondering if that was part of the way a grudge or regret turns into a mononoke, that it had to be because of a deliberately "bad" act, especially considering that the bystanders who have just stumbled into these stories usually come out alright.
Speaking of characters, the Medicine Seller is one of the more interesting lead characters I've seen in an anime lately and not for any of the usual reasons. He's completely mysterious, by the end it's clear that he's not human, and full of interesting, somewhat contradictory opposites. We never truly learn why he tracks down mononoke, and occasionally ayakashi, to kill them (at one point he speaks as if it's a job or a position but doesn't elaborate) and it never seems like he's sympathetic to one side or the other. And while it may take a while for him to find the mononoke's form, truth, and regret, and his mysterious ways certainly make the characters in the story scared that they won't make it out alive, the story never makes you worried that he won't succeed. He's also lot less stoic than characters in supernatural stories often are. He's surprised and thrown off, sometimes he thinks that he's discovered something only to find out he was wrong, and compared to other shows (the one that first came to mind for me was lead character Naru from Ghost Hunt) that detail alone makes him come off as more human, even when half a dozen other details suggest otherwise. And on a related note, as mentioned earlier, this show really surprised me that just about every time the unrelated bystanders make it through alright which is a rarity, I'm so used to supernatural shows (both American/British and Japanese) killing off one-episode characters left and right so this almost compassion really stood out to me*.
To switch gears a bit, I think the real reason why this show is remembered, even though you have to buy it from Australia if you want a DVD with English subtitles on it, is because of the art. It looks as if the art is drawn over a crumpled piece of rice paper (think of Gankutsuo: The Count of Monte Cristo but on a much subtler level, no unmoving plaid or patterns) and occasionally the art style switches around for a more dramatic moment or two. The show is also really interesting, the first two arcs are much more colorful than the last three (the use of colors in the fourth one is a subtle clue to the story and in the fifth one the duller colors as used as a shorthand for "more modern times"), it's a lot more stylistic variation than you usually get in a single tv series but the show pulls off the transitions very smoothly. I also thought the medicine seller had a really interesting character design, by far one of the more interesting ones I've seen in a while. Like with the rest of his character, it mixes up some very human characteristics (his facial structure looks the most "realistic" out of all the characters) and some clearly not human ones (such as his ears and the facial markings). They also went to the effort to really try and match up the movement of the characters' mouths with their voices and it's funny but that extra emphasis both helped to make the setting less "cartoony" and more "realistic" and, going back to what I said about the best horror having a lot of roots in realism, that certainly made some of the events just a bit more terrifying.
Do you need to watch Ayakashi first before seeing this show? Not really, Ayakashi is split into three arcs and I was easily bored of the first arc so I went ahead and skipped to the final arc, Bake Neko, which is where the medicine seller is first introduced. I would recommend watching that one because it's simply more of a good show but if you don't don't worry, the show explains how its setting works quite often since each arc has an almost completely different cast of characters. Also, the last arc of Mononoke is called Bake Neko as well which helps give the series the thematic closure it needed. This isn't a story with a beginning and an end or even a series which will end once a character has grown up enough that their story has changed, everything is much too loosely connected for that. But by creating stories with the same name and some similar details (and, according to fan theories, possibly some of the same characters, centuries apart), that along with it's afterword created a surprisingly satisfying conclusion to the show. There's no reason it couldn't continue on, after all the medicine seller says that as long as mononoke gain forms he will discover their form, truth, and regret to remove them from this world, but I get the impression that the creators of the show didn't want to make a story that would go on forever.
*actually, that's even one of my biggest pet peeve with supernatural/fantasy fiction on tv these days, that they kill off so many characters that I can't believe that Doctor Who or Supernatural is set in our contemporary world, the culture would be noticeably enough different if that kept happening. So not only is that a twist in and of itself but also helped establish the setting and keep it much more realistic than I initially expected.