Pretty, but empty.
What They Say:
In feudal Japan, evil spirits known as mononoke plague both households and the countryside, leaving a trail of fear in their wake. One mysterious person has the power to slay the mononoke where they stand; he is known only as the Medicine Seller, and he vanquishes the spirits using the power of his Exorcism Sword. However, in order to draw his sword he must first understand the Form, Truth and Reason of the mononoke. Armed with a sharp wit and keen intellect, the Medicine Seller wanders from place to place, striking down the evil spirits in his wake.
Each episode is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. This is a sub-only title, so the only language track is in Japanese. The overall sound quality was fine with no distortions, weird volume fluctuations, or any other issues.
Each episode is presented in 16×9 widescreen aspect ratio. The anime possesses a very distinct style resembling watercolors on crumpled rice paper. At times the character designs can be quite ugly, but on purpose. There is a clear aesthetic philosophy—for lack of a better word—here that is both beautiful and repellent.
The front cover features the Medicine Man, holding his sacred sword. He stands against a field of off-white dappled with black swirls that make vague shapes. Umbrellas of various colors fan around him in a loose arc and the show’s title is written vertically with each syllable separate so it looks like “Mo No No Ke.” The spine is interesting in that it features some screenshots from the show (in very small boxes, of course), and the back cover features a rather gorgeous screenshot of the Medicine Man. Underneath that lies the show synopsis, episode listing, cast and crew credits, and DVD specifications. Like the show, the cover possesses an unique and highly stylized aesthetic design.
The menu is the same for each disc: The Medicine Man stands against a field of white with black swirls that look like tentacles. He holds his sacred sword and stares directly at the viewer. The series’ title is written on the right-hand side and the episode listing appears underneath it with a large “Play All” option right at the top. There is no music playing, which makes it a bit eerie and ethereal. Overall, it’s a solid design that’s both functional and aesthetically pleasing.
The extras on this set are pretty sparse: a concept art featurette and un-subtitled Japanese TV spots. While they weren’t bad in quality, they also didn’t add much to the overall viewing experience. They’re basically novelties.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
I wanted to like this show. I really did. I almost wanted to like it just on principle. Anymore anime falls under two broad categories—Shonen tournament fighters that drag on to infinity, or shows featuring moe girls doing moe things. I’m making a broad generalization here, but I’ve seen enough to feel the weight of the genre’s repetition. That’s why I get excited about titles like Redline or Rio Rainbow Gate. They act as oases in the desert of repeated tropes and characters because they offer something new and interesting. I had hoped that Mononoke would be like those titles, but the show ended up being more style than substance.
The Medicine Man travels through feudal Japan, carrying his huge box of wares on his back. He often smiles, as if he’s seeing something no one else can, and he projects a rather creepy and aloof vibe. This is because he hunts mononoke—evil spirits that plague the land. He does this with the Exorcism Sword, but he can only draw it once he understands the mononke’s form, truth, and reason. Once he learns those, he can draw the sword and exorcise them. The funny part is that we never truly understand his own form, truth, or reason.
The series spans twelve multi-part episodes, alternating between being split into two or three part stories. Although the situation differs each time, the basic form remains the same: the Medicine Man arrives, waiting for the mononoke to show itself. He meets people who are intertwined with the spirit in some way or another. He investigates the form, truth, and reason, and then exorcises it. We never learn his history, his motivations, or even his name, and I wonder if perhaps this is an homage to Toshiro Mifune’s character in Sanjuro and Yojimbo. Like Mifune’s Ronin, the Medicine Man is less of a protagonist and more of a force of nature, bringing change and justice to a place whether the people like it or not.
It’s a good concept, and I went into this thinking that I would love this show, but really, once I got over the initial pleasure of its aesthetic style, I grew bored. The show failed to engage me on any level but the most superficial. The mononoke were grotesque and horrifying, but so were many of the characters, thanks to the art style. Watching it was like opening a Russian Nesting Doll only to find there was nothing under the first layer.
While I love that Mononoke tried to do something new, it just didn’t work for me. It was all pretty packaging hiding an empty box. I hate being negative about it, because I want to see more variation and experimentation in the genre, but, as the Mythbusters say, failure is always an option. I would say this is worth renting or streaming, but not buying.
Japanese 2.0 Language, English Subtitles, Conceptual Artwork Featurette, TV Spots
Content Grade: C+
Audio Grade: A
Video Grade: A
Menu Grade: B
Extras Grade: C-
Released By: New Video Group
Release Date: July 15th, 2014
Running Time: 272 minutes
Video Encoding: 480i/p MPEG-2
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Panasonic Viera TH42PX50U 42” Plasma HDTV, Sony BPD-S3050 BluRay Player w/HDMI Connection