Materiality, Mystery and Meaning in Mononoke
April 11, 2009
Notion of materiality is awfully complex in my line of work but in animation, you could simply think of it in terms of textures, which is especially fascinating in the case of Mononoke. Iknight once put my thoughts in a more eloquent manner in my post on Gankutsuou:
I think you’re right to especially highlight its materiality: the textures were so rich that the experience was almost like synaesthesia – it was like I was feeling the anime with my eyes. I thought that material element fed through into at least one of the Count’s revenges…
I think one of many exciting possibilities about animated textures lies in their mobility, and I love how gankutsuou and bakeneko above for example is rendered in such a fluid-like, almost volcanic lava-like manner, as if materially projecting their diabolic thirst for vengeance. Also, tiny particles like rain, snow and wind take strangely floral forms, which are tiny details but the effect is so subtle and effective. Raindrops and snows fall so gently, slowly, and the atmosphere is one that is brooding and hinting to the coming storm. You will find them mostly at the unsettling opening of each arc. In comparison, winds are presented in a very elegant manner, like a soothing summer breeze. The one that is particularly memorable is a scene from Nue arc, where our Kusuriuri exorcises the mononoke and that grey snowfield is replaced momentarily by a fleeting vision of lush and colourful landscape, filled with joyous people, before all expires and is returned to its grim reality.
And there is a sense of antiquity about how all this looks as if it was drawn on wrinkled rice paper, which for me is a mesmerising mix of traditional painting and modern animation. It’s something Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei also tends to use to a lesser degree, enhancing its period feel of the setting.
Watching Kusuriuri exorcising mononoke is almost like watching a detective solving a murder case. Just as one needs to figure out the culplrit, method of crime and his motives, Kusuriuri must discover form, truth and regret, and the way he goes about solving it is quite unique. I vaguely recall Wabisabi talking about enclosed space in her Mononoke sub-blog which I forgot to save before she self-destructed it in an act of ‘cang sang mei‘ and it’s interesting to observe that the space is enclosed not for the terrifying mononoke that’s killing people, but for the real culprits: humans whose vices and regret have given birth to. We are interested not in the truth behind mononoke’s murderous ways but in the truth behind its creation. What possible vices and evil are men capable of to the extent of creating such a terrifying monstrosity? Methods used to explore these Truth in each arc are as fascinating as the enclosed spaces used as settings. Truth behind Umibozu arc for example is revealed through Japanese folk tale, while it is through Noh (traditional Japanese play) and Genjikou (contest inspired by Genji’s Tale) that we witness each character’s stories in the following arcs.
Mystery in Mononoke unfolds steadily, almost like going through an act after another in Noh. I guess here is a good opportunity to drop Wabisabi’s reference to Arthur Waley’s description of Noh:
Noh does not make a frontal attack on the emotions. It creeps at the subject warily. For the action, in the commonest class of play, does not take place before our eyes, but is lived through again in mimic and recital by the ghost of one of the participants in it. Thus we get no possibility of crude realities; a vision of life indeed, but painted with the colours of memory, longing or regret.
Another interesting reference I want to personally make in relation to its mystery is a quote from Park Chan-wook‘s masterpiece, Old Boy: The question isn’t ‘who’, but ‘why’. Indeed, too many mysteries focus on ‘who dun it’ and ‘how dun it’, they forget the importance of ‘why dun it’. They create suspense and shock but do not inspire grief nor regret, which is something Old Boy and Mononoke is capable of with their stories. This leads me to the final chapter of this post: Bakeneko arc from the Ayakashi series.
In this arc, we are at first led to believe a romantic story told by a man, story of his devotion to a woman who loved him so much that a mononoke was born from her selfish grudge to keep him from being married ever again. A beautiful and sad tale. But our cruel lives aren’t made of such tales. What the mononoke shows us instead is a grim truth too brutal to admit. More powerful however is our regret and positive desire that comes soaring from our heart. Despite all the unimaginable pain inflicted upon her, the woman did not curse the men nor tried to save herself. All she wanted was to save the cat. To relieve that fleeting sensation of freedom by watching it set free.
Poignant was the last scene of Mononoke series, as we see the old characters paying their respect to the woman. We fear darkness not because it is dark itself, but because it engulfs the light we hold dear. Frightening is our vices and evil but what is truly terrifying and regrettable is the loss of our hope (including the ones we loved), which aren’t always apparent because we seek escape by making up comforting lies and illusions. And to do so will only continue to invite ghosts of our past that haunt us. Just as we can not destroy mononoke, we can not undo the past. But by facing our faults like the characters at the very end, as painful as they may be, we can remember them and perhaps learn from them, and avoid repeating them in a brighter future.
Well, at least that’s my interpretation.