Materiality, Mystery and Meaning in Mononoke

April 11, 2009


I. Materiality

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…

left: gankutsuo

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.

Before the storm

Unsettling before the storm

After the storm

Soothing after the storm...well, not really for the left picture but the effect is still the same

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.


Form, Truth and Regret

II. Mystery

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.

such art directions make solving mysteries with a traditional Japanese flavour

Such art directions really enhances traditional Japanese feeling when solving each mysteries

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.



III. Meaning

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.


Was the monk's romantic tale true? No, the truth is far more discpicable. Did lady Ochou kill for such simple reasons? No, she simply loved her mother too much.

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.





13 Responses to “Materiality, Mystery and Meaning in Mononoke”

  1. muhootsaver Says:

    Hmmm… I remember this series. I got to watch the first two episodes(first arc about a baby, I think it was first two episodes?), and I remember it to be really creepy ^^;; I’m not really into horror stories, so I decided to stop after the first arc but art direction was definitely interesting.

  2. gaguri Says:

    It is really creepy, and in a way it could be considered as a horror series. I think Mononoke has lot more to offer than just horror but if you weren’t amazed by the first two episodes, then it might be a good idea to skip it. Although now you mention, in terms of aesthetics and art direction it is at the highest tier in animation.

  3. Kitsune Says:

    I liked Mononoke, but have not finished it yet.

    Gankutsuou textures were quite interesting. Yasufumi Soejima was responsible for textile design and was a digital director for that anime. Ristorante Paradiso is very different in style, but he did a very nice job with it 🙂

    Notion of materiality is awfully complex in my line of work

    Oh, that’s very interesting! What line of work you speak of, if I may ask? 🙂

  4. gaguri Says:

    Design in architecture, although my current employment is totally unrelated to the field. lol. I’m just going to stop there. There is whole lot of design decisions to think about when choosing materiality in architecture, aside from aesthetics, you’re also looking at its other properties like structural strength, construction and sustainability.

  5. Kitsune Says:

    Oh, that’s a fascinating profession 🙂 Must be not easy to find a job though 😦

    Yes, other factors are important as well. Thinking about it reminded me of one TED talk… Have to find it…

  6. Flash Sword Irene Says:

    Mononoke is one of the better overall examples where everything blends in complete harmony since all of the elements play off each other well. Even the sound effects help as a driving force for the atmosphere and tension of the unfurling material. Considering that Mononoke originally came from the Ayakashi – Japanese Horror Stories show, it can be considered a horror/thriller/mystery type. Despite how good the series really is, it is an underappreciated dark horse from 2-3 years ago.

    Funny enough, I sort of get vibes of Sorrow-Kun’s last post on the Nihonreview blog due to my last sentence. At the sametime, I can imagine Akira “face palming” since you always seem to do an in-depth analysis of animes. Lol. XD I do suggest doing a bit of research on what the material Mononoke is based on, since I think you might gain a better appreciation for it. If you ever get that chance and find good sources of information, then all the more power to you.

    It is usually hard to find anything on Japanese folklore/legends and the stories that follow. So, I am not exactly as well-versed as I would prefer myself. On another note, how is the K-Music scene treating you? As you can guess, I am still in a bit of disillusionment at the moment. At the very least, I can say that I was able to enjoy Dynamic Duo’s most recent single featuring the Supreme Team. Other then that, mehhhhhhhhh.

  7. gaguri Says:

    I’d like to think Akira don’t really have a problem with my articles, just some of the more questionable ones floating on the web. If he does have a problem, well, he can go screw himself 😀

    I think having background knowledge on Japanese folklore might help look at Mononoke in a different light, but is not necessary to appreciate the beauty of it. Rather than fully appreciating it, I consider it as simply a different point of view; perspective from someone who is not familiar with Japanese folklore, although there is something very similar between Chinese/Korean/Japanese folklores.

    As for K-Music, they’re like every other entertainment really (including anime). Most are mediocre, really popular bands like Girls Generation making easily accessible (arguably not the best, but still very catch) songs for mass appeal (I think appropriate comparison is K-on! of this season). Dynamic Duo is not my favourite hip hop group, I know they are from the same MOVEMENT with DT, baby T, epik High blablabla, but the song you mention is the exact route today’s K-hip hop is heading to (very light), which I don’t really fancy. The kind of hip hop that I fell in love with are the cruel and passionate ones from artists like DT, baby T and Cho PD, which are becoming really rare today, when popular mainstream groups like epik high and big bang are a huge success by ‘softening’ the movement (by no means I dislike them, they just don’t reach the highest emotional level for me). There has been announcements recently about a quality singer of the past named Park Ji Yoon, and her debut in early April, which strangely isn’t happening and there is no informations about it as to why. O well.

    By the way, do you speak Korean? 😀

  8. Flash Sword Irene Says:

    I am sure Akira does not mind what you write, but I just could not help joking about it. That specific post he made was just begging to induce a joke in my mind at the time. Lol.

    Mononoke is one of the few animes that left such an impression on me that I felt that it was well worth trying to appreciate its full value. An experimental type of anime that succeeds as much as this one certainly raises eyebrows, especially with its dark horse status. Admittedly, the anime does have enough going on to allow someone to appreciate something from the experience. I just could not help but relay the suggestion since the origins are interesting and well worth the time.

    The main problem we both seem to have is the matter of taking what one can get. Dynamic Duo’s last single is exemplary of this since I was just willing to accept it for its performances which were fairly decent enough for enjoyment. At the sametime, a year in K-Hip Hop is bad when even Leessang does not produce something decent. (Their last album tanked pretty hard earlier this year IMO.) Since I tend to rant on trends and whatnot, admittedly that is what things have come down to for me.

    Speaking of the legendary Tasha (T), I actually thought her comeback album was not indicative of her true talents and nature as an artist. The “light” and “hard” comparisons are explicitly visible when comparing that specific album to a past work such as her only predominant rap album from years ago. Even the work she did in Uptown was far better quality material. (The newly formed Uptown produced a pretty sorry album this year, making me miss the original.)

    Despite the rarities of what you fell in love with, at least artists like a Cho PD or an MC Sniper still exist. Problematically, even those kinds of artists can fall to trends at some point, even Sniper with his reggae fetish. Notably with my beginnings in pop, I might be able to tolerate the “light” direction of things a little better. Not that I believe the material has been dynamite quality as I think you already know.

    Personally, I dislike Big Bang with an obvious disdain for their work since its not even as good as it really should be. Although, YG Family has already lost tons of credibility and I only look towards their R&B sector since I can not expect anything respectable elsewhere. Regarding Park Ji Yoon, she sounds familiar, although I would probably confuse her with YG’s Bom Park(?). That is unless, this is the same person we are talking about.

    I do not really speak Korean since I am actually Chinese with Cantonese more as my forte. I do have plenty of Korean friends (online especially) that can basically interpret songs for me. Even then, at times I can just tell when a song is crap without understanding it at all. I know it is weird, but I guess crap is just universal. Lol.

  9. gaguri Says:

    I fully agree with your opinion on T’s new album but I still think it’s a progress for her as an artist. Like she said, she’s trying to experiment with different genres, different styles and trying to invent herself. I think few of her old titles, like her ‘Memories’ and ‘Soul Flower’ are pretty much a perfection in hip hop, and in my opinion it is dangerous as an artist to stay with what they are comfortable with, there is danger of becoming stagnant. Obviously her ballad is not as inspiring as her biting rap, but it was refreshing to see her try something different (although in a way, it was bit sad to see her resorting to mainstream ballad we’ve seen 1000 times before in K-music scene). She is one of my all time artists so I really hope she finds something that inspires us all again soon.

  10. Flash Sword Irene Says:

    Your sentiments on the dangers of dwelling much in one’s own comfort level are understandable. Moderation is more or less key since there is the obvious danger in riding the course of experimentation enough to settle as a comfort zone in itself. After all, the last thing needed are more Joosucs or Wondergirls saturating the scene even more. There is an inherent difference between taking established conventions, combining modernization, and one’s own flavor as opposed to doing “X” just because. (It would also help if an artist does something correct since that is a problem.)

    Getting back to topic on Mononoke, the anime itself is an example of what I am trying to say. Where, the original material (legends/myths/stories) and traditional style paintings are expressing the soul of their core mechanics, yet the more modernized ways of animation and storytelling are blended in to work their way into a pure beauty. The chemistry in Mononoke between even the simplest of elements is missing in today’s music. Where, the artist and their “reinventing” sounds lack the kind of balance to effectively express an extension of their true identity, while stifling the creative purpose/growth at the same time.

    To sum it up, I do not really mind progression through experimentation. I wish artists would use a little more careful discretion and work their way up. Hopefully, T comes back strong since we know she has great potential.

  11. kanazuchi Says:

    I love Mononoke and I love Gankutsuou. This is rather unrelated: where did you find the first pic in your post? It’s beautiful and is there a bigger version of the pic?

  12. gaguri Says:

    Good to hear more people appreciating Mononoke, it is quite under appreciated. I can’t remember for the life of me where I got that image, sorry…but you can click on the picture to get a slightly larger file. Hope that helps.

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