Acquisitive Prescription, Countervenom, Forbidden Procedure.
“What do you do?” is one of the first lines of icebreaker or time killer questions one tends to run into.
It is not used as a question about hobbies. Interests. Volunteer work. Or other aspects of your life you may be quite proud of or see as embodying you as a person. The intent is instead more “What tasks of labor do you perform as a means of financial exchange for the resources to stay alive?”
There is a certain social prestige to various lines of work over others. Speaking from the standpoint of someone born in the United States, even here it goes steps further than that. A lot of our ability to acquire timely healthcare is still tied to various employer insurance agreements. Which is further amplified for the ways we split up things like dental, vision, psychological, and other coverage.
Over this previous summer, I was able to get my first new pair of eyeglasses since I graduated high school.
Which was in 2006.
Society is still opening up to being, well, more open about these sorts of situations. They are still often seen as personal failings, which can cause folks to clam up even more. To bunker sentiments down and out of sight. I had to do a lot of work to maintain that one pair of glasses for almost a decade. Maintaining appearances can be hard. And I say that with the full knowledge of the perhaps silly looking little internet name I keep for myself.
So I find a lot of value and interest in traveling medical stories like Mononoke, and what they allow us to explore.
Mononoke is a television series produced by Toei Animation in 2007, under the directorial helm of Kenji Nakamura.
He has a definite popularity in certain circles of anime blogging, and it is easy to understand why. His directed works, from Welcome to Irabu’s Office (also known as Trapeze and Kūchū Buranko) to the Gatchaman Crowds entries, have explosive visual ornamentation and design. Colors with their contrasts and complementary flavors like a zealous ice cream sundae of layers. Worlds which achieve their visual cohesion through flagrant abuse of hue centrifuges. If screen space is potential real estate condos to sell, then Nakamura is one of the most gung-ho brokers you would find. He’s only in his mid-40’s.
I should mention I am of the camp which likes Nakamura a lot. I am glad he is around, and has the potential of so many more years ahead of him.
Mononoke is a spin-off property from Toei’s earlier television anime series Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales. While that series has three arcs, two of those are adaptations from earlier famed historical theatre works. Nanboku Tsuruya IV’s Yotsuya Kaidan, and Kyōka Izumi’s Tenshu Monogatari. Each arc of Ayakashi also had a different director for their duration, with Nakamura having the finale run. But the last arc was an original story, following a medicine seller wandering into a supernatural event. On the one hand this hedged Ayakashi‘s bets. It would not be “just” adaptations of works from past centuries, for good or ill. At the same time, original things provide potential avenues for intellectual property expansion.
To walk back to Mononoke, a full twelve episodes of the medicine seller, it is easy for me to understand how he could find such success.
Like the commercially and critically successful Mushishi, our central figure travels from village to town all across the country. Along the way, they wind up meeting all kinds of people. In turn, the ways certain troubles of theirs snake and spiderweb into supernatural circumstances to solve. In Mushishi, Ginko’s prescriptions and advice tend to skew toward coexistence and respect for the environment of life. The creatures of the series being on the level of ethereal bugs. They do not mean any ill will, on their own. The series then dealing in questions of moving on, restoring senses of normality, and so on. Things which had long impacted people, and knowing those elements were still out there. But, bettering their relations with others and their place in the world through changes in actions which were hurting them.
Mononoke’s take on a medicine seller tasked with giving solutions to supernatural ailments is to change where and how these forces manifest and strike. The mononoke in Mononoke are not spirits of a given place, like in a Mushishi ecosystem. There is no spiritual life force layer of reality they flow from on their own. Rather, they are the manifestation of some built up human psychological trauma. Broken loose or cast aside, they run free. Their human source may have long since suppressed this weight. But in unhealthy ways where the weight itself remains a wrecking ball all its own.
Reflective of this, our nameless medicine seller here needs specific details before he can apply treatment. A triangulation of the shape, truth, and reasoning of the past situation which birthed the mononoke. With no judgement from him, what happened to allow things to progress to such a stage. This results in him being able to draw a special spiritual sword to slice the spirit down. The subjects mind in position to be at ease again. But this is more akin to a doctor finding the right spot while prepping for surgery.
The cut itself is little next to the overall picture of what happened before, what comes next, and a healthier patient. I would never go so far to call Mononoke an action show. The “fight” scenes are so purposelessly small. And I do not think the protagonist carrying a sword makes the series any less sharp than Mushishi.
Ginko and the nameless medicine seller here are each specialists in different fields. Each trying to treat different kinds of ailments, be they social, personal or otherwise. And they’re each doing it almost as a kind of special interest, compared to the more consistent money of general purpose preventatives or tonics they can whip up from from the peddler boxes on their backs. So that their toolsets are a bit different is more than appropriate.
For as much as promotional art may show the sword held and out, our unnamed traveler by all means investigates and asks a whole lot of questions before he can put a spirit under the knife.
To take this one step further, for how lavish the visual production of Mononoke is, the performance of the medicine seller himself is so understated. And so key to it all working together.
Takahiro Sakurai is only a few years younger than director Nakamura. But, he but brings an armada of experience to the table as a vocal talent. Quite literally hundreds of anime under his belt. In addition to an equally hefty resume of video game casts, live action dubbing, and so on. To select some recent headliner works, Psycho-Pass fans would know him as Shogo Makishima. Meanwhile, on another psychological end of the spectrum, he was the deadpanning voice engine for Polar Bear’s puns in Polar Bear’s Cafe.
The medicine sellers speech patterns benefits immeasurably from the toolbox he would later get to use on those later programs. Full as they are of slow, rhythmic, low tones. The kind of delivery where other characters in the script might question if something he said was intended as a joke. But his delivery was so spot on that in conjunction with his mysterious background it makes their questioning believable. He maintains a very fine, precise range of even delivery, like the medicine seller was making artisan craft breads one chews on.
He is practically purring the way he draws out an “Ooooooh” or such after certain developments. And as we see the medicine seller across a variety of situations, we also learn and see how he is capable of jokes. The way he makes them, and his tells. He is not what one would called lighthearted, but the dry way he speaks has nuances which someone just meeting him for the first time could slam into the wrong way in an icebreaker situation.
We get to know him better than anyone, and travel with him in ways others never could. In more ways than one.
The medicine seller reminds me in part of the lead from Hōzuki no Reitetsu.
They are each focused on aspects of order and comprehensive solutions. To not cut corners when problems need to be solved. They have a certain coolheadedness about each of them (this playing into the official english name of, well, Hozuki’s Coolheadedness), though there is a voical megaphone factor Hozuki has at his disposal. Which is hard to imagine our medicine seller ever using. But they each also have their quiet humors and graces. Like Hozuki’s tending to his multi-championship tier goldfish flowers from hell.
It is the kind of thing where one could almost imagine them being brothers or cousins somewhere down a family tree. One just a bit more business management oriented, while the other perhaps picked up a poetry minor on the side during counseling school. Hōzuki no Reitetsu is one of the closer television broadcast anime outside of Nakamura’s wheelhouse I would liken Mononoke to in visuals. Trying to meld classic art styles with modern techniques. To give it life and breath on screen with maximum effort.
Even with so much packed into the frame, so much color and camerawork, what I appreciated the most was the space. That is, the time taken for the people in each story. Every arc in Mononoke is two or three episodes long. For how striking its appearances take shape and for how carefully I truly have to cut down my screenshots, it does not forget the actual reason one should be here.
Mononoke, title be as it may, is a selection of stories about people. Where they came from, what damaged them, and how they can find degrees of rest after so long. Ghosts and monsters are just a first impression.
Which is perhaps the driest and wryest thing the medicine seller could ever tell us.