ANIME REVIEW: “The Morose Mononokean” – Animation Scoop

ANIME REVIEW: “The Morose Mononokean”

We don’t really have a word in English that corresponds to the Japanese yokai. They aren’t ghosts as we think of them; nor do they correspond to Western demons or ogres. Their appearance is often monstrous, but they’re not all huge or ugly. Yokai can be grotesque, hideous, funny-looking or even attractive.

There doesn’t seem to be any limit on how many or how many types there are—writers and artists often invent new ones. There are woodblock prints of yokai, books on yokai, and they often turn up in manga and anime. Manga artist Shigeru Mizuki’s home town of Sakaiminato has 100 bronze statues of his yokai characters on display. “Showa,” Mizuki’s personal overview of 20th century Japanese history, is partially narrated by a yokai he invented: Nezumi-Otoko (“Rat-Man”), who has a large face, buck teeth and whiskers. In Isao Takahata’s Pom Poko, when the shape-shifting tanuki (raccoon-dogs) try scare away the humans who are destroying their forest, they stage a fantastic yokai parade—only to have a local amusement park claim credit for the spectacle.

Based on a manga by Kiri Wazawa, the broadcast series The Morose Mononokean (2016) centers on high school freshman Ashiya Hanae (Aaron Dismuke), who is anything but morose. En route to his first day of high school, Ashiya stumble across curious object that looks like old fur throw pillow with three tails. He gently moves it off the path, assuming whoever lost it will come looking for it. Over the next several days, something saps Ashiya’s energy: he staggers up to the school entrance and collapses. His classmates start referring to him as “the guy in the nurse’s office.”

The furry creature Ashiya moved was a yokai. It’s gratefully attached itself to him, weakening him. After several exhausting days, he’d freed by Abeno Haruitsuki (Jason Liebrecht), a handsome classmate who appears to be wearing traditional kimono, rather than the requisite school uniform. Abeno is the Master of the Mononokean, a magical room with traditional tatami mattes on the floor. (The names comes from Mononoke–as in Princess Mononoke–a wandering, hostile spirit in Japanese folklore.) The room is actually a yokai that communicates through the hanging scroll in the alcove.

Abeno’s job is to is to exorcise yokai stuck in everyday reality—“the Mundane World”–so they can return to their proper homes in the Underworld. For removing the furry Yokai, Abeno demands a ¥1 million fee from Ashiya, who doesn’t have a fraction of the sum. Abeno agrees to let him work off the debt by assisting him in his exorcisms.

Abeno and Ashiya form a classic mismatched pair. Abeno’s maturity makes him seem older; people don’t believe he’s just a high school freshman. But he’s also stern, impatient and precise. He wants to do his work as efficiently as possible, without Ashiya getting in his way.

Although he’ll never be valedictorian, Ashiya has a warmth and kindness that enables him to perceive problems and communicate with humans and yokai. He adopts the yokai that sapped his energy as a sort of pet—“Fuzzy.” He helps Big Boss Scree, a yokai that looks like cross between hedgehog and artichoke, endure the pain needed to save his offspring and join them in Underworld. His unaffected good nature wins the hearts of the creatures he meets. When Ashiya gets in trouble, the yokai come to his aid, which surprises Abeno.

Eventually, Abeno develops a grudging affection for Ashiya, but he’s loath to admit it. Although they remain nothing more than friends, the mismatched duo resembles many of the romantic pairs in shonen-ai (boys’ love) series. Abeno often looks and sounds like the cold imperious Yuki in Gravitation, while Ashiya recalls his cheerfully enthusiastic boyfriend, Shuichi. Perhaps opposites attract as friendships as well as love affairs.

The Morose Mononokean
Crunchyroll/Funimation: $64.98 4 discs, DVD and Blu-ray

Charles Solomon

Charles Solomon

Internationally known animation historian and critic, Charles Solomon has written over 15 books books including Enchanted Drawings: The History Of Animation, The Art of Disney's Frozen,The Making of Peanuts Animation, and Tale as Old as Time: The Art and Making of Disney Beauty and the Beast .
Charles Solomon
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