Ayakashi: Bakeneko (2006) + Mononoke (2007)

I got two words for the tl;dr crowd: absolutely brilliant!

Mononoke is a story about the Medicine Seller who wanders across medieval Japan (in the last few episodes it takes place in 1920’s instead!) and is dragged into exorcising malicious spirits from time to time. These spirits are never born out of nothing, as the evil spirits are summoned by the wicked deeds done by humans and the spirits want to exact revenge on those awful people. So before the Medicine Seller can exorcise the malevolent spirit, he needs to know the form, the reason and its regret before he can properly exorcise the spirit. After you get to know why the spooky monster is there, then you can ask yourself who’s the real monster in the story.

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Mononoke is a mystery – horror anime, and boy, does it have spades of both! The series is divided into multi-episode arcs and it’s literally the anime equivalent of a page-turner. When I started off with Ayakashi’s (2006) Bakeneko arc, I thought I could ease in to the series with watching just one episode. You can already imagine how that went! Of course I had to watch 3 episodes back-to-back before I could call it a day.

So that we’d all be on the same page here I’ll explain why I’m talking about Ayakashi when I’m supposed to be reviewing Mononoke instead. Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales is an anthology anime and in its last 3 episodes it introduced the Medicine Seller character and the trademark ukiyo-e style (which is that fancy-ass Japanese wood-cut painting style just like Hokusai’s Great Wave of Kanagawa), which of course carried on to the subsequent series. So Mononoke (2007) is the spin-off of the Ayakashi’s last 3 episodes and it’s all about the Medicine Seller and his wacky adventures.

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Not only are the stories gripping to their bitter and bloody end, the visual style is really psychedelic with the poppy bright colors and almost every surface being covered with a painting and a paper-screen overlay. The stories are presented like a puppet play, with each episode and intermission starting off with silken doors sliding open. The opening of the curtain – so to speak. The music is fitting for the period as the soundtrack heavily uses screeching shakuhachi flutes and thundering taiko drums, making it sound like a samurai epic.

Unfortunately, there are a few things I didn’t like. For example, sometimes the characters talk…… like this.. for dramatic…… effect. It’s kind of ridiculous at times, but ehh, it’s not really that bad. Plus I think the actual exorcism itself is too over-the-top Dragon Ball Z for me, but luckily it happens only briefly before a story arc concludes.

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Should you see this anime? If you like mystery / supernatural stories, and not the Scooby-Doo kind of shit, but actually scary stories, then absolutely! Do you like people in kimonos? Boy, does this series deliver on that. In any case, it’s a great show and this one gets my full blessings. See this anime! You won’t regret it.

The Hidden Blade (2004)

The Hidden Blade is a story about Katagiri, a low level samurai, as he struggles to act humanely while staying loyal to his status. This is all set on a backdrop of the Bakumatsu era (~1853-1864), which was the time when Japan was opened to foreign influence and which culminated with the Meiji revolution, where the power went from Tokugawa’s feudal warlords to the Japanese emperor.

The story itself is built in a classic example of the jo-ha-kyu structure: it starts off slowly, builds up to a culmination like the ocean waves, sweeps over the edge and then calms into a lull. Katagiri just wanted the best to his former maid Kie, so he rescues her from the abusive family she got married into, which of course raised some eyebrows across the town, as Katagiri was still a bachelor and a samurai. Why would a samurai worry about a peasant girl anyway if not for carnal reasons?

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“The north-country spring, when leaves burst forth
as if waiting for the snow to melt – was a time I passed out
in an empty, barren state of mind…” – Katagiri

I was actually quite surprised to see that Isao Tomita made the music for this movie. I recognized his trademark phase distorted sweeping orchestral sound, and when I saw his name on the opening credits, I knew I was in for a treat. While the picture told the story in muted, almost pastel colors, Tomita allowed the movie to do the talking and his music just accented the key points. Unfortunately since Tomita perfected the phase distortion during the 80’s, it gave the movie a bit of a dated feel to it. But since the music was so sparse, it wasn’t that big of an issue.

Katagiri’s position as an outer circle samurai is also exemplified by the visual language. He’s barely noticable as he sits in artillery class with the rest of the samurai wearing almost identical shade of brown kimono. Everywhere he goes, he’s just one of the many filling his duty, but when he’s finally alone and people treat him as an actual person, then Katagiri gets his chance to shine. The film’s color is very earthen, keeping it to the green-yellow spectrum and is only broken with only the shine of metal or by the blooming flowers. I suppose it’s meant to show that Katagiri is also one of the few sakura falling to the ground, being most beautiful during its flight.

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Honor and humility are the themes of this movie, as Katagiri never boasts, but simply obeys his standing and his duties. For him, time could only stop and he would wield his sword for his master forever. But the rigid frames set by the caste he’s born in doesn’t allow him to do the things he would most desire. To be a samurai means to live and die for his master, and so he can’t allow himself to bring dishonor to his name and his family. So he must keep a strong poker-face and rebel against the injustice under the strict rules he’s subjected to until it’s no longer possible and he must make a hard yet needed decision.

I think this movie was quite good for what it was, but it’s definitely not an Akira Kurosawa flick filled with dramatic pathos or a Takashi Miike’s samurai slasher. It’s a beautifully taken story about a man doing the right thing, and I think it’s still one of the better movies I’ve seen this year. I recommend this movie to you, but beware! It’s a samurai slice-of-life at first, so if you’re not a real big fan of the whole modernization idea and you’re more of a “guts and blood” kind of a person, you might want to give this movie a pass. But if you have a long attention span, then give this movie a go.

**** / *****

Masterpieces of our time: Tamako Love Story

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There’s a saying that “When you assume, you make an ass of you and me.” When yesterday I had to pick out a movie for the movie night, then there was only one condition: it had to shorter than a hour and a half. So I ran through my entire movie library. I had a ton of classics, but they were all marathons. Finally I found a single suitable candidate, and that was Tamako Love Story.

“Pshaw!” I smugly began my tirade. “You know, I watched the anime and it sucked! There was this annoying bird, everybody was making mochi and nothing really happened the whole series! I bet this movie is gonna be all about nothing happening!” My friend told me to shut up and put the movie on, so I did.

Usually I’m not wrong, but man, was I talking out of my freaking ass! Tamako Love Story blew me away. I had done it great injustice and let me explain to you why.

Before Tamako Love Story was Tamako Market – a series about a cheerful girl named Tamako living an idyllic life as a traditional mochi-maker’s daughter inside the Usagiyama Shopping District with her grandpa and widowed dad. Right across the street is a modern mochi-shop and there lives Mochizou, a cheerful boy who has the hots for Tamako. The anime focused more on the daily life of the residents inside the shopping district and their happy everyday lives. And, oh, there’s Dera, an annoying talking bird from an unknown island kingdom who’s looking for a bride for his liege, so he’ll try to sell off Tamako to his prince.

Nothing really happened in the anime. Dera was an annoying prick the whole series, Tamako was oblivious to Mochizou’s advances, some colorful character got some air-time. Oh, and by the way, the island kingdom prince actually “got together” (using these words really loosely here) with his fortune-teller girl instead, but not really… Status quo was the name of the game. The series was sweet and heartwarming, but it certainly wasn’t memorable. Only two moments stuck out for me: the one part where Tamako’s little sister fell in love with a boy at kindergarten and the second one where Tamako found a tape containing his dad’s high school song which he sang in the school festival to woo Tamako’s future mother. Everything else was a blur of colorful sweets and flowers.

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I must’ve been on drugs or something but Dera got a genuine laugh out of me this time!

Tamako Love Story improved on the series in the sense that

  1. Dera was inside only for a short humorous vignette before the actual story. Good riddance! I really loathed that bird!
  2. Things finally happened and they mattered!

IMDB’s synopsis says: “Tamako’s life changes when her best childhood friend, Mochizou suddenly confessed his love.” That’s it? This is also how they promoted the movie during JAFF on 2014. A movie that’s “just” about a boy confessing his love to a girl. Of course the movie didn’t get much attention outside the rom-com crowd and so I ignored it ’til yesterday when I chanced upon it.

Holy crap, did they really go ham with this movie. The script was tight, editing was absolutely spot-on, the music was pitch-perfect. I loved how the colors were pale but vibrant, animation detailed yet smooth. The movie itself kinda reminded me “5 centimeters per second”, both in art style and story-wise, so Makoto Shinkai fans out there – watch this movie!

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Hello darkness, my friend.

Tamako Love Story wasn’t just a boy-meets-girl rom-com. It was actually a story about Tamako accepting the death of her mother and finally dealing with her suppressed fears and emotions about growing up and moving on from the safe womb of the shopping district. It isn’t explicitly said, but Tamako’s cheerful and friendly nature was all a cover-up for her deep emotional pain she had inside of her ever since her mother passed away.

During that time of grief, Midori stepped into Tamako’s life. In the anime, it felt like Midori had lesbian feelings towards Tamako, but in the movie, Midori’s backstory and motives were finally explained. It was right after Tamako’s mother’s funeral when Midori became a guardian figure for the innocent Tamako, keeping her safe from all the ills of the world. So when Mochizou confessed his love to Tamako, Midori at first pushed Mochizou away. But her steely facade softened as she realized that Mochizou’s feelings were true and Midori stepped down from her role as Tamako’s guardian, allowing Tamako to fly out of her nest. All of this is done with almost samurai-esque brevity on Midori’s part – when she talks, she shoots straight to the point.

All of this is explained not by words, but in pictures instead – a masterpiece of the show, don’t tell idea. When Mochizou confessed his love to Tamako, Tamako first fell into the river and then she ran away from him. During her whole run home, everything’s a haze to her as she sprints through the bright lights and talking colors wondering about her health and why her clothes are so wet, giving the viewer a perfect insight into Tamako’s confused and excited inner world.

The visual motifs themselves were loaded to the brim with hidden meanings. The movie starts off with Mochizou letting an apple roll off his table. When Tamako fell into the river, it was that moment when she was reborn.  And of course Tamako’s a part of the girl’s baton club and obviously she’s not really good at catching the obvious phallic representation of her insecurities!

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I gotta admit, I’m hella envious about the guy’s music stash!

Tamako’s choice of music is also pretty narrow: she literally listens to a single tape the whole movie, the one with her dad’s love song to Tamako’s mother. The only moment Tamako listens to anything else is inside a psych-rock vinyl cafe. The music’s droning and wild in the cafe just as the girl’s inner psyche and the man behind the counter serves dark, bitter coffee with deep koan-like truths. The man’s advice: change is painful, but it is needed to grow. The coffee is bitter, but so is life. Don’t dunk in the milk just yet.

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I think this might be one of the best movies Kyoto Animation has ever done. The whole story is about acceptance of change, the tumultuous first romance, of growing up and becoming independent and thus vulnerable. For the sweet, innocent Tamako, she finally stopped being oblivious to the things going on around her and she finally got to know more about both Mochizou and herself. While in the series nothing happened and Tamako went almost leaps and bounds to keep everything – her family, her friends, her shopping district – just the same way as she was a child forever, in the movie she learned to embrace the change and its inherent insecurities.

So if you’re on the fence if you should see this movie, I can’t stress this enough: if you saw the series and didn’t like it, watch the movie. If you didn’t know about Tamako series at all, watch the movie anyway. There’s no shoujo-manga misunderstanding crap – Tamako Love Story will heal you and it is really worth your time.