- The Medicine Seller as interpreter
- The Spacetime of Grudges
- Violence Against Women
Mononoke is a detective show with a definite formula. The Medicine Seller (薬売り) exorcises mononoke, monsters borne from the unresolved and secret grudges of those who have been wronged. To do so, he must know the shape, the truth, and the reason of the mononoke. Only once he has all three pieces can he draw his sword and resolve the imbalance that has been created by violence, neglect, and the resulting ill karma.
Every episode is driven forward by revelations. The mononoke makes itself known as a danger in every story, manifesting as sounds, images, and violent action. In one episode, the mononoke strangles a sword-wielding man. In another, it takes a subway train and its passengers hostage. An old grudge or unresolved tension has made itself known in the present, mundane space. Nothing functions normally in these cases–present and past are conflated, events occur over and over again, spaces redouble themselves or change dramatically. Nothing is allowed to move or to transform as usual until the suspension of the grudge is broken by the Medicine Seller. In that sense, he is one who reconciles, who acts in order to keep the mundane world free of glitches.
As I already mentioned, however, he cannot act without first listening. He listens to a pregnant woman and an innkeeper discuss their pasts, he pieces together a story of forbidden love from an incestuous priest, tying a multi-vocal story into a truth. This act of uniting various stories, of listening to every witness without judgment and finding an actionable principle that unites them is the act of interpretation. Fundamentally, the Medicine Seller is an interpreter, someone who listens to human and mononoke alike to determine what must be done to appease the supernatural grudge. In his interpretation, he brings together fragments that were once separate or incomplete, which often means bringing secret or taboo acts or desires into the light.
Of course, this does not make him fundamentally different from any detective. In an old article on the methods used by American detectives, Captain Duncan Matheson writes:
Every crime tells a story capable of interpretation. A peace officer that cannot read the story has no value in its solution. This is where the detective comes in. He makes a survey of the premises, the scene of the crime, the neighborhood and all the intimate details connected therewith.¹
A good detective story is mechanically elegant. The detective unravels the story for us and we are privy to all the pieces of the story and are invited to make our own interpretations. Typically, the greatest pleasure of the mystery story is in being given a surprising or slightly twisted version of a story we already think we know. The pieces can fit together many ways, but ultimately only one way is true, only one way of looking at things enables the detective to make the correct judgment. So not every interpretation has equal value.
For Mononoke and the Medicine Seller, the crime is not usually something contemporary or, sometimes, even recent. These are crimes that have lain dormant, curdling into malevolence while they remain unsolved. Mononoke, whether they can speak or not, are witnesses to as well as traces of the crimes from which they emerge. They often take an agency in the solving of the case, and the Medicine Seller has to weigh their desires and needs as well as those of the human beings affected by them. Part of the pleasures of Mononoke for the viewer, then, is the discovery of something human and recognizable at the core of beings who appear completely alien and incomprehensible. By unraveling their story and their reason for being, their shape and actions become understandable. The Medicine Seller bridges us to these strange beings, acting as a medium as well as an exorcist. Because there is no placating the mononoke without listening to its peculiar voice, which is as unique as any person’s.
2. The Spacetime of Grudges
Before thinking about violence against women in Mononoke, we can first consider the architecture. Space takes numerous forms in the show, and while many scenes are staged as flat tableaux and composed like Edo-era Japanese prints and paintings, in more dramatic moments the camera will push rapidly forward and backward through depths that were barely hinted at earlier. This sense of hurtling forward and backward accentuates the strangeness of the space, especially when apparent exits are closed, rooms multiply copies of themselves, and the world outside a fragile vessel (boat, train) becomes demonic and hellish.
When the mononoke warp space and time, it’s usually as an act of aggression against the perpetrators. They arrest the normal flows and create pockets of stasis or chaos where reality is uncertain and everyone loses their bearings. Passage is often denied, whether through rendering escape illusory or impossible or simply binding someone in place. And the show constructs space differently depending on the nature of the grudge. The shape of the mononoke is not the only thing determined by its truth and reason, but the shape of everything.
3. Violence Against Women
In the third arc of the show, a woman confesses to killing her entire family. According to the law, her fate is already sealed by her words. The Medicine Seller, however, is not satisfied, sensing a mononoke. His skepticism and questioning of the imprisoned woman leads to her realization that her violence was not actually directed at her family but, rather, at herself. She committed a virtual suicide because of being trapped in abusive status marriage. As mentioned in part 2, the spaces of the episode shift the nature of the crime or crimes. Her conflict, although it originates from outside circumstances and physical and mental abuse, becomes confined within herself. The arc therefore begins in a prison cell and finishes with her escaping through a window, running away from her abusive family once and for all.
The intimate nature of the violence committed against her contrasts with the explosive publicity of the crime to which she confesses. She says that she slaughtered her family and hung their bodies from a tree in plain sight. Her rage, so heavily internalized, at last explodes like dynamite, creating an unmistakable sign. She publicly confesses as well. Nevertheless, these confessions and signs turn out to be illusions, even falsehoods. Most of the arc takes place in the confined and intimate spaces of her memory, which has a confusing, repetitive quality. In order to lay these illusions bare, the Medicine Seller crafts his own illusion, a man in a Noh mask, in order to show the woman how her situation had robbed her of her self-worth and her humanity, causing her to seek her own destruction through execution.
Nearly every arc revolves around or involves a similar act of violence against women. These acts typically punish “improper” affections or desires or women’s attempts to enter masculine spaces. For instance, the final arc deals with the sensational murder of a woman journalist who wanted to expose corruption and collusion between the local mayor and the capitalists who wanted to build a subway in the city. In the end, not only is the murderer haunted, by various witnesses all comprehend a much more complete picture of the crime, facilitated by both the mononoke and the Medicine Seller.
Violence against women is often concealed by shame and taboo, both in the show and in the real world. The function of the Medicine Seller is to go beyond these boundaries and reveal the truth of the matter. Although we know little about the Medicine Seller and he appears as an impartial judge or actor, he in fact always taking sides in one way or another. After all, the revelation of truth never affects two people the same way. And many would rather live with the affliction of a mononoke, an undying grudge, than ever allow the truth to come to light. The Medicine Seller’s interpretation, the mosaic composed of all the little truths, shatters those who are protected by customary silence and power.
1. Duncan Matheson, “The Technique of the American Detective,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 146 (1929): 214. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1017564.