Reviewby James Beckett,
The Morose Mononokean
All Hanae Ashiya wants to do is start high school off on the right foot, but his optimistic plans are busted when a strange fuzzy yokai that nobody else can see latches on to him so hard that Hanae is confined to the infirmary for weeks. Thankfully, his luck begins to change when he spies a flyer at his school advertising the services of an exorcist named Haruitsuki Abeno. This cranky spiritualist is able to identify the troublesome fluffball's needs and quickly sends him on his way back to the spirit world, but Abeno isn't one to do work for free. He soon informs Hanae that in order to pay off his outstanding debts, he must work for him at the Mononokean, Abeno's sentient other-dimensional base of operations. Hanae might have wished for a typical high school life, but maybe working amongst spirits and demons with a grumpy master of the mystical arts will end up being more memorable.
If I had to pick any one word to describe the experience of watching The Morose Mononokean, it would probably be “cute”. From beginning to end, this is a gentle story revolving around two mismatched friends who make their living assisting yokai, the Japanese spirits that populated myths, novels, video games, and anime since time immemorial. Some series, like GeGeGe no Kitarō, have used the supernatural beasties to fuel horror-tinged mysteries, while a franchise like Yōkai Watch has used them as capable Pokémon substitutes to market toys and games. Meanwhile, The Morose Mononokean eschews any pretense of horror or action to adopt an infinitely more chill approach, carving out a nice little niche for itself by way of its modest ambitions.
Much of The Morose Mononokean's success can be attributed to the strength of its core leading duo, Hanae and Haruitsuki. Hanae is the kind of earnestly dorky protagonist that proves perfect for this kind of slice-of-life series – he starts off understandably afraid of yokai, but he's such a natural wellspring of empathy and compassion that he can't help but eventually embrace his role as Haruitsuki's assistant. The titular Master of the Mononokean is a great foil to Hanae, providing the experience with the spirit world necessary to guide Hanae along his journey while being just curmudgeonly enough to keep things from getting too chummy too fast. The development of this pair's relationship is the closest thing this series has to an overarching plot, so watching their chemistry grow and evolve over 13 episodes is a pleasure.
The stories this series tells prove to be both The Morose Mononokean's biggest strength and one of its most potentially alienating factors. Despite the specter of Hanae's debt kicking off the story, the vast majority of The Morose Mononokean's episodic “mysteries” remain very low-stakes. Almost all of the yokai that this duo encounter are simply friendly spirits in need of a little assistance. Whether it's playing hide and seek with a mischievous kitsune or helping an old spirit return a lost wedding ring to its former owner, most every problem Hanae and Haruitsuki tackle can be solved with simple open communication. This can make for emotionally satisfying storytelling, but some viewers might understandably be bored by this supernatural series' lack of action and spectacle.
Basically, The Morose Mononokean takes that old “the real treasure was the friends we made along the way!” cliché and earnestly runs with it. The chief pleasure of watching this show comes from seeing Hanae and Haruitsuki slowly amass a cadre of friends and allies who all come back around to lend a helping hand later. Sometimes our heroes are seeking the help of a pair of intimidating demons who run a medicine shop in the underworld, while other episodes involve their adventures with a young teenager named Zenko, whose quiet temple life is constantly being interrupted by our protagonists' shenanigans. While none of the cast outside of the core duo are especially amazing, they all fit within the show's generally pleasant tone, and I grew to appreciate the time I spent with them over the course of the season.
If The Morose Mononokean has any major fault, it's the average-at-best art and animation. While the series never looks bad per se, it also never goes out of its way to impress, visually speaking. Scenes that take place in the Underworld do adopt a painterly aesthetic that provides a nice change-up from the show's usual style, but most of the animation outside of those scenes is uninspiring, and the generally flat cinematography doesn't help matters much either. Thankfully, the way the series uses CG animation for the majority of the yokai works better than expected, since the creatures are meant to look out of place most of the time.
At the end of the day, the show's charming script and likable cast remain its true focal point, and both the original Japanese dub and Funimation's English adaptation do an admirable job of making those characters shine. Some of the side characters sound more flat in the English version, especially Hanae's classmates, but the yokai all bristle with energy and personality, and both Aaron Dismuke and Jason Liebrecht do solid work as Hanae and Haruitsuki, respectively. I preferred the Japanese dub overall, as some of the English dub actors' affectations weren't to my personal tastes, but The Morose Mononokean is a solid story regardless of the language you choose. Funimation's Blu-Ray/DVD combo offers no extras outside of the usual clean theme songs, so this set is aimed squarely at those who just want to own the show with a dub.
Overall, I enjoyed this series despite its unimpressive production values. While the story's laid-back style and focus on empathy over spectacle won't be to everyone's liking, it's certainly worth a look for anyone who appreciates yokai stories, or for those who just want a no-frills buddy comedy to get them through a rainy weekend.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B+
Animation : C+
Art : B-
Music : B-
+ Charming leads and laid-back dynamic make for an easy watch, strong cast of supporting characters
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