It's a spin-off anime series from the previous year's Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales
, starring the Medicine Seller. It's just as freaky as its parent, if not a bit more so.
The show's premise is that there's a sinister Medicine Seller wandering around feudal Japan, killing ayakashi and mononoke. Imagine ghost stories, but weirder. You might have a hellstorm surrounding the entire building, making eyeballs ten feet across and tearing to shreds anyone who tries to leave. You might have a goldfish demon that climbs from the sea, can warp your brain by playing a musical instrument and asks you what you fear most in the world.
These things are similar to ghosts in that they'll generally exist for a reason that stems from the dark, disgusting things the rest of the cast have been trying to hide. Supporting characters in these stories are unlikely to be what they seem. What's more, digging up all this dirty laundry is crucial for the plot because the Medicine Seller needs to know these demons' Shape, Truth and Reason in order to be able to destroy them. (He's magical too. He has a gleeful sword and a transformation sequence.) Theoretically the monsters should often be the most sympathetic characters... but they're not, because they're just echoes of the humans' horror. They're hatred, fear, greed and other negative emotions given flesh and an urge to kill.
If you include Bakeneko from Ayakashi episodes 9-11, there are fifteen episodes of Medicine Seller adventures. I liked him. He's a complete and utter bastard and soft-spoken in a way that's ruder than actual rudeness. He doesn't even pretend to care about anyone and there's no guarantee that there will be anyone else left alive after he's taken care of his latest mononoke.
Oh, and the art is stylised.
"Zashiki-warashi" is real Japanese folklore. It's a protective household deity in Tohoku, appearing as a red-faced child spirit with bobbed hair.
This is a strong and surreal opening two-parter, with those faceless spinning-flower people and their umbrellas. They're just local colour, though. The main plot involves a pregnant woman, assassins who want her dead and an inn that used to be a brothel. The inn has Zashiki-warashi. The backstory's grim and the story's resolution is, to say the least, ambiguous. Just make sure you sit through the closing credits of episode two, because there's an important coda after them. Ayakashi's Bakeneko did the same thing and it's a dangerous thing to do to a fanboy blasting his way through an anime series!
"Umibouzu" translates as either "sea monster" or "green turtle". This story has perhaps the most attention-grabbing visuals, with a Terry Gilliam ship on a William Morris collage sea (if they'd both been Japanese).
The cast's memorable. They bring back Ayakashi's Bakeneko's servant girl, Kayo, who's great because she's down-to-earth and willing to tell the Medicine Seller he's being a twonk. I loved her. She'd be a good Doctor Who companion, I think. There's also a rival monster-hunter, who's competent but a bit of a cock, and a pair of monks.
My favourite episode of this was the middle one, in which a talking fish puts everyone through a sort of Day of Judgement. It's so mad and theatrical that you've got to love it. The backstory's a bit too alien for my brain to process easily, though.
Noppera-bou are mythical beings with flat, featureless faces. This one's about masks, both literally and metaphorically. It's about not knowing who or what someone really is. It's about the difference between people and the image of them you have in your head, e.g. when getting married to them. It's also about encouraging an abused woman to do what's right for her.
Nue's just a single kanji and it's a Japanese chimera, with a monkey's head, a tanuki's body, a tiger's limbs and a snake tail. (A tanuki is a raccoon dog and they're cute, but moderately big.)
This story has the loosest connection to its title, but it's also one of my favourites. Four men are competing to win the hand in marriage of Lady Ruri, the heir to a school of incense. They'll fight with smells. Who can identify Lady Ruri's perfumes most accurately? You're probably wondering how the animators represent a smell-based story and the surprising answer is "with colour". Mostly it's in black-and-white, albeit with occasional splashes of colour. (The Medicine Seller looks exactly as always.) However when one of the suitors takes a sniff of incense, colour washes over him and the audience has a synesthesia experience that's kind of brilliant in its translation to anime of something you'd assume couldn't be done.
Note the dogs. (Dogs have amazing noses and can't see colour.) The backstory felt stronger and a bit easier to process than usual for my feeble Western mind, although still deeply weird.
Yes, another bakeneko (cat spirit) in a story called Bakeneko. They've even drawn it to look like Ayakashi's one.
The visuals are once again both striking and unlike anything the series has done before. We've moved up to the 1920s or so, with a haunted train that's been drawn in sepias, greys and elegant black lines. It's delicious to look at. Note also the Picasso bit.
Kayo sort of returns, although it's clearly not the same character since we're now in the 20th century, although she's got the same face, voice and voice actor. This story is about a woman who'd been trying to succeed in a world where men are pulling the strings. It doesn't end happily.
Overall, it's a good but deliberately disorientating series. It's not idiot-friendly. It's telling stories like Russian dolls, with secrets buried deep in the middle that might easily be explained only allusively and/or liable to make your head hurt. To be honest, they could have made their show more dramatic and powerful if they'd been prepared to be more straightforward in the presentation. However it looks amazing, the Medicine Seller is cool and it quite often reminded me of Sapphire and Steel. Both can be surreal for its own sake and neither is a particularly reassuring experience. Mononoke is pushing it further, though.