Monday, February 16, 2009

Anime Review: Mushi-shi

This is my first review of anime that catch my interest, both as a fan and as a scholar. This may be a bit rough until I get the handle of it.

The 26 episode anime series, Mushi-shi (official Japanese site here), started out as a manga by Urushibara Yuki (serialized in Kodansha's Afternoon magazine and published as graphic novels in the States by Del Rey). The manga series in Japan ended last year in October.

The structure of the anime series, which follows the manga very closely, is episodic rather than a cohesive narrative. Viewers follow the main character, Ginko, through a variety of unconnected, though, in some ways, related stories. He is a mushishi which is a scientist of sorts of the phenomenon of the mushi. The mushi are supranatural creatures. I purposely use "supranatural" rather than supernatural because the latter evokes the images of ghosts, spectors, or monsters. Instead, these mushi are variant creatures living beside and sometimes within humanity. They can look like amoebas or like the floating specks of dust in a sunbeam or can even mimic plant life. When they come into contact with humanity the result can be parasitic and often quite dangerous if they are fooled around with purposely or by accident. Ginko's task is to collect knowledge about these creatures, and, as a result of this knowledge, he is sometimes called upon to help people who develop strange and uncanny symptoms.

Though Ginko appears to be wearing modern clothes he travels with his wooden box on his back (like a Meiji-era peddler's tansu), through a country populated by small villages. The people he meets appear to be peasants of some "version" of a Japanese past (that is, one that never really existed).

(image from the manga)

The natural world, appropriately enough, dominates the screen. The world is lush and wild, teeming with the mushi that he seeks.

What is unusual about the series is exactly this presentation of the natural. The mushi burst through the "known" world with a vitality that runs parallel to the human, natural world. They are not sentient but only in the usual sense because the way they view the world is foreign, unknowable, and beautiful. This is quite different from other anime versions of nature, such as those found in Miyazaki Hayao's films where the forces of nature can be presented anthropomorphically -- in Mononoke Hime where most of the gods of nature speak with human voices and carry recognizable human passions within them or at least with a foreign nature that attempts to speak and make contact with the human world, such as the Shishigami and in Tonari no Totoro, where benevolent forces care and protect human children. Perhaps the closest analogue is Nausicaa where nature is threatening and mysterious. Even so, Nausicaa, herself, eventually makes that connection with the Ohmu, the most fearsome of the insect world that Miyazaki has created. I draw on these similarities because Mushi-shi shares some of the meditative lyricism of Miyazaki's film. However, the mushi live and die in a parallel world and humanity is incidental. This vision of nature seems to me as a unique one, and I strive to figure out, perhaps not in this review, what exactly this vision presents as a reflection of present attitudes toward ecology and environmentalism. Certainly, the series has been popular in Japan though it has not caught on in the States in the same way as other popular manga titles. I fear I will not be able to come to any firm conclusions as of yet.

Another facet of the series that I find interesting is how the episodes transcend generic categories. Some of the episode are downright creepy and belong to a horror category such as episode 8 "The Heavy Seed" where a married couple, wishing to have a child, give birth to something all together troubling. Other episodes focus on familial bonds such as episode 7 "Raindrops and Rainbows" where a man is driven to chase after rainbows in order to capture one and finally prove that his father was not insane or episode 19 which is heartbreaking as a man waits for a woman to come back to him after she has touched a thread hanging in the sky and disappeared.

I give you some taste of the series in the hope that others will search out this fascinating series.


  1. Question:

    For those of us who are novices to anime and manga, is there a list of common words/titles/subjects that can be translated/defined for us?

  2. Hi Cranky:

    Here is a good site with some common terms:

    I try to link to terms when they come up, but if I don't, feel free to ask and I'll try to clarify.

    In this review, for instance, I assumed that people were familiar with Miyazaki films so there may have been terms you didn't know from those films.

  3. This sounds wonderful! I must indulge.