Media | Manga | Anime | Mushishi
Article by Kirin | February 1, 2008
Related article: A Field Guide to the Mushi
Even obsessive anime fans will generally admit, when pressed, that a lot of what's out there falls into pretty formulaic genres. You've got your shounen fighting shows, your shoujo magical girls or pretty boys, your giant robots, your harem shows, your monsters-of-the-week. What exactly, then, is Mushishi? Besides being quite pleasant to look at, that is?
Some have called it a horror show; and certainly it has its moments of otherworldly creepiness, never shying away from death. Some peg it as a supernatural mystery, as main character Ginko spends each episode unwrapping some riddle of the mushi, creatures that are neither plant nor animal and exist somewhere between life and death. You could even see it as a travelogue or nature documentary, as Ginko moves constantly through towns and forests of a mysterious version of historical Japan.
But most of all, Mushishi rests firmly in the "genre" of the short story. Each episode presents a complete beginning-to-end tale of humans and mushi, adroitly told in the space of a single chapter or twenty-five minute block, depending on the format. Unlike some episodic series, this format is kept from feeling repetitive both by the infinite variety of the mushi, and by the fact that many of them exist simply as foils for stories that are really about human nature. Also, aside from one or two minor re-appearances, Ginko is the only recurring character -- each story belongs to the local inhabitants, and the forces of nature with which they interact.
It is Ginko, though, who ties it all together, playing many roles throughout the course of the series. He is our guide to the world of the mushi, as he explains their habits and dangers to those he offers his services to. He's a sympathetic main character; though he has the abrupt manner of a lone traveler, he also possesses a wide humanitarian streak that extends even down to the mushi he studies, "killing" them only when absolutely necessary to protect human lives. And he provides just a light coating of continuity for the series, as his past is occasionally touched on and the people and places he encounters leave their marks upon him.
The artistry of the series is every bit as superb as its storytelling, extending from the visual presentation to the subject matter. The landscapes, of which there are plenty, are rendered in a gorgeous watercolor style reminiscent of classical Japanese paintings -- and here it's a real shame that American manga publishers generally don't include the full-color insert pages that grace the front of many Japanese collections. Still, the style comes through both in the grayscale reprintings and in the anime adaptation. Meanwhile, many of the episodes showcase traditional Japanese art-forms, including calligraphy, inkstones, painting, and pottery.
So yeah, it's good stuff. (You don't have to take my word for it, though; both the manga and the anime have won several awards which you can read about over on the Wikipedia page if you're so inclined.) Both formats are currently in ongoing publication on this side of the pond and well worth picking up. The anime has an optional collector's box version which is just about the only one in recent memory that I've felt worth an extra five dollars to pick up - it's a ludicrous amount of packaging, really, but it's all covered with the series' gorgeous art. It also comes with some nice postcards and little booklet with sketches and background details for episodes on the first DVD. An interesting note is that while the anime hews extremely close to the manga for each story, they present the episodes in a completely different order. Given the minimal continuity, though, it's really only an issue of curiosity.
There also exists a Mushishi live-action movie directed by Katsuhiro "Akira?" Otomo. It apparently incorporates about four episodes from the original series. It's been playing the festival circuit and doesn't yet have a US publisher to date, but with luck someone may pick it up.