The cure is in the curse
What they say:
Between this world and the next, there is a point where it becomes impossible to distinguish between plant and animal; between life and death. It is a place man was never meant to tread… It is where you will find the mushi. Neither good nor evil, they are life in its purest form. An unseen river reshaping the path of man, through their very presence we are changed. Vulgar and strange, they have inspired fear in humans since the dawn of time and have, over the ages, come to be known as “mushi.”
Content: (please note that content portions of a review might contain spoilers)
Appropriately enough for this 31st of October, the one word I would use to describe Mushi-shi: haunting. The series is not horror-genre scary, rather it reaps an introspective dread; disparate tales sewn together by the thin thread of a wandering medicine man vicariously make viewers face their own mortality with every visit. There are no ghosts, goblins, or boogey men, just entities whose bodies inhabit the realm beyond human perception (for most) but whose effects do not. While drenched in the resulting maladies, disfigurements, and deaths, Mushi-shi doesn’t always end in tragedy and largely celebrates humanity’s survival, via either succession or triumph, of their innate curiosity by learning and compassion.
This was possibly the easiest Ten Years Later assignment given that Mushi-shi aired in 2005 and its second season, Mushi-shi: Zoku-Shou, aired just last year. As soon as the second season aired, the comparisons started, and as I recall from my Twitter feed, there was no love lost. This is a not a surprise given that key members of the original team and the original studio (Artland) reunited for the sequel and that an anime in the in-between, Flowers of Evil, evoked direct comparisons to Mushi-shi for its shared director (Hiroshi Nagahama) and script writer/composition lead (Aki Itami) and the effects they had on the atmosphere of that particular adaptation.
Atmospheric is an understated adjective for Mushi-shi. “Solemn and powerful,” a remark by one character in one of the earlier episodes, perfectly describes both the tone and the effect of this series so long as you have the patience for it. Despite being limited to 20-some odd minutes by the show’s truly episodic nature, each tale manages to build dynamic and dramatic characters from scratch and evoke the audience’s empathy by episode’s end. The humanity of the afflicted as well as those who surround them, portrayed with an unsettling degree of intimacy in every account, is what gets under the skin, reacts with the blood, and raises goosebumps.
Even though the focus of each episode is a new character and the particular mushi (organisms, much like highly evolved bacterium) plaguing their human host, Ginko is the main character. He’s a mushi-shi, or mushi master, who travels endlessly while documenting every mushi he comes upon, diagnosing mushi-induced ailments, and treating them using either his large back-borne box filled with readied remedies (as well as souvenirs) or field knowledge-based deduction. Even though Ginko is the main character, the plights of his patients take center stage to the point that, in recollection, they are mostly what’s remembered. This is why I find it so comical that, when watching Mushi-shi: Zoku Shou last year, I lamented how often Ginko appeared in the stories. “Why couldn’t this be more like Season 1,” I whined. Upon revisiting the first season for this article, however, I noted Ginko’s heavy presence in each.
Something that completely blew my mind in how much it didn’t stick out was the use of CG. I believe many (but definitely not all) mushi to be rendered thus, but the CG’s implementation is near perfect. It helps, of course, that the organisms are supposed to stand out as otherworldly. Perhaps it’s that fact, combined with not dated but organically styled character and background art based directly off of mangaka Yuki Urushibara’s work, that renders the overall visual effect of the show as something wholly natural. Thus Mushi-shi, even ten years later, manages to rival modern anime with regards to CG integration not only in execution but purpose. (Side note: Artland somehow managed to increase its aptitude for fluid implementation in Zoku-shou.)
While visual presentation is key, it’s the audio that really defines the environment. The show pits man against nature in a time before the safety net of vaccines and modern medicine; countryside and small village settings mean nature is everywhere. This affords great opportunity for silence and everything audible therein: rustling leaves, footsteps, flowing or dripping water, the wind, breath. Life. Moments of audible stillness can be absolutely horrifying, and Mushi-shi knows how to use the lack of sound to not grab but seize attention. The resulting focus, on a sight or specific sound, evokes a palpable fear of the unknown essential for viewers, comfortable in their modern day knowledge, attempting to identify with characters for whom every shadow seems a demon. The effect of silence is made all the more effective by the sparing use of simple, incidental scoring; nature provides most of the background music.This is a rare and beautifully executed aspect of the show, and it stands out against those of the present, ten years ago, and otherwise.
Mushi-shi is one of those rare, infinitely watchable shows. Its episodic nature means that a shelved copy can be broken out at any time for any random episode from any random disc to be thoroughly enjoyed. Whichever is chosen, the story will not beg you to marathon more but to sit a while; the weighty humanity conveyed during that half-hour watch stays long after the credits finish and asks you to soak in its effect. This strength is what makes Mushi-shi an enduring title and one that, I believe, will hold up to (if not surpass) future anime titles for decades to come.
For more comparison goodness on The Fandom Post, check out Kory Cerjak’s Mushi-shi: Zoku Shou episode reviews.